Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Coming to America

~Coming to America~

--I like to be in America, Okay by me in America.
Everything free in America, For a small fee in America.--
"America" , West Side Story

People always ask how it is that I came to live in the US from Chile. I usually respond that  it was a selfless gift from my Mother.”  She, as an American, provided me with the opportunity of a life changing experience. My American birth certificate indicates that I am an “American born abroad”. I never gave much thought to leaving Chile before 1974. But as time passed, Mother became restless and let me know that if I did not come to the US before my next birthday, I would loose my dual citizenship.  It was important to her that I carry dual nationalities.
So, without much time to waste, as I only had days before my status would expire, I bought a one way ticket to the US, packed my suitcase and my guitar and found myself sitting alone on  LAN Chile Airlines, on a long trip to an unknown land.

I still have this guitar and play it often...


The trip to to the USA happened very fast. I left on March 9, 1974, the US Embassy issued me a short term passport, good for only a few days, until I reached my 26th birthday, on March 13th.

Once in this country, I was committed to staying, and not leaving, for 3 years. That was the law then. It has since changed, and it is now much easier to pursue American citizenship if you are born to an American parent.

The days that followed are blurry and fast. I was leaving, I had a one way ticket and there was no turning around. It was a fact. I was scared.  The day before the trip, my family and friends gathered for a goodbye tea.

From R to L: Grandma Emilia, Dad, Maria, Mom, sister. Top left, brother.

On the evening of March 9, the entire family, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and friends congregated at Los Cerrillos Airport in Santiago. Traveling by plane in the 1970's was expensive and a luxury few could afford, it did not happen very often, at least not to people like me.

After a tearful goodbye, not knowing when -- and if -- I would ever return home, LAN Chile Airlines taxied down the runway. I could see a line of people waving in the horizon, the sunset behind them. It was my family. In the middle, a lonely flashlight was my Father... And off I went....I cried for several hours in that flight. Fear, and everything scary came down at once. I felt so alone.

I was dozing off, in the middle of the night, when the flight attendant came to get me and said that the pilot was sending an invitation for me to come to the cockpit. He was a friend of my Father and wanted to show me all the instrumentation and how it looked to be flying in that endless dark, starry sky. I was offered a glass of orange juice and then I returned to my seat.

I landed in Miami around 5 in the morning. Most passengers went through one door and I walked through the “American Citizens” gate, as a “true” American citizen. A friend of my Mother was waiting to greet me and a few minutes later, it was time to board another plane and head to Los Angeles, where I was to meet my grandmother, aunt and her family.

My English was very weak. It took me a long time to communicate and understand. It is one thing to practice in the comfort of your home. It is another to live it. I was very tired. I had slept poorly the night before the trip. Dozed off during the trip and I still had another day to go.

When I arrived to LA Airport, I looked for the family that I had never met before, and right in front of me was grandmother Kitty, Aunt Kathy and cousin Meg, holding a picture of me. They hugged me, got my suitcase and my guitar and off I went, to start a new life. On the way to Chautauqua Blvd., where my aunt and fer family lived, they showed me the highlights of LA. I watched surfers, and movies being filmed. But truthfully, I was so exhausted that I remember very little. The rest of that day was blurry. I had to become acquainted with my surroundings, with new family, had to try to communicate and comprehend. I am sure I must have sounded very ungrateful to them at the time, but, honestly, I just felt like when you cover your ears and scream “lalalalala”!!!!! I could only understand every other word. Few things made sense. Everything was different, new. In my suitcase I had 2 treasures that provided me with moments of mental relaxation when everything around me seemed to spin at high speed. One was an English-Spanish Dictionary that Mother had packed for me;  the other, one of my favorite books at that time: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, "Juan Salvador Gaviota", in Spanish. I would read, and re-read this book when I was overwhelmed by the world around me.

It didn't help much that, a couple of days before leaving Chile. I had broken a molar that had to be removed and I was traveling with an open wound that a few days later became impacted. I was not feeling very well. That night, after arrival, I was taken to grandma Kitty's house, where my parents were to call at a pre-arranged time. We waited until almost 10 pm, when the call came. I remember little, I had reached exhaustion stage after 3 sleepless nights. I was very emotional,  did tell my parents that I was not sure about this trip, and that I could not understand anything. They reassured me that it would soon become easier.

