Monday, May 20, 2019

Claudia Cuellar

Claudia Cuellar is a volunteer parent in Arlington Public Schools, and is active in her church. Originally from Guatemela, she lives with her husband and three children in the Columbia Heights West neighborhood. 

"I've been living in Arlington for almost sixteen years. I'm originally from Guatemala. I decided to come here because the money that I received from my work for the government there was not enough to afford to live. Also, I was studying in school, and everything was so expensive. So I decided to look for a better life here.
I travelled the whole way from Guatemala with two other friends. It was hard. It was scary, but I'm Catholic. My town is really Catholic. We have a black Christ. We believe in him. I know for sure that protected my way. It was a hard journey, but not as hard as for other people that came here.

I did not know anyone here when I came except my uncle, but he stayed here only for one year, and then he left. I didn't know anyone else. One friend of my uncle lived in Arlington. When his wife heard about me, she said, “please, come over to my house.” She said “I don't know you, but I know you'll be alone over there, “and she opened the door for me.
I got a job working with her mom cleaning houses. Then I worked in a restaurant. When I was in the restaurant, I met my husband. Now I'm here. He's from Guatemala too. It was so hard when I came here but my husband can speak English. He came to the US when he was seven years old. He was helping me learn the language, but he had to go to work. But he taught me some words. I remember one word that was easy for me was Sunday, because I connect the day, Sunday, with ice cream sundaes. That's how I made the connection. That word was easy for me.
When my husband is with me, I feel protected and comfortable because I know he can speak for me. But when I was alone, it was hard for me. When I needed something at the store, when I needed something at the doctor, or when I needed something at the school. When I needed to talk with the teacher, how could I express my feelings? How can I express my worry? So it was hard for me.
All my family is still in Guatemala. I do not get to see them now.
Now I am a housewife. Sometimes I babysit. My husband and I have three kids of our own. Amazing kids. My oldest, Marlo, works and studies at  NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College). The second one is Hector. He is almost 15 years old. He's studying now at Washington Lee High School, but he's moving to Arlington Tech. And I have Sofia. That's the youngest one. She's at Campbell Elementary.
I have done some volunteer work with the community, also. I started helping out at the Even Start program. It's for kids and some babies, until they are three years old. The program helps while the moms are receiving English classes. It was in a trailer at Barcroft School. On one side, the moms were receiving English classes, and the other side, they take care of the kids. My son was there because I was studying English, and he was referred to and accepted into this program. I decided to go over there and study English. That way I could stay in the same place as my son. I started to volunteer over there to help the teachers read to the kids. Some days we would do things like make copies, or help to clean the classroom. I just read only Spanish then, so I start learning some words in English. When my son moved to Campbell School, I started to volunteer there, too.
We’d do a lot of things. We helped do exploration learning. They make projects. I help the teachers and the kids to present their projects. I help the teacher to set up. I help the teacher to make banners, copies, fill up the folders, and prepare for presentations. I help the teacher. I refer the kids. At Campbell they send home folders every Tuesday. Parents have to fill out the folders, and I help them. I do this for my son’s classroom, but if another teacher needs help with preparing the folders, I help too.

