Petrona Rubio was born in El Salvador in 1952. She lived a happy life there, working on a farm, relaxing, and surrounding herself with friends and family. She described life in El Salvador as being community oriented, where family lived close by and neighbors felt like extended family members. She pointed out that in the United States, “everybody works, comes home, closes the doors and goes to sleep.” The isolated, individualistic lifestyle in the United States was a drastic change, according to Petrona, who was accustomed to a community oriented, family-based way of life in El Salvador.
While both Petrona and her daughter Aleida, now 39, have fond memories of their home country, the Civil War in El Salvador changed everything. When she was 26 years old, Petrona moved to the capital for a year to work to provide a life for her family, but tensions and violence in El Salvador quickly rose until a full-fledged war broke out in 1979.
“I was renting a room in the capital…and a bomb exploded in the next house and the windows came in. Because I wasn’t sleeping, it was one in the morning, I saw them throw a dead body through the window…I went to the street just to see what happened, because there was nobody, and the doors were on the floor and it was only the base of the house; everything was on the floor. It gets so scary.”
Fearing for her safety, she felt that she needed to find a better life somewhere else for herself and her children. Petrona migrated to the United States in 1979, leaving her children to live with her mother. “It was very hard, yes, because I had to leave my kids. They started crying and I said I’ll be back, I’ll be back in two years for you. Please don’t cry.”
Petrona arrived in Texas; she remembers feeling very intimidated about living in the United States because she couldn’t speak English. “I went to apply for jobs, but it was so hard for me because I could say a few words but due to my accent people couldn’t understand what I was saying.” She was unsure if she would be able to last in America, but she now says that it was the best decision she ever made.
Two years later, when Aleida was almost seven years old, her mother came back just like she promised. Petrona brought her children to the United States, even though they were undocumented. In the span of twenty years, the family moved from Texas to Wisconsin so Petrona could find a better job, and then to Minnesota to be closer to Petrona’s sister who was living there at the time.
Aleida was thrown into English classes with no knowledge of how to speak the language. She was lucky enough, however, to have teachers and friends who helped her, and she and her two sisters adjusted well to life in the United States. Aleida said, “If we stayed in El Salvador, we would not be where we are.”
Aleida ended up meeting her husband, Nick, in Minnesota, and the two moved to Rhode Island eight years ago. They now have two children, Maya and Noah, and Petrona has been living with them since November of 2012. Petrona always emphasized, during Aleida’s childhood, the importance of working for success and not waiting for good things to happen to you.
“There’s a lot of opportunities here and you see the opportunities and you take them. You work for what you want and you can get what you want. But if you don’t work for what you want, and you expect the government to help you, you will stay in the same place; you won’t move.”
Petrona believes “education is a way to better yourself.” As Aleida explained, becoming educated is “how your dreams come true in reality; they’re not just fairytales.” Due to her hard work and dedication, Aleida earned her Master’s degree in Community Based Art Education, and she now teaches at The Gordon School in Providence, RI where her children are currently attending. Her older sister is a nurse and her younger sister is graduating from law school this May. Petrona told her daughters to go to college so they could create better lives for themselves and their future children, and as she said with a smile, “I’m very happy. I have to thank them because they listened.”
Many of the values Aleida teaches in her house are ones her mother stressed while she was growing up. She wants to teach her children to respect everyone and understand that life is complicated, but most importantly she wants them to understand that everyone has a story, and it is important to preserve their family’s story and heritage.
“I think Rhode Island has a promising future…it seems like Rhode Island is embracing the differences in diversity and all kinds of backgrounds and hopefully we’ll allow students who’ve come to the United States very young with their parents to be able to go to college and think about their future…For me I feel like you’re being disconnected from your dreams if you are unable to go to a school that can support you and can show you how to do well in school. That’s cutting off an entire generation if they are not able to go to college.”
The family currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island and they are very happy with their life here.
Written and compiled by Olivia Lieberthal and Muhammad Malik