The next morning, after a good rest, I was determined to begin this new life. I explored the house, watched television in English.  We went to a swim meet where Mark Spitz was competing. Went to an elementary school where aunt Kathy was teaching an art class. Grandma Kitty took me to the local market to purchase some goods for lunch. Her companion, Henry, of Jewish heritage, felt I had to experience Jewish/kosher foods. It was delicious. And then we had chocolate bars for did he know my weakness!!!
With Grandma Kitty at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market.

The family lived a small distance from Disneyland and a much awaited visit to the Magic Kingdom was planned. I was excited, had waited a lifetime to go there. I felt like a child! We entered the park and I was in awe. When all of a sudden, I started to feel queasy, and nauseated,  and simply, very ill, very fast. I could no longer walk. So I was taken to the first aid center where I found out that I had a high fever. I spent the entire day asleep on a bed, while the rest of the family took in the magic attractions. The drive back was miserable. I was hot, cold, sick. When we arrived home, uncle Ed showed me a Fahrenheit, I only knew Celsius. He had written a note: “If the thermometer shows over 104, wake us up. If it is less than 104, take this medicine and go back to sleep” . The next day I felt a little better.

Uncle Edmond took me sailing.....a restful and beautiful experience.

I celebrated my birthday while at my aunt's home. She cooked a turkey and baked
chocolate chip cookies that were heavenly. 
Aunt Kathy is an author and a chef. She also wrote a cook book. 

March 13, my birthday, 3 days after arriving to the USA

I had only planned to stay in LA for a couple of weeks and then go on to Houston, Texas where I would temporarily live with my uncle Fred until I found a job and an apartment.
The day came to say goodbye to my lovely LA family and move on to part B of my plan. Uncle Fred was waiting for me at the Houston International Airport. He was driving a small Jaguar. His late wife Ann was a clothing designer and was on an "haute couture" trip in Paris. My suitcase and guitar were too big to fit in the little car, so I carried the guitar on my lap. On the way home, we stopped to meet his daughter, who was attending Rice university, and then I was introduced to his very large home, swimming pool and chihuahua dog. I was given a bedroom upstairs, told my boundaries and rules, and the next day, I was left in downtown Houston to search for a job. It was very discouraging. For an entire week, day after day, I was told that I was either over qualified or under qualified. When I did not know where else to go, or what to do, I was called back from Memorial City Hospital to work in their Physical Therapy department. I was overjoyed! A friend took me out to purchase a white uniform and I proceeded to get ready for my first job in the US.

I was introduced to the staff, the doctors, the surroundings. I decided it would be wise to take a Medical Terminology class in English at the local community college, taught by one of the therapists. It was of great help. I was beginning to communicate and comprehend. However, I still had to learn "the jargon", and special words that I had never heard before. One day, my boss took me to observe a total hip replacement surgery. The surgeon looked at me, raised his hand and said “Watch” … Thinking that, perhaps, he had forgotten to wear his own, I removed my watch and proceeded to hand it to him....I did not know that a "clock" was also called a “watch”!!! They all had a good laugh at my expense. 
My knowledge of Spanish came in very handy when dealing with illegals that would come to the hospital. I will never forget “Juan”. He arrived with severe electrical burns all over his body and had lost some toes. Juan was panicked as they prepared him for surgery, he did not understand what was going to happen to him and was in excruciating pain. I was called to translate and explain the procedure. Juan worked hard on his recovery and came for physical therapy for many weeks, until he was released. A few months later, I was called to the Emergency Room as I often was. Another illegal had arrived. He had been badly hurt in a work related accident. I walked into the room and there was Juan! I smiled and greeted him in Spanish, -- Juan, how are you, what happened to you?!?! He became rather uncomfortable and whispered in my ear ... “shhhhh....I am not Juan anymore, now I am “Jose” ….

I was happy to get up and go to work each day. It gave me a purpose. I had to shorten my name. I was Maria Teresa in Chile, but now I was simply: “Maria”. Of course, each time I was paged, someone would be singing the Maria song from West Side Story or the Maria song from The Sound of Music.