At the beginning of the school year, the, they have a lot of things that need big help. They need to have geometry figures for teaching math. We cut maybe five hundred every year. I did it this for five years. Every September, I cut the figures for the math classes. I love to do that. Every September, my family helped me to draw the figures and I had to cut them out.
There are lots of Latino families at Campbell, but over the years it has been changing. They still have a lot of Latino, but the second big community there now is Hindu. They're from this neighborhood, but they are are mostly located on the other side of Columbia Pike, back in the apartments over there. Ethiopian is another big community over there, too. The school is very diverse.
Before I came here I had met people from other countries. My town in Guatemala is close to the border of El Salvador and Honduras, not far from these countries. Also, my town is very touristic and many people came to visit there from the US, but I never had any experience speaking English.
There are people from many countries in my neighborhood. It’s a good feeling. At the same time, it's a little weird to see how everything is changing. Before, we had no Hispanics in this neighborhood, then it became mostly Hispanic and many other people not native to the US. But now we can see that our people are less, there are more new people here than before. I don't know if it's because everything is getting expensive. This area at least is not too expensive compared to other parts of Arlington. But I see a lot of change now. Maybe five years ago the neighborhood was mostly immigrants, and now, it’s less. I can see the difference here, but if I go into the park, I can still see a lot of Latino people. Having picnics, or playing in the park when the weather is nice. You can see the difference now in the streets though. That's recent.
I am concerned about people here, the people being priced out and pushed out. It is hard to afford to live in Arlington. The houses are increasing in rent, so that changes a lot. The people who live in the neighborhood have changed a lot because they have to move away from here. It changes the spirit in the schools too, because I think when the schools are mixed and when they are getting less mixed, there's different feelings. The opportunities are different. It's hard to see people who have felt secure here, who love living here, who see their kids are doing well in school, but they have to move because they can't afford to live here anymore. People are moving away, to Woodbridge, Alexandria, Fairfax. It's hard because some people who you know well and are treating like family, they have to leave, and maybe we can see them only once a year now, or maybe not at all.
So everything is changing. For example, our community is very close. If I need something, I know that my neighbor or my friend is nearby, so maybe they can help me with anything. For example, for picking up the kids at school, maybe to help if we have some emergency. I know I have someone close that can help me. But what about if my friend has to move? Who’s going to help me? Or if I'm sick, and I need somebody to maybe take care for me, or take care of my kids for a little bit, or pick something up at the store or the pharmacy? That is going to change. Who are you going to trust if your friend, your neighbor, has to move? So it's hard.
I have been volunteering in Kenmore and Campbell schools for eleven years. I feel that this is my second home. I have friends over there. I make friends at school. So for me, Campbell is important. Kenmore is important. At Campbell, we have a place where we respect diversity. We embrace diversity. You can feel how people treat you over there at school, and you feel like home. You feel secure. The same thing that you feel around this neighborhood. If you go into a different neighborhood, you can feel secure, but it's not the same feeling that you feel at home. Even in Arlington. But this neighborhood, I don't know it's because I live here, but it's close, and neighbors protect each other. They watch out for one another.
.My Mom had a restaurant in Guatemala. I cook some traditional dishes at home here, like pollo guisado and garnachas. Garnachas is a fried tortilla, with meat, onion, salsa, tomato sauce, and a little like a salad on the top. It was the main dish at my mom's restaurant. I make it here for my family. People from different parts of my country cook differently. I grew up close to Honduras and El Salvador, and other people in Guatemala live close to Mexico. We are so different, in language, food, physique. For example, when people ask me where I am from, and I say I'm from Guatemala, they say no, you're not from Guatemala, because people from Guatemala are small. Their hair is dark, straight, and they speak differently. I say, I know, that's part of my culture, but those people are descendant from the Mayans. They speak Maya, they speak Quiché, Mam and other languages. We have maybe twenty-five dialects at my country.
My oldest son is at NOVA. He wants to study engineering. I want that for my children. I went to college at in my country, but I was the first. My parents did not go. I didn't finish college at my country because I had to move here.

I want my kids be successful in their life. Finish college, have a good job. A decent job that can afford them to live decently. So that they don’t have to work as my parents, or my husband and I, have to work. My husband finished high school here, but had a struggle to continue in college. My husband and I, we want the kids to have a better life than us. My husband created his own company and he works a lot. He's a general contractor; he can do carpentry, plumbing, all these things. I'm so proud of my husband. I always tell him that I'm so proud because he knows a lot of stuff. It's not because it's my husband, but he really knows a lot of things. He always says it's common sense and hard work, that you don’t have to have a book under the arm to do the work. You need to learn doing it, doing it. My son, who is going to study to be an engineer, loves what my husband does, but he says, “I don’t want to work as hard physically as my dad.”

