Crossroads: Immigration in the East Bay

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Miriam Wong, immigrant women's advocate in Richmond

Immigration has become one the most divisive, controversial and compelling topics of our time. It is also one of the most underreported and misunderstood issues in the country. More than half of the Bay Area population is estimated to be foreign-born, according to data by the Census Bureau, which increases the need for more balanced coverage of immigrant communities in our neighborhoods. As this issue takes center stage in the 2012 political arena, we hope that our coverage of immigration, as it intersects with human rights, education and health, will give you a better understanding of this multilayered issue that our nation continues to grapple with.

Crossroads is a multi-part immigration series covering issues in the East Bay.
If you have a suggestion for immigration stories in Oakland or Richmond that you would like to see told. Send suggestions for Oakland to staff@oaklandnorth.net and for Richmond to news@richmondconfidential.org.

 

At the river’s edge: How a struggling housewife in Peru became a women’s advocate in Richmond

The sky of the Tijuana Desert dims to pitch black a few hours after midnight. Dozens of silhouettes dive into the freezing water of the Tijuana River, the natural border between Mexico and the U.S. One by one, they cut through the water toward American soil carrying all of their belongings over their heads.

Miriam Wong is standing a few feet from the river on the Mexico side. She stares at the shadows crossing the narrow body of water. Maria, a Mexican smuggler, grabs her by the arm. “Miriam, you’re up,” she says. Wong doesn’t reply. Maria tries to pull her closer to the river but her feet remain stiff on the sand. Wong breaks into tears. “I’m terrified of water,” she says. “If I go into the river I’ll die.”

Time is running out. The sound of helicopter engines grows louder. Maria must get all of her 30 “clients” across the San Diego fence before the border patrol starts its routine midnight inspection.

“Do you have children, Miriam?” Maria asks.

“Yes, I have four,” she replies, still sobbing.

“Me too,” Maria says. “I’m doing this for my children, just like you.”

Wong regains control of her feet and follows Maria to the edge of the river. The smuggler helps her climb on the back of a tall, bulky man, whom Wong would later dub “King Kong.” She piggybacks across the river on top of him, holding her white bag with one hand and pressing a tiny Bible against her chest with the other.

“Crossing that border is like living in another world, an awful world,” Wong says 22 years later in her office in Richmond. “No one should have to go through that experience.”

Wong, now 54, traveled 4,000 miles from Peru to California, mostly by foot and without a U.S. visa. She might have followed the steps of millions of women who travel to the U.S. in hope of a better life, but Wong’s case was more complicated. Traversing three continents was the only way to leave her husband, a member of the Peruvian armed forces who she said controlled almost every aspect of her life. In an era of political and social turmoil, she had no choice but to leave her country to support her four children, even if that meant leaving them behind.

During her tumultuous years as an immigrant in the Bay Area, Wong saw her experience with domestic violence replicated in the lives of hundreds of Hispanic women, most of them undocumented and too afraid to ask for help. Since 1999, Wong has run The Latina Center in Richmond to help them put an end to violence and abuse and restart their lives, without having to run miles away from home.

***

Peru survived one of its bloodiest political conflicts during the 1980s. An ongoing clash between the government and guerrilla groups claimed the lives of 70,000 people. But between the walls of a middle class home in Lima, Wong lived her own personal nightmare. As the wife of an influential Peruvian Air Force pilot, Wong had little say in her marriage, especially in the financial decisions, she says. Her husband forced her to quit her job as a government public relations officer to stay home full time, she says. “He took everything away from me,” Wong says. “I felt I wasn’t capable of doing anything.”

Wong’s husband made enough money to support his family, but at often times unpaid bills would accumulate in their house. “He used to disappear for weeks and he would just stop paying for all of our children’s needs,” she says. But his tendency to flee was the least of her problems. The Air Force pilot also had a weakness for risky investments, she says. “He was obsessed with becoming a millionaire,” she says. “That put my family at great risk.” A failed business plan, which Wong never knew about, left her and her four children homeless, she says. “We lost our house, we almost lost everything.”

Wong never confronted his husband about his decisions. “He was very good at convincing me that he was always right,” she says. “I was very naïve.”

For 12 years of marriage, she refused to accept that her life was in crisis, but she changed her mind when she received a visit from a stranger who introduced himself as her husband’s future brother-in-law. “He was engaged to another woman,” Wong says. “That was it for me.”

