Juanita's Choice

If she could go back ten years, this Colombian nanny would still come to Miami, but with her boy

Even so, when I proposed the idea of telling her story, she was amenable. She wasn't reticent the first time we sat down to talk, although neither was she the source of a torrent of easy narrative. But the tenor of "her story" imperceptibly changed over the course of subsequent conversations, and after one of them, as I was leaving, she said something that surprised me.

"Thank you for listening to me," she said, accompanying me to the door.

I protested that it was I who was grateful to her "for answering a lot of questions about personal things, that might seem nosy."

Blues for Juanita: Other kids' toys (top) are no substitute for her beautiful boy, Luis Carlos
Bill Cooke
Blues for Juanita: Other kids' toys (top) are no substitute for her beautiful boy, Luis Carlos
Wheels: Juanita's beige '92 Corolla; she goes out almost every night now
Bill Cooke
Wheels: Juanita's beige '92 Corolla; she goes out almost every night now

"Not at all," she said.

Luis Carlos turned fifteen last September 24. He's in the first year of a private, though non-elite, high school in Cartagena, paid for by his mother, and hopes to go on eventually to college to study engineering. He likes baseball and is mechanically inclined. "He takes apart and puts back together all sorts of things, radios and such," says Juanita.

But in talking, it becomes clear there is a lot his mother does not know about her son.

I asked if in recent years, as he grew older, he