Thank God most people here did not give me a hard time, or show me discrimination. Never.
I think that's one part of how Arlington is. They really understand that a lot of people can't speak English. I don't speak English perfectly, but at least people understand me, and they are very patient with me to try to understand. One thing that describes Arlington, is that people are really nice, and are trying to understand that there is a multi-cultural county here.
There is talk in the community now because of the change in the government. For example, when we got the news that we have a new president, I cried. I saw that a lot of friends are worried. Since that day, I feel like we worry to do certain things because we are scared about immigration status. Sometimes we are afraid because the language. We are afraid because we don't speak English. We are more worried now because we see that racism exists, and it affects us now. We see connection because of the new government.
We know we have to respect the law. We have to follow the law. But it was a different set of feelings when Obama was president, than it is now. Now people think, ”I can't do this. “Sometimes people don't even call the police because they're afraid to get in trouble. Sometimes they do not want to report that their husband or partner is abusing them. They wont speak up because they are afraid of the police., that the ICE will come. We say the police in Arlington are really nice. They are nice, and we're trying to educate the parents that okay, Arlington police is one thing. You could be safe with them. But, if you did something really bad, you have to accept the consequence. But  if you didn't do anything bad, why should you have to be afraid? You have to believe in police. They understand that if they call Arlington police, they're not going to call the ICE. We're trying to educate the parents on that. I do some more volunteer work in the schools with Janeth Valenzuela. We do a lot of meetings at Kenmore, thanks to the principal, David McBride. He opened the school door for us. This year, we are trying to educate the parents more, to bring in the police department, bring the fire department. We bring people from the Arlington County health clinics. People from APS (Arlington Public Schools) come speak about different topics. For example, they help with understanding special education, to try to accept that because your kid is in special education, it's nothing bad, that it is to help those kids. They help people with how to read the report cards, how to understand that school is different here and than in their original countries.  Another thing that we do is educate parents about school transportation, and how important it is to attend meetings. They can benefit us, or they can affect us badly, so we need to be there.
When I first came here, I worked cleaning houses, and then I worked in restaurants. I had just worked at whatever I needed to do, because I needed money. You have to do anything, even though I had education at home. I was a secretary in my town, and here I had to clean bathrooms. I doesn't embarrass me to say that, because my father and my mom always taught me that if the job is decent, you have to do it. It doesn't matter if you have to pick the trash off the streets. Doesn't matter if you have to wash the bathroom. It was, it's different, but it did not embarrass me. It's honest work.
Here, we have to do everything with the power of our hands to help our kids advance, to help our kids to have a better education and better life. We don't care what we have to do. We do any decent job in order for be our kids to have success in life. We talk to them about this. I tell them that they have to be grateful for all the things that they have because they have more things than my husband and I had when we was little. I told my son that my parents have a restaurant. We had to woke up early because we had to set up the restaurant. We have to clean everything. I started cooking when I was maybe seven years old.
I had to help. My mom had workers, but I had to help them because my mom said “you are here, you have to learn what they doing.” But I said “but they getting paid for doing that.” Mom said “You have clothes. You have a house. So, I'm paying you.” I had to learn. I explained to my kids that I had my first spring break here in my life because I always worked during that time when I was little. I always worked over there. We had to get up around 5:30, 6:00 in the morning, and work all day long in the restaurant, and go to bed maybe at midnight. And the next day we have to wake up at the same time, 5:30, 6:00 in the morning.
Things are better for me now. I tell my kids, “I feel weird because during spring break, I always had to work hard. Now, here, my work is different. Oh, I can enjoy my day with my kids in the spring break.
I'm a participant at church. I volunteer at church too, San Anthony of Padua. I used to be a teacher there. I'm teaching catechism classes for First Communion. I also help with some activities during Holy Week. My kids and my husband are helping there, too. My daughter had First Communion at church. It was important for us. We celebrated that. Not big, but we had a small celebration.

For me, I really want that our community doesn't change too much. We respect the diversity we have here. We embrace the diversity. We want to be secure. The kids have a better life here. There is more opportunity for them at school, out of school, in sports. I think Arlington is amazing. It's an amazing county. That gives me hope that my dreams can be true, for my family, for my community."

Photographs and interview by Lloyd Wolf.

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