A Home Without Borders
In a changing land, a Latina immigrant keeps her heritage alive
This story has an update.
Families spill through the door, rushing to escape the icy fog that chokes the air outside and turns the dusky autumn evening into a thick November night. Young mothers herd ruddy-cheeked children through the heavy doors and seat themselves in wooden pews, unwinding their scarves and removing their coats. Some whisper to one another, saying hello. Others stare ahead, eyes fixed upon the warmly lit altar. They cross themselves reverently in Jesus’ presence, droplets of holy water still glistening on their foreheads.
A hush falls over the crowd of thirty or so worshippers — not nearly enough to fill the large, wood-paneled church — as Liliana Ortiz stands at the edge of the altar, her round face partially obscured by a music stand. Her voice is quiet, almost timid, as she begins to speak, welcoming the crowd with a smile and an offer of song. She flicks on a tape player behind her, and the hollow sound of recorded drums and horns fills the near-empty room.
“Creo en Jesús, creo en Jesús. Él es mi amigo, Él es mi alegría, Él es mi amor,” the congregation begins to sing. I believe in Jesus, I believe in Jesus. He is my friend, He is my joy, He is my love.
Ortiz stops the tape as the song begins to fade, taking her seat for the start of Mass, and Father Charles Zach begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. “Padre nuestro, que estás en los cielos, santificado sea tu nombre,” he says, his voice tinged with a Latin accent from years of teaching the dead language. No one seems to mind, though — least of all Ortiz, who sits calmly, her face radiating joy.
Ortiz and a fellow church member converse over tamales at a Sunday church gathering.
Here, at Saint Helen’s Catholic Church, Ortiz leads a flock of Latinos — first-generation immigrants still reeling from flights across the border and former migrant workers who have settled in the towns where they have harvested crops for years. Every Saturday these families come here, to Junction City — one of the many Oregonian farming and mill towns that have transformed into bedroom communities — to attend Mass and receive Communion in their native language.
As Father Charles’s assistant, twenty-eight-year-old Ortiz serves as a liaison between the Latino community and the church, giving the solace of Spanish services to those who feel isolated or homesick. Perched near the altar, hymnbook in hand, she leads a community pulled in two different directions in an attempt to find a middle road between the assimilation of American ideals and the preservation of Mexican customs.
The first time Saint Helen’s offered services in Spanish, in the spring of 2003, four people came. The next week, another family showed up. As time wore on, more and more Latinos attended — often at Ortiz’s direct invitation. Now, a year and a half later, she notices a new family from neighboring Monroe, a six hundred-person hamlet one-tenth the size of Junction City. She smiles at them, making sure to say hello before the family bundles up to face the suffocating fog outside.
During the work week, Ortiz leads a different life. She wakes up before dawn and works the six-to-six shift at Country Coach, a recreational vehicle manufacturer, putting the finishing touches on counter tops and cabinets for one hundred-thousand-dollar motor homes. It’s a good job — one she worked long and hard to get, and after just a couple of months, her boss has already mentioned that someday she’ll be the one training people. After four years as a supervisor at the Junction City Arby’s, the job — with its higher wages and four-day workweek — is a step up.
Back at home at the end of a twelve-hour day, she starts her household duties: cooking dinner for her husband, Martín, and their three children; making sure the kids do their homework; keeping the compact house clean and tidy.
Outside their Junction City house sit (from left): Jylene, Martín Sr., Abraham, Liliana, and Martín Jr.
Ortiz and her husband bought the house, a cozy, unassuming place in a quiet neighborhood, six years ago. Filled with plush sofas and oak furniture, family photos and accent lamps, it looks like the perfect home for a young middle-class family. Only the few Mexican-made Catholic icons settled on curio shelves distinguish it from a typical suburban home.
After dinner, Ortiz’s husband settles himself on the couch with the couple’s eleven-year-old son, Martín Jr., nestled at his side. Jylene, who’s five, horses around on the floor with Abraham, a chubby-faced eighteen-month-old who smiles and squeals as they play. The father speaks to his children in Spanish, settling them down to watch Shrek 2 on DVD.