Wong didn’t mention the man’s visit to her husband when he came home that day. Instead, she wandered around her neighborhood praying for a miracle, or at least for a way out. She feared that her husband, using his military acuteness and influences in the government, would hinder any attempt of leaving him or even making her own money. Her only chance to escape from her house was to get out of the country, with his permission. “I told him I knew a person that could take me to the U.S. and get a job,” Wong recalls. “When I mentioned the word ‘America’ his eyes lit up. He saw me as his investment.”

Wong’s husband covered all the expenses of her trip, hoping he could join her once she became established, she says. But Wong didn’t share his plans. She would travel to the U.S. to escape from him and to get a job to support her children on her own. “You could say I fooled him,” she says. “I don’t think I did something wrong.”

Fooling her husband was not the most difficult part of the plan. His investment was not enough to pay a plane ticket to the U.S., much less to apply for a work permit in the country. Wong would have to cross the border illegally and she would have to do it alone.

***

The rustiness of Wong’s voice doesn’t match her long shiny black hair, her freckled cheeks and her dimpled smile. Every breath she takes sounds heavy and forced, like a bad case of laryngitis. A few years ago, she went through a thyroid operation that damaged her vocal cords. She has had 11 operations since then. “I feel much better now,” she says. “I’m just thankful I don’t have to use a voice box.”

Losing the clarity of her voice wasn’t easy, Wong says, but not even the most aggressive throat surgeries could be compared with her last hours in Lima before embarking on a long journey to the U.S. “I will never forget that night,” she says. “It was summer but the sky was really dark.”
Her husband didn’t return from work that day. She wasn’t surprised. Her mother helped her pack. She had lived with them for a while and only she knew about her daughter’s suffering. Wong gave her a list of her children’s school schedules, pet peeves, despised foods and other details only she knew about. “I’ll take good care of them,” her mother said. “This is something you need to do.”

Wong left a letter for each one of her children next to their beds. They were sleeping. She didn’t want to wake them up or maybe she didn’t want to say goodbye. But before she opened the entrance door, she heard a weak sob. Mari, Giscela, Piero and Christian—then 10, 8, 6 and 4 years old, respectively—were wide-awake, standing right behind her. She dropped her bag and hugged them. “ We cried and cried, I don’t remember for how long,” Wong recalls. “It was devastating. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.” Wong blessed her children, hugged her mother and walked out the door. She could still hear her children crying from outside her house.

***

A trip from Lima to San Diego would last approximately 12 hours by plane, but for someone without a U.S. visa and no intentions of going back, it’s a 15-day journey with little time to rest and plenty of fear. Wong made that trip more than 20 years ago, but she says it’s an experience hard to forget. “I traveled on a truck with more than 30 people. Many of them were from Central America, some of them were Mexican marijuana traffickers,” Wong recalls. “I was lucky Maria, the smuggler, was there to protect us.”

With the help of Maria and the tall man from Central America who carried her across the Tijuana River, Wong arrived to San Diego in one piece. A few days later, she traveled to Oakland to live with a distant aunt. The relationship was tense from the get-go. “She never liked me,” she says. Wong obtained her legal residency after working for a few years as a babysitter in Oakland. Her aunt’s husband helped her throughout the process, which led to more problems at her aunt’s house. “She kicked me out of the house, just like that,” Wong says. “She thought I was having an affair with her husband. Pure nonsense.”

Her first years in Oakland were not pleasant, but Wong recalls she would forget about her problems every time she called her children on the phone, an indispensable activity in her routine. “AT&T should give me some its shares after all the money I gave the company,” Wong says, laughing. By the time she had a somewhat-steady life in the Bay Area, her children were living at her mother’s house. After she left Peru, Wong’s husband stopped paying rent and he rarely saw his children. However, he still remembered his investment.

“I don’t know how he got my phone number but he would call me all the time,” Wong says. “He called me names I don’t want to repeat.” After months of no communication, her husband knew she had no intentions of going back to him. He was not happy. “He told me that if I went back to Peru to visit my family, he would make sure I could never leave the country,” Wong says. “I couldn’t risk it. He knew a lot of people with power.”

Wong says his husband didn’t attempt to hurt his children despite his resentment and that her family were very protective of them while she was away. “They always supported me,” she adds. “That’s a luxury that not all immigrant women have.”

Wong was able make a living in the U.S. and provide for her children, but her feelings about herself hadn’t changed much. “I still felt like I was nothing,” she says. “I needed to get my children back.”

