National Hispanic-Latinx Month, 2020
"My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage." -Justice Sotomayor. BrainyQuote.com, Sonia Sotomayor Quotes.
My parents left Guayaquil, Ecuador in search of a better life for their kids. At the time, Ecuador was under civil strife, considered a third world country internationally, and a military state. My dad's business destroyed; my parents tried to seek refuge in the United States but were denied. Canada allowed them and their little boy in. They found government housing near fellow Latinos from South America, in the greater Toronto area. It was tough going for a long time despite their skills. Both parents had thick accents and neither spoke or looked "Canadian". Eventually, they separated, and under my dad's custody, my brother and I continued our struggle that is common to immigrants: fitting in while different.
My dad's accent hampered his ability to climb the ladder in the clothing and manufacturing sector in Toronto. My stepmom, first generation Canadian of Polish-Transylvanian decent, had an easier time. Dad’s accent was “too thick”, and “couldn't be understood”. He lost a lot of work in Canada, and later in the United States; I never noticed his accent but ever slightly. Despite this, he created a successful consulting business while my stepmom’s career soared. In 1995, she was offered work in the United States, and we moved to Massachusetts. I had about a week to study the SAT’s before starting that fall at a university based on Beacon Hill. I graduated cum laude four years later.
Being an immigrant on a student visa was its own process of stress and humiliation. I had biometrics and blood samples taken at least twice, for two different federal and state departments. I was almost denied reentry into the US after attending my brother's wedding in Toronto. During my work-study program at the university, I became a young assistant supervisor at a well-known regional theater box office. Ready to graduate, I spoke to the managing director about sponsoring me so I could remain on a work visa, looking to eventually become a supervisor. Although they tried, I fell under the scope of taking away a job from an American. My career came to a full stop. Coincidentally, I met my former husband at that theater, but it was a few years yet before I found my way to the wardrobe union.
In 2001, we I moved to Manhattan. After 9/11, the soul-draining administrative work I had been doing at a classical music PR firm became too much to continue. I found myself at a non-union box office in midtown, with an opportunity to advance a few months in. At my interview, my supervisor shared her excitement that another woman, a minority woman, would be joining management. The conversation turned to salary, where talks stalled. I was asked, "…but you’re married, aren't you?" Two shocking turns of events in one meeting. I managed to state that it was illegal to be asked that question. As a man and head of household, married or not, she wouldn't have dared to ask.
Switching gears, they offered more money to start up a box office they were launching. I had to beg for help; when my part-time help eventually took over, they paid him $10,000 more. The question about pay parity, and women being head of their household, married or not, continues to haunt.
"…without women’s groups knocking on doors, I wouldn’t have gotten where I am. We need women to support each other. We still don’t have equal pay.” -Justice Sotomayor, interview with Sasha Galbraith for Forbes, Feb 5, 2013.
When I left that job, I was done with America seemingly shutting its doors on another struggling Latina. No more humiliation as an immigrant, while subjugated to “conditional legal status” of a spouse living under post 9/11 Department of Homeland Security. Alas, more was to come. More biometrics. More hours standing in line at the federal building downtown. More medically sealed records of bloodwork. More financial proof of not being a burden on the state. For about year, I couldn't get work and sunk into depression. By luck, I got a life-changing introduction to a wardrobe supervisor via a friendly connection. This led to another interview, eventual work, and training at a musical playing at the Music Box.
My career with the wardrobe union started that day.
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion." -Justice Sotomayor. Dana Bash and Emily Sherman contributing reporters to “Sotomayor's ‘wise Latina' comment a staple of her speeches”, CNN Politics, June 8, 2009.
© Isabel Alvear, September 2020