Martín Jr. responds in an English-Spanish hybrid, throwing in American slang whenever he sees fit. “Sometimes I get confused between English and Spanish,” he says. “It’s real hard for me.”
But Ortiz won’t take that for an answer. “I don’t want my kids to forget my language,” she says. So when Martín Jr. starts adding English words to Spanish sentences, saying things like “Mami, yo necesito clothes,” Ortiz shakes her head. “I say, ‘Tell me en Español,’” she says, adding that holding onto his language is essential for him to retain his Mexican heritage.
“Es diferente aquí,” Ortiz says — it’s different here. American children leave their families as soon as they grow up. They stop going to church. They stop calling home. They stop making friends with their neighbors and taking care of their elders. They forget where they’re from.
“If you speak Spanish, you can help more people.I crossed the border. I work so hard — I work so hard so you can go to school.”
She doesn’t want that to happen with Martín Jr., but she does want him to take advantage of the opportunities she sees in Oregon. She dreams that one day her eldest son will go to college and become a doctor or a lawyer — something important, with lots of education, where he can use his heritage to help other Latinos.
So far, Ortiz’s dream seems to be coming true. Her son does well in school; he brings home honor certificates and talks about college. Ortiz knows this could change in a few years, when Martín Jr. enters high school, but she tries not to think about that. “I don’t worry too much because I know him,” she says — she knows he won’t show up with a lackluster report card or a detention slip in hand. Instead, Martín Jr. comes home boasting that his teacher asked for help translating words into Spanish.
This clearly makes her proud. After twelve years of working with noisy machinery and sizzling oil vats, Ortiz’s face lights up when thinking about the doors that are open to her son. “If you speak Spanish, you can help more people,” she tells him. “I crossed the border. I work so hard — I work so hard so you can go to school.”
On a late night in 1992, after the desert sun had set and a crisp, dry coldness had set in the Nogales air, Ortiz crossed la frontera, the Mexico-Arizona border. Not quite sixteen years old, she had married Martín some months before. While he waited for her in Monroe, she traveled from her parents’ home near Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, to cross the Río Grande alone, sinking chest deep into murky brown water that froze her small frame to the core. For fifteen minutes, she waded through the cloudy, dirty river, terrified of what — or who — might be waiting for her in the night.
She rose from the water on the other bank, touching American soil for the first time. Her body shook with cold and fear as she looked around for the coyote, the helper who would take her away from the danger of the border. He wasn’t there. With nowhere else to go, Ortiz sat at the river’s edge, shivering and wet, and waited.
The coyote eventually showed up, taking her to her brother-in-law, who brought her to Monroe. Although her husband had his work visa before the couple got married, it took the United States two years to process Ortiz’s papers. In the meantime, she had to live in the shadows.
Isolated in a new land and unable to speak English, Ortiz found herself terrified of interacting with strangers. Her first trip to the grocery store, a simple errand to pick up aluminum foil, turned disastrous when she couldn’t read the packaging. She felt as if the whole world was staring at her as she muddled her way through the market; she felt unwelcome, strange, and out of place. It was then that she went to work with her husband, finding seasonal jobs harvesting Christmas trees in the fertile valley around Monroe.
“There’s a big Mexican population here — nobody’s serving them.”
When she first arrived in the tiny farming town, Ortiz remembers just two or three immigrant families living there, all of them from the same area of Jalisco as herself. Most of them were seasonal laborers or temporary workers — like Ortiz, people who had crossed the border for a better future — and many of them struggled with English.
Determined to learn the language of her new land, Ortiz began taking lessons from a woman she worked with. Her English still isn’t perfect, but it has improved greatly in the months since she started working at Country Coach. Once she gets warmed up, the sentences fly out. This is not a woman who likes to stay silent.