After about a month, my uncle went on a business trip out of state and I was left alone in the big house, with the chihuahua. The previous night I had gone to see a new (awful) movie release,“ The Exorcist” with friends. I could not understand why one of the people in the group was wearing a cross and garlic necklace. Americans wear such strange jewelry I told myself....only to find out later that it was to keep the demons and poltergeists away! The first night alone in the huge house I experienced my first lightning storm. It was  scary. Around dawn, I was awaken by loud noises in the attic. The same as what I had just watched in that horrible movie. Could it really be a poltergeist? What are the chances? I was terrified... I moved downstairs, to the couch, and ordered the  chihuahua to come and sit by me. Perhaps he could defend me, if need be. All through the night I heard the scratching coming from the attic. The next morning I went to work, was exhausted, but did not tell anyone that I thought  there was a possibility that a poltergeist was in the attic, just like in “The Exorcist”. The noise happened for several nights. Finally, my uncle returned from his trip. I explained what I had experienced and he laughed, letting me know that it was all in my head and it had nothing to do with The Exorcist movie. That evening, he went outside, only to find a huge hole in the roof. A family of raccoons had made his attic their home....

A few weeks later, the time came for me to live solo. I found an apartment within walking distance to the hospital, and moved in. It was mostly and elderly complex, and the residents were so generous and friendly. They brought me food, towels, lamps, chairs. I was happy. Lonely, but happy.

I started to venture into my new surroundings. Found my first craft store, and a fabric store. I was also beginning to speak English, yes, like a native...or so I thought. My pronunciation got me into big trouble a few times. One of the most “memorable” such times, occurred at nearby Mall. I wanted to buy a Coke. I approached the counter, the young man asked for my order and I said ... “I would like a large C--k please” He looked at me in disbelief -- excuse me? -- he said – I repeated slowly, “I would like a large C--k please”, he turned red and and called his manager.... The manager approached me with a very serious face and asked what I wanted....then I realized, I was pronouncing Coke as a “similar” and “insulting” word that refers to the male anatomy. I was embarrassed and devastated. I left the Mall quickly, looking back, hoping that the police was not following me for indecent language!

One day, on a trip to the grocery store I overheard an older couple speaking Spanish, with a very familiar accent. I followed them around the store with my basket, (more like stalking), and then approached them and asked if they were from Chile. Of course they were. We had a lot in common. They lived in the same apartment complex I did and the man worked at the same hospital as I. Eventually, Alfredo and Elena became my adoptive parents. One day, Alfredo said that he knew a family that lived nearby. The man's Mother was having a birthday, would I bring my guitar and sing some Chilean songs for him to record as a gift for her? I accepted. That evening, while visiting and singing for this family, in walks a young  man by the name of Joe Neill. We were introduced, shook hands and I left shortly after. Little did I know I would marry him a few months later.
Photo taken by Joe, shortly after we met.

I still had so much to learn. On one of my trips to the grocery store I bought tuna. I was hungry for a tuna sandwich. It tasted was cat food! In Chile, cats ate scraps, I had never heard of an aisle dedicated only to animal food! On another occasion I did my laundry. I had never heard of fabric softener. So the next day I went to work with a uniform that stuck to me and cause static each time I touched a patient! When I moved into my new apartment, with a dishwasher, I was in heaven. Not that I needed one, I did not have dishes or silverware, I just had never had one. So I put some soap, turned it on,  and left for work. And, just like in the movies, the suds were everywhere when I returned. I had not used dish soap, just regular soap....

Another time,  my uncle invited me to lunch at Conoco, his work place. He introduced me to the Chief of Conoco. He asked if did any " hhh--nt" in Chile ... what ?..."hhh--nt", he repeated.....sorry....I don't understand...Boom, boom! He explained.....ohhhh he meant “hunting”, which he said with a very heavy Texan accent! At that cafeteria I also noticed that people were not served. They walked around with trays and took food out of a bar. What a strange custom! And they ate fries with their fingers, instead of a fork … horror!!! The chief showed me where to get my soda. What I did not know was, that in order for the soda to pour, you are supposed to press a lever, and to make it stop one had to let go of the apparatus.....and that was very embarrassing....

