|Barnes & Noble
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
One day Laura announced that she was leaving her nanny job to find different work and that she was planning to rent a house of her own, where she in turn could rent out the spare rooms. So it was that when Otilia needed to find a place to stay, she called on her friend. Laura offered her a small room of her own on the lower floor of the house.
Otilia worked hard, and she always agreed to work overtime for she tried to save as much money as she possibly could. She knew intuitively that one day she would need funds for an urgent cause. She didn't have much time to spare during the week, but she made it a point to see Michael regularly. She rarely ate out, and never frequented Starbucks; instead she brought her own food and coffee to work. When both she and Laura were home on weekends, they cooked, and they always prepared extra to freeze so they could help themselves during the week. Otilia never let dirty dishes stack up in the sink, but she didn't let Laura know she wasn't doing her part since Laura had been so generous by providing her a nice home. Sometimes, at night, she followed the news on television, but she often feel asleep on the couch watching the Latino soap opera that followed.
Laura had rented another room to two sisters who'd made their way to California from El Salvador. They had paid a large sum to a coyote, one of many such shady people who were getting rich by smuggling immigrants into America. The girls were in their mid-twenties, and one had left her preschool daughter with their mother back home. They'd come from Tijuana where they had been working at a factory on the assembly line, and when it closed they decided to come north. They were quiet, shy women who kept to themselves. Otilia heard them walking in the early mornings and late afternoons, for her bedroom was directly below theirs. There had been a few Sundays when they all had breakfast together and chatted, but Otilia knew very little about their lives. The sweatshop where they had worked nine hours a day, six days a week, to send a share of their paycheck back to their family, had no doubt shaped them. Not allowed to talk to others while at work, they learned how to remain silent most of the time. A few days before Thanksgiving, when Otilia came home from work, Laura was crying while placing the sisters' meagre belongings into plastic bags.
"What's going on?" Otilia asked.
"La migra picked up Lucy and Ana. Lucy just called. They're being detained and deported. I called Leonora to find out what happened and she told me all of her girls were arrested while they were cleaning a house in Montclair. She's washed her hands of them and is not taking any responsibility, saying she'd made it clear that the minute someone got into trouble, they were on their own. Can you believe it? She was totally unperturbed, saying she needed to find others to replace them, because she has lots of work."
"So where exactly are you going?"
Giving a little shrug, Laura said, "I'm going to see them, to take them these few things that belong to them."
"Where are they?"
"In Richmond. I need to check on visitation times."
"How come the migra got hold of them?"
"Leonora thinks the boyfriend of one of the others squealed. He was upset and wanted to spite his girlfriend, take revenge."
"Lucy and Ana were at the wrong place at the wrong time. I called Justo to get some legal advice; he said that if they have money, they can arrange to post bail and be set free until a court date is set."
Picking up a pair of tennis shoes from the entryway, Laura turned to face Otilia, looking vexed. "I really can't help them; I can't post bail for them. I've only known them for a short time. Justo asked if I knew whether they had already signed a declaration confessing to being here illegally. If they did, they'll be dispatched to the border immediately."
"Did you ask?" Otilia said.
"I didn't think to do so."
The sisters didn't return, and in the New Year Laura was expecting a new occupant, a woman from Poland who'd come to America to go to graduate school.
**As Otilia began to accept the misery that had been inflicted on her life, she noticed that, with time, her despair was dissipating. All along there'd been people who'd helped her move on and she slowly learned to embrace life as it was, and she avoiding becoming a hostage to the ghosts of her past. But she wasn't fully there yet. Every now and then, she still found herself having to make a great effort to carry on, and it was then that she'd put on a mask, turning on her charm to hide the enduring pain she felt. And when thoughts of loneliness and longings for her family emerged with great force, she'd catch herself making plans to return to Peru. It was during those times, when thoughts rumbled in her head, that she would call Michael for advice. With tears running down her face, she'd ask for the hundredth time, "What would you do if your wife had gone missing?" Michael would always offer words of comfort and tell her to be patient, to wait before returning. He felt that things were still too chaotic, and she had no way of anticipating the outcome. His latest advice was, "Hold off until the new government is safely in place."
Even though so much time had passed, Otilia knew that the political climate was still precarious. Until a new president was elected in Peru, and the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the violence committed in the previous twenty years had been completed, there was no point for Otilia to return home. Why spend the great amount of money necessary to make the trip when she knew that the government continued to wash its hands of the violence inflicted by the military and the guerillas? She would not be able to obtain viable information. However, once the Commission finished its investigations and President Toledo was willing to take responsibility for the events that took place, then Otilia's would have a better chance to find the answers she was looking for. With little rest time on her hands, Otilia had been able put fears aside, hurtling onwards, making her way in her new world. She now felt at home, helped by a sense of belonging in her church's activist group. It was with them that she recharged and renewed her commitment to the search. In the beginning, the gatherings had been a way of joining others facing shared injuries, supporting one another in their pain, but once the group determined that they must find ways of getting their voices heard, they became strong advocates for themselves, and others. They put a lot of effort into writing letters to reveal their stories and to ask for help. Over the course of several years, they collected statements, dozens and dozens of them, from people whose lives had been haunted by similar events. There were times when Otilia had stood in front of the Xerox machine making copies for hours, then hauling them in wicker baskets back to her room where she would stuff them into envelopes, ready to be dropped into the mail.
Recruitment of new volunteers and constant attention to detail kept them moving forward and, bit by bit, word of their work began to spread. Persistently putting pressure on individuals and organizations that could press their cases, the church group held public forums, documented situations, and ensured that local newspaper articles were written about their cause. They enlisted the help of those with a knack for writing editorials to voice their points of view, until they were able to take their campaign beyond California, inspiring family members of victimized people everywhere to join in their search for redress.
What frustrated her most were the thwarted attempts to obtain information from the Peruvian government, itself. In the 1990s, relations between the U.S. and Peru had become strained, and with amnesty laws shielding the police and military agents from prosecution for human rights violations, it was impossible to dig up the truth. But even now, in this new era of more openness, it seemed that there were still no means of extracting the facts.
All along, Michael, who in his retirement was living nearby, remained Otilia's staunch supporter, encouraging her on every step of her tumultuous trek. In the early days, he transformed her worries into hope by helping her file a refugee claim, proving she was a desperate civilian caught in the midst of a dirty crusade. He'd help her decipher official letters mired in legalese, and suppressed her desire to back away when the going got tough, until she became a lawful permanent resident. He'd stood by her side some years later, as her witness, attending her naturalization ceremony where she took the Oath of Allegiance to become a citizen.