Ortiz got pregnant during that first year, and about two years after arriving, when Martín Jr. was a baby, the family moved to Junction City to settle down. But the Monroe they left — a poor town, its formerly picturesque buildings beginning to sag under the weight of a declining farming economy — is not the same as the Monroe of a decade later, the place that a growing Latino population calls home.
The drive from Junction City’s car dealerships and manufacturing facilities to downtown Monroe takes less than ten minutes on U.S. 99, the winding north-south route now largely abandoned for the interstate to the east. Nestled between lush farmland and tree farms, a small pocket of businesses — a drive-through coffee stand, a Dari-Mart — adorns a one-mile stretch of the highway. Tucked into the edge of a small strip mall at the north end of town is La Poderosa, a store catering to this burgeoning community. Meaning “the powerful” in Spanish, La Poderosa sells Mexican foods, videos, and calling cards good for phoning the country. Inside, cheap displays piled with everything from masa (corn flour used for tortillas) to Mexican shampoos and lotions line the tiled floor. A refrigerated case carries Coca-Cola and Jarritos, a Mexican soda.
Rosa Muñoz relaxes at the front of the store, her eighteen-month-old daughter, Itzel, running around the shelves and racks by her side. She opened La Poderosa in August 2004 with her husband, Rafael Ayala, after seeing how large the Latino population in Monroe had become. They don’t live in Monroe — their home is in Corvallis, some twenty miles to the north — but Muñoz was interested in reaching out to this somewhat isolated town.
“There’s a big Mexican population here – nobody’s serving them,” she says, pointing across the highway toward the residential part of town. “Even though it’s just a little Mexican store, it’s a political action.” In contrast to the hostile-feeling grocery store Ortiz encountered twelve years before, La Poderosa aims to be a welcoming, safe place for Latinos to get a taste of home. In addition to selling household goods, Muñoz also volunteers her services as a notary and translator to those who need help with things such as immigration paperwork — skills she learned at Oregon State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in health and human services in 2004.
Unlike Ortiz, Muñoz was born a U.S. citizen. Her mother crossed the border as a pregnant teen turned out of her parents’ home and eventually settled in Eastern Oregon when Muñoz was seven. She remembers her mother working long factory shifts back then, toiling for hours to make ends meet. Her mother never had time to teach her kids about tradition, Muñoz says, and so it slipped away.
Ortiz kisses her youngest son, Abraham.
At seventeen, Muñoz was a mother herself. By twenty, she had two children. Now, at twenty-six, she is the mother of three, each with a different father. “I had a problem as far as not really being committed to one individual because in this society you’re raised to say, ‘If we can’t communicate, let’s just split up,’” she says. But when she met Ayala six years ago, shortly after her second child was born, things changed.
“There have probably been, like, a million times that I wanted to leave her dad,” she says, nodding toward Itzel. But she hasn’t. “When I met him, I realized how important the family is.”
Unlike Muñoz and the men she used to date, Ayala grew up in Mexico, where family ties and marriage bonds are nearly unbreakable. He crossed the border illegally to settle in Corvallis, where many of his family members live. At one point, he was caught crossing and was deported. Now, even though he and Muñoz are legally married, he’s still undocumented. Because of the offense, the United States will not grant him immigration rights unless he can document himself living in Mexico for a full decade.
Although Ayala lives here without papers, the couple has built a life here — a life where, like Ortiz’s, keeping the Spanish language alive is essential. When her eldest child was young, Muñoz spoke English at home. Even now, at nine years old, her son sometimes refuses to speak Spanish. When he does speak English, Muñoz just looks at him with mock confusion and says “No entiendo” — I don’t understand.
Latino and Anglo youth peer into a duckling-filled font at a Saint Helen’s First Communion ceremony.
She and Ayala only speak Spanish at home now, and the family is even considering moving back to Mexico to immerse the kids in the culture of their families. She worries that if they stay here, the same things will happen to Itzel that happened to her: bad relationships and misplaced priorities.
“People from Mexico come here with a dream,” she says. “But they don’t understand that the price they’re going to pay is a big one. Family values begin to change.” She purses her darkly lined lips, rolling her eyes as she brushes wisps of hair away from her lashes. She knows she’s living proof of the high price of changing values — proof that without daily struggle, her Mexican heritage could once again disappear.
“It’s a contradiction — we’re Mexican and we’re supposed to be kind of American at the same time,” she sighs. But Muñoz still attempts to bridge that gap, giving her children the tradition she lacked. This struggle is exactly what Ortiz is trying to avoid for her children. She doesn’t want to see her kids forget her language, only to have them realize decades later how much more they really lost. Instead, she adheres to tradition — and encourages the Latino community to do the same.
Back at Saint Helen’s, Spanish Mass has ended and Father Charles is preparing for the next morning’s English services. As the families put on their coats and scarves and collect their children, Ortiz gets a chance to talk with the priest about her plans for the feast for the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12.
“People from Mexico come here with a dream. But they don’t understand that the price they’re going to pay is a big one.”
The celebration commemorates an apparition of Mary in front of an indigenous man in 1531, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire, near present-day Mexico City. The legend holds that a heavenly being appeared before the man, telling him that she was the Mother of God and instructing him to build a church on the site. Each December, Latin American Catholics celebrate her appearance with early morning feasts, flowers, and a serenade to the Virgin Mother.
Last year, the church celebrated the holiday with a small fiesta. But this year, December 12 falls on a Sunday, and Ortiz is more excited than ever. Her cheeks glow and her eyes shine when she talks about her preparations for the event, which is seldom celebrated in American Catholic churches. At Father Charles’s suggestion, the church will invite the English-speaking members to participate in the celebration, which will include a feast, music, and a Sunday morning Mass held in Spanish only.
For Ortiz, this is the crux of her work: to get the Latinos involved — to bring Mexican traditions alive in a new place — without creating a wall between the two cultures. Her American Dream isn’t just wall-to-wall carpeting in a suburban home. Nor is it just financial security and a better tomorrow for her kids. It’s all of those things — and everything she took with her from Mexico. It’s recognizing that Mexican heritage and the American way don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Ortiz serves tamales while volunteering at a Sunday church gathering.
The celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe is Ortiz’s hallmark achievement in the marriage between the two cultures — a crossroads of tradition and assimilation — and she’s facing the challenge, as usual, with a smile. “I want to help the people,” she explains simply, before noticing two families still waiting by the door of the church. She excuses herself from the preparations with Father Charles and turns to help them, quickly ascertaining in a series of Spanish queries that there are two boys who need to be enrolled in the church’s First Communion classes. In the past year, the church has performed sixteen such communions for Latino youth, and this spring, Ortiz plans to be involved with at least five more, instructing Spanish-speaking parents in their responsibilities and incorporating Latino traditions into the ceremony.
While Ortiz informs the parents of what to expect, Father Charles begins to talk about the Spanish-speaking community. “Hispanics feel like outsiders looking in,” he says. He stops mid-sentence, and, turning to Ortiz, asks, “Which is correct, Latino or Hispanic?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s the same,” she replies with a laugh — as if semantics meant much to her. But Martín Jr. looks up, sticks out his chest, and proclaims his preference: “I’m a Latino,” he says with a proud swagger. The look on Ortiz’s face shows that it makes her proud, too.
inFlux Update: Liliana Ortiz
As the clouds break overhead on a balmy April morning, Liliana Ortiz rushes around Saint Helen’s kitchen, hastily readying 250 tamales for a turn in the steamer and piling the fresh pork- and chicken-filled treats onto paper plates. While families spill out of the pews next door and file into the banquet hall, hungry and festive after a long Sunday morning ceremony, Ortiz sets the plates on the countertop next to a donation basket, a wide grin adorning her face.
