The Lives of Women Immigrants

Mayfield, KY – Adriana Diaz looks like the typical working mother her hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail and she's periodically distracted by the sounds of her children, who are waiting in the other room. She's daunted by the idea of doing an interview entirely in English though she came to the U-S from Guadalajara, Mexico 15 years ago she's still not comfortable speaking her second language.

You feel horrible when you go to the store and you want a piece of meat or you want something and you try to explain yourself, and they just say, "what are you saying?" I don't know, sometimes I just want to stay inside my house.

Her friend Elvia Elshobky, who came from Chihuahua, Mexico with her parents almost 30 years ago, understands the language barrier all too well. She moved to Mayfield in 1992 when the immigrant population was much smaller. Though she was able to read and write English, her inability to clearly communicate in those days made her feel isolated.

I was very shy and I didn't understand the language much less speak it. There was no Latinos or Hispanic people around. And whenever you would see one, you would get happy because you can speak the language. They will understand you and you can understand them.

Diaz and Elshobky aren't alone a group called New America Media recently conducted a poll of immigrant women across the country, and 79 percent of Latin American women reported speaking little to no English. Executive Director Sandy Close says NAM commissioned the recent poll partly in hopes of dispelling the myth of the stereotypical immigrant.

That conjured again this image of the immigrant as being not just a lone, male economic migrant, but an economic predator. And even worse a criminal.

This image is likely responsible in part for the discrimination many immigrants face, particularly those from Latin America 82 percent of Hispanic women found discrimination to be a major problem for their family. Adriana Diaz and Elvia Elshobky both can attest to this. Elshobky says she's faced verbal and physical threats from neighbors and police harassment. Diaz, whose ex-husband was also Mexican but had blue eyes and light hair, says she noticed a huge difference in the way the two were treated by strangers.

And that's cruel because I don't choose to be like that. I wish I can be blonde with blue eyes, you understand me, but nobody asked me. And I wish I could speak better but I can't.

Sandy Close says Diaz and Elshobky's stories mirror those of women throughout the country.

These are women who have overcome language obstacles, have overcome what many report as quite significant discrimination against them in order to maintain their families.

Elshobky says shortly after moving to Mayfield, her husband left her. Before the separation her husband was the sole breadwinner he provided financial support while she stayed home with their two sons. Suddenly, the family of three was forced to go door-to-door, offering to mow laws and trim trees just to get by. Elshobky says she didn't apply for welfare, so she supplemented her income by selling tamales and enchiladas to neighbors and offered her services interpreting at local courts and hospitals. Juggling all this and raising two boys was difficult.

When they get sick and you need to take them to the hospital, when you need to go to a meeting in school, and when you have to work and you cannot be there. And when you get home and you're tired and you need to cook and wash clothes and all that. And you always need somebody there for you, but he wasn't there for us.

Adriana Diaz says her three sons have cared for her as much as she's cared for them. She says what's helped her English improve the most is learning along with them as they enter school. And when she took her citizenship test two years ago, one of her sons acted as a tutor, and she passed the test with flying colors. She divorced her husband in March, and though it's tempting to move back to Guadalajara where she knows the language and has family, Diaz wouldn't dream of it.

What is better? To stay in Mexico and see your children without shoes and hungry or be here where people are sometimes mean, but you're going to make money to feed your family?

Sandy Close says the data New America Media has compiled will help understand what issues women like Diaz and Elshobky face. Close hopes the poll can inform meaningful discussions on immigration reform and how to improve immigrant families' quality of life. In the meantime, Diaz is working to improve her family's quality of life on her own she's getting her GED, with plans of attending college and one day, teaching.

I'm going to look like the grandma in the school. It's going to be funny, but I don't care. But I don't want to keep cleaning houses my whole life. I want to be a teacher, and I know I can do it.

Diaz says when she first moved to the United States, she felt like a bird trapped in a cage but now that she's become a citizen and left her marriage, she's finally hopeful.