***

Wong grabs a bouquet of dusty and discolored plastic red roses from stacks of paper, books and rolled up posters in her office. “My children gave them to me when they arrived to the U.S.,” she says while arranging the crooked petals. “I know they are old and dusty, but I can’t throw them out.”

After obtaining her legal residency, Wong embarked on a long legal process to obtain legal custody of her children and apply for their U.S. residency, much of which her husband never knew about. Wong says he tried to challenge her efforts to take her children to the U.S. at first, but his absences from his children’s lives gave her a great advantage in court. In the end, the judges ruled in her favor. She won full custody of her four children and obtained their legal U.S. residency.

Almost seven years after Wong left Peru, Mari, Giscela, Piero and Christian arrived at the Oakland Airport one afternoon in 1994. Each arrived with a plastic red rose in their hands. “I couldn’t believe that my children were in front of me,” Wong says. She smiles and shivers. “I can’t explain the joy I felt.”

By the time her children arrived to the U.S., Wong had left her life as an illegal immigrant far behind. She had obtained a degree in public health from the National Hispanic University in Silicon Valley and was starting her first domestic violence prevention projects for Hispanic women. “Immigrant women go through extremely difficult moments and they don’t receive a lot of support,” Wong says. “I wanted to do something to help them.”

After graduation, she worked at La Raza Clinical Center in Oakland where she provided counseling and health education to Hispanic women. Most women who sought Wong’s services had one thing in common: “I saw many cases of domestic violence,” she says. “Some of these women didn’t know they were living in abusive homes.” Wong advised her patients to attend support groups and counseling sessions offered by La Raza and other organizations to cope with their situation, but she soon noticed a flaw in the domestic violence programs of most institutions. “They don’t give people any power, ” Wong says. “Once they finish the sessions, they have to figure out how to deal with their lives.”

A few months later, Wong came up with a project that could fill that gap. She traveled to Sacramento to take the Women’s Health Leadership seminar at the Center for Collaborative Planning, an organization that public health training. At the end of the seminar, participants are required to propose a project related to public health and leadership. “I decided to adapt the seminar teachings to meet the needs of Hispanic women,” she says. Her project became the basis of The Latina Center.

***

The walls of The Latina Center in Richmond fail to block the rapid beat of Daddy Yankee’s hit “La Gasolina” playing on a powerful speaker nearby. But Wong, the center’s director, is used to noise. Her phone rings every couple of minutes and her office receives continuous visits: from a staff member who asks her the date of a support group meeting to her neighbor who invites her to lunch. “They never leave me alone,” Wong says, laughing.

Wong founded The Latina Center in 1999, a non-profit organization that provides counseling, education and legal services to Hispanic women living with domestic violence and abuse. Its main program, Mujer, Salud y Liderazgo (Woman, Health and Leadership), is a monthly seminar designed to help women understand their abilities to adopt an active role in their families and their communities. “We want to transform the victims into leaders,” Wong says. “We want them to turn their heads to other woman and help them out. We want more and more woman to come here and say, ‘Hey, I want to be like you.’”

The Latina Center has provided services to more than 2,000 women with a history of domestic violence and abuse since 1999, according to Wong. Most of the women were also undocumented. “These women don’t have papers, don’t have jobs and they don’t speak English. They believe that if they speak out, they will get deported,” she says.

Wong says the organization’s legal experts help undocumented women report cases of abuse to the authorities, win custody of their children and obtain their legal residency. “We want to let them know that they have rights even if they are undocumented,” she says. “Most of them don’t know that.”

Wong says the organization’s members and activities increase every year, but its future is now uncertain. Last January, she received a noise citation from the city of Richmond.“The neighbors want us out,” she says.

Since last year, Wong has received several complaints about noise and blockage of parking space. “We have support group sessions almost every day, Zumba classes on Wednesdays and we host a Mariachi school Monday mornings,” Wong says. “I can understand why are they mad, but we don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Since The Latina Center cannot suspend their activities, Wong and her staff must move from their offices on Roosevelt Avenue near 40th Street and find a new place by March 15. “We’ve looked everywhere, but most places are too expensive or too small,” she says. Wong says the search for a new location and new funding is extremely difficult during times of economic hardship, but that won’t be enough to stop her from doing her job. “Everything happens for a reason,” she says. “I’m here for a reason. I’m not going anywhere.”

A new story in the Crossroads series will run every Wednesday.


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