The worshippers—a mix of young Latino families chatting in Spanish, aging couples smiling at babies, and middle-aged parents with teenage children—line up behind Ortiz’s counter, piling dollar bills into the basket and topping their tamales with salsa and sour cream. When the salsa runs out, Ortiz sends someone to the store for more. By the time he returns, fifteen minutes later, every last plate has disappeared. Exhausted, Ortiz washes the pots and pans and prepares to head home, her work at the church done for the day.
More than four months have passed since December’s feast for the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Ortiz looks as if she hasn’t paused for a single breath. After planning the event, which brought the English-speaking church members together with the Latino program for the first time, Ortiz had her hands full.
Over the past few months, she’s hosted baptism classes for Latino parents whose children will go through the rite soon, preparing the families for their responsibilities at the event. She’s met with teenage girls planning summertime Quinceañeras, a fifteen-year-old girl’s rite of passage into womanhood. She’s worked with Father Charles’s First Communion class, helping the priest learn the nuances of the Latin American traditions and preparing him for the morning’s mass, when five Latino children took part in the church’s First Communion celebration.
During the event’s planning, Ortiz helped Father Charles decide which parts of the mass to do bilingually, which Spanish-language songs to sing, and how to incorporate the Latino traditions into the church’s standard practice. But as girls clad in flowing white gowns and boys dressed in crisp black suits shuffled toward the altar that morning, she was nowhere to be found.
Instead, Ortiz was at home, putting the last of her tamales, which she has been selling after Sunday mass, into large pans for the trip to the church. She hopped into the shower, anxious to comb her hair and don a skirt and heels after hours spent slaving away in the kitchen. She waved goodbye to her husband and children, who had slept in late, and rushed back to the church to get the food steamed and plated.
This was the third time Ortiz has volunteered her time and supplies to cook tamales for the churchgoers—an arduous, repetitive task of mixing masa with lard and broth, pressing the dough into softened corn husks, spooning spicy cooked meat into the center, and folding each one up like a present for steaming.
After hours of work, Ortiz counts up the donations—around one hundred dollars. But these funds won’t go toward her mortgage payment or help pay the hospital bills for her husband Martín, who recently underwent surgery for an ulcer. Instead, the money will go to the church’s emergency fund set up to help Latino families and to fund upcoming celebrations for Latin American holidays.
Nobody has ever asked Ortiz to do this; in fact, Father Charles has often offered to pay her for her services to the church. But Ortiz refuses. “I always tell the Father, I don’t want him to give me money,” she says.
On April 30, Ortiz serves up tamales for a traditional Latin American children’s celebration – El Día de los Niños. In preparation for the celebration, she ordered cakes, booked clowns, bought piñatas and candy, and made games for the kids to play. As she cleans the kitchen, some of the English-speaking mothers ask her about the celebration. In a second, she has invited them and everyone else they know. “Sometimes people want to go because they’re curious,” she says—curious about the differences between people with a shared faith but diverse customs.
Ortiz says that lately, more and more English-speaking churchgoers have been interested in the Latino traditions, such as holiday fiestas and Quinceañeras, and that more and more Latino families have asked for her help in preparing them. As always, she obliges.
But back at home that evening, Ortiz’s weariness begins to show. As she changes into jeans and sinks into a lawn chair in her small backyard, the sun begins to set. Before it rises again tomorrow, she’ll be leaving her youngest son with a babysitter to spend another day sanding countertops at Country Coach. There are but a few precious hours left between now and then.
Ortiz says she loves her work with Saint Helen’s, loves spending time with the Latino community and sharing her faith with her family. But as the months have gone by and as her services have become more popular and her weeks more hectic, she’s begun to wonder how much longer she can go on bridging the gap between the Latinos and the larger community—between tradition and assimilation—without the stress taking its toll. “I tell the Father, ‘OK, sometimes it’s hard for me because I want to help more in the church, and I can’t,’” she says. “He needs someone more flexible.”
Ortiz doesn’t know who that person is yet, but she does know that she could use another Latina to help her. But until she has that helper—an assistant to the assistant—she’ll be there, week after week, a smile on her face.