Natalia was only two years old when her mother left El Salvador to come to the U.S. So, to Natalia, she’s a stranger.
“I have no memories of my mother. I don’t remember anything about her. I just had pictures of her.” From the time she left in 2002, her mother had paid a family in El Salvador to look after Natalia. One of her earliest memories is of watching her friends get picked up from school by their parents. “No one would pick me up.”
More than a decade later, Natalia’s mother summoned her to the U.S. Soon after, Natalia left to make the journey alone with a coyote.
Reuniting with her mother has been the hardest part of the life in the U.S.; even more than adjusting to the language and the weather.
“It was very difficult because it was a new country in which I didn’t understand anything, not even my mother. She’s the person who gave me life, but I had never met her, and I didn’t know her.” Natalia says her mother expects her to be the little girl she left behind. “When I came, she wanted to take care of me, tell me what to do. But I grew up by myself and I took care of myself. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do.” They argue a lot and her mother gets upset with her. Natalia misses the family she grew up in, especially the man she called ‘dad.’ She feels she’s lost a family, rather than gaining one.
For Natalia, who is now 17, “school is the greatest help.” At first, it was challenging getting used to being in school for a full day, rather than the half day she was used to in El Salvador. But she’s always loved school, so she focuses on her studies and knows that she wants to be a civil engineer. Natalia tries to be “very friendly and very smiling” all the time because she’s noticed that other students are not always nice to those who aren’t fluent in English.
She says there are other girls who are going through similar experiences, but she hasn’t shared her story with them. “My story is very long, and very sad, and talking about it reminds me of everything I’ve suffered.” But she is grateful for the network of adults at school. Natalia says she was surprised by how many teachers are kind to her, asking how she’s doing and helping her feel comfortable. “A teacher, Mrs. Johnson, came to me every day to ask how I was feeling, even though I wasn’t used to talking about my problems. She was patient and she helped me when I was feeling sad or wasn’t feeling well.”
Natalia is juggling responsibilities at home. She works 30 hours a week in a bank, she’s her mother’s primary caregiver since she recently fell ill, and she looks after her young nephews. From doing very well academically and getting As and Bs, this year she’s received Bs, Cs, and Fs. She doesn’t attend classes as consistently as she did in the past, because she feels tired and gets stressed more often. Still, school is her refuge.
Her favorite class is gym, where she can play soccer like she did as a little girl. She gets to run around the field with the wind in her long black hair and laugh with her friends. “This is a place I love the most. I can come here and play like I used to play in my country.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teaching Migrant Children: Natalia