On another occasion, a friend invited me to dinner. Veal was on the menu...what exactly is veal, I he loudly “mooed” as the other guests laughed.... I also found out that in the US, toilet paper had designs....what elegance, to buy a roll with decorations! I quickly tore a square and sent it to my sister. She replied ”what joy it must be to use the bathroom in that country”! I would spend countless of hours walking the aisles of the grocery stores, of the pharmacy, of the department stores. I had only seen those people, things and clothes in an old Sears catalog !

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that “People always ask how it is that I came to live in the US from Chile” and I usually respond that “ it was a selfless gift from my Mother”. Although she never said, she knew that, most likely, I would stay in this country and never go back. She had done it as well, going from the US to Chile. It was a selfless act to let her first born go, to encourage me to leave and pursue a life changing experience. It was a gift, even though I know now how painful it was for her.

As it turned out, 32 years passed before I returned home. This time, to a country that was so different. On the day of my arrival, and after all the legalities had been taken care of, my husband, son and I exited the airport through a sea of loud people holding signs, offering taxi rides, bus rides, accommodations. I could hear my daughter Paula's voice, somewhere at the end of this human tunnel. And then, there she was … and as I was hugging her, an old voice behind her said, in English, “Do you remember me”? – it was my Father. He looked so much smaller than I remembered, so much older, so frail and tired.

Dad and I, moments after meeting again

We visited for a few hours on the first day and then again at the end of my journey,  when he cooked lunch for us and the family. 
L to R: Daughter Paula, Sister, Dad, niece and boyfriend, Mother, Maria, Joe and Son Andrew

And then it was time to say goodbye to the family and my Mother and Father. 

And on a similar setting, as I had said farewell 32 years ago, on a sunny evening, with the Andes mountains in the background, we hugged one last time and I was gone.

It was the last time I saw Father. He died shortly after...

I returned with a new understanding of my culture. This time, I was appreciative and proud of a heritage that I had chosen to ignore for a long time. Yes, I was sad. I will never be able to be in two places at once. Leaving my daughter and her husband, and now their daughter, is hard on the heartstrings....

I now understand my Mother. With my first born living in Chile, and perhaps never coming back to live in the US, I know well how Mom felt letting me, her first born, leave. However, it was because of Paula living there that the doors to return home were opened again. She made it more bearable, easier. She and her husband understood the reasons why I cried at every turn, at every sound, at every sight on that first trip. Everything evoked a memory. My feelings were raw. It is different now. When I return, I return “home”, no matter which country I am in.

....And in other news:

~I made a little sweater for a tiny someone new, a friend's baby boy to be born in a few weeks.
~Watched my beautiful olive tree be transplanted and begin to die. It was such a beautiful tree and even grew an olive once..... It is drooping slowly. Every morning I look out the window and hope to see it come alive again...healthy and lovely, like it used to be. But every morning it turns sadder and sadder....and now I know it is gone.. :(

~My fig tree was also transplanted. It seems to be holding up. It has yet to show a fig.

~The “quinquagenarian” Hydrangea, that graced my daughters' bridal bouquets, was also moved. So far, it seems to be healthy.

~After the sad episode, where my daughter's beautiful wedding lavender plants were removed,  I came to the realization that they are not going to come back. In their place I have planted Irises that I found at the farmer's market.  I hope they do well. I grew up with irises and geraniums all around. But I will always miss the lavender, the history behind them, and the lavender wands I used to make each spring.

~I am knitting hedgehog mittens in different sizes, inspired by New York knitting artist, Jennifer Little.
Aren't they cute?
~And as summer approaches, Winter is beginning in Chile. There was a huge storm and flooding in Concepcion, where daughter Paula lives. Trees and power lines were down and she was without power for 2 or 3 days. One of these years, when I truly retire, I will go and enjoy Winter there, because, as you know, Winter brings many ~A Maria-kind-of-Day~

~And, before I forget. Daughter Christine was in a car accident with the 3 kids. A few bruises and scratches, but, thank God, not severely injured. Their Camry, however, was totaled. So, husband and I traveled to Washington to help with baby sitting so the parents could go and find another car. Late, on Sunday of Memorial weekend, a decision was made and they bought a Kia Sedona van, in excellent condition. It will serve them well for years to come. We had a great visit, good food, lots of grandparenting time and play.

Until next blog...



  1. Thanks for making me cry in my office! I miss you...sniff...sniff...
    PEN ;)