Immigrant Dream

Adriana Costa stands in a girl’s bathroom in the Arroyo Vista Housing complex. She slowly empties the trashcan filled with paper scraps, cotton balls, dental floss, Q-tips and used tissues. She wipes the sinks and countertops, carefully drying the wet counter in a rhythmic, circular motion. One of the residents walks in. Her name is Sophie and she is an exchange student from France. Sophie’s eyes light up when she sees Adriana, and she immediately begins to chat with Adriana about her parents, her computer and her new Web cam. “Now I can talk to my family and my friends,” she exclaims. “I can see them!”
Adriana smiles and says, “I’m so happy for you.” Her own daughters are also at universities far away, and she, too, would love to see them.
Adriana’s three daughters are the reason she works as a custodian; they are her motivation. Her work has always been for them.
“I have been at this job 11 years,” she says in her heavy South American accent. “There were special circumstances why I started working here. Suddenly, I became head of household.”
After working various temporary jobs at employment agencies, Adriana took a job at UC Irvine for the health benefits.
“They offered me health insurance because I became a widow at that time, and I had three kids to support.” She never expected her custodial job at UCI to last more than six months and soon became frustrated.
“I was not happy at that time to stay here. But I had no choice. No matter if you like or dislike your job, you do your best. I do my best,” she says with a serious look on her face. Her dark, troubled eyes reflect a life of sacrifice.
Adriana is a native of Lima, Peru; she came to the Golden State in 1979. She also came in pursuit of her husband. He came to the United States before his wife with a shoe patent and aspirations of owning his own business; his dreams would become Adriana’s as well. She left behind her family, her home, the university at which she obtained her degree in social work and her career in public health to join him. Adriana packed up her dreams the way she packed up her belongings, with little remorse and a great deal of fear.
Like many immigrants, Adriana came to the United States chasing the American Dream. She also came on a tourist visa—both expired. The visa expired first, and Adriana became an illegal immigrant. Throughout the early ’80s, both she and her husband worked in shoe factories. Both were laid off, and Adriana used the opportunity to take English classes and gained her citizenship. She tells me very little about her experience as an illegal immigrant.
Just as she brushes over the hard times in her life, she discusses them quickly and matter-of-factly. She tells me that she worked in a convalescent hospital, as a nurse’s assistant and saved up money to buy a home with her husband. She also had three daughters within that time: Genevieve, Jasmine and Geraldine. The shoe-importing business that her husband started began to take off, and the American Dream seemed like a reality, until Adriana’s husband suddenly passed away.
“[In] 1993, my husband passed away,” Adriana says in a shaky voice. I probe her gently for more information, but she dances around the subject of how he passed away. The firm look in her eyes indicates that I should not ask any more questions. “After he passed away, I started working in the same business. During those years when I was by myself trying to manage the business, of course I had my family’s support. We used to bring shoes from my country, from Peru. We had a small factory back there so we would produce our own shoes. Children’s shoes, good quality, leather.” Adriana says this last sentence with a hard pride in her voice. “From 1993 to 1997, I managed the business. After that I started struggling.”
“I was struggling,” Adriana quietly says. “The business was not doing well. We could not compete with prices, with shoes from Mexico, from China. It was affecting me so much to the point that I was about to lose my house. At that time I got desperate. With my three daughters, small children, I decided I have to look for a job, no matter what kind of job.” She shifts the focus of the conversation to her daughters, and her eyes gleam with pride. “This job gave me a chance to pick up the girls from school. I started working for UCI in 1997, 1998.”
“The oldest one is already married. She married some time ago.” Jessica, 27, received her bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside and her master’s degree from Boston College. She is a social worker, just like her mother once was, and lives in Northern California. Jasmine, her second daughter, just turned 21 and is about to graduate from UCLA. Alexis, 19, is in her second year at San Francisco State University. “It was always my dream to send my kids to college,” Adriana says. She smiles at the realization that her children are a fulfillment of her dreams. They are a manifestation of the idea that sometimes dreams come full circle.
Adriana often interacts with many of the students as a mother would with her children. “Since I have children that are away from home, I feel that that must be the same feelings that my kids have,” she says.
Her personal struggles allow her to show a great deal of empathy. She is grateful for her job and its benefits, but dislikes the university’s treatment of its workers. “All of us try to do our job the best we can,” she says.
She informs me that custodians at community colleges make about $15 an hour to start; Adriana started at about $9.50. According to Adriana, the university does not consider the custodians’ workload. If she calls in sick, for example, there is no one to replace her, and when she returns she must make up all the cleaning work from her absence.
“When I get back, I have to work double.”
Furthermore, she is responsible for cleaning three houses a day. She is frustrated at the university’s decision to make most houses in Arroyo Vista triple bedrooms, instead of doubles like in the past. When three people share a room, it creates more work for her. “It’s not fair to kill my own personal life, my family life. Because our workloads are so heavy that when we go home we have to just take a shower and go to bed and get ready for the next day. That is what I consider very unfair [and] unjust.”
She has spoken at meetings and workshops about the unfair working conditions. She thinks other workers are afraid to speak out, because they do not speak English. I ask her about her colleagues, and if she has any friends at work. She tells me that each custodian must stay in his or her own house, and talking is discouraged and considered inefficient. This way, workers cannot converse and rally together.
“I think it is to break us,” she says. “We have fought so much, even going on strike, for raises. If you have to support a family, with the cost of living right now…” her voice trails off and she looks to the side, and then looks me in the eye. “Let me share something with you. I own a house, and I cannot afford to pay. What I do is rent my rooms. Otherwise, I could not afford to pay the mortgage. That is the situation.”
Despite the heavy load of her job, Adriana feels her sacrifices are worth it, and she is proud of the decisions she has made. She is glad that she put her family first, and says her biggest accomplishment is sending her kids to college. “After their father passed away, we became three in one,” she says of her daughters. She also says her job allowed her to support her family.
An ideal job, Adriana says, is to do something you love. But she knows that sometimes life does not work out that way. Her voice wavers as she explains, “I cannot change what happened. I had to decide between my interests and my kid’s interests. And as a mother, I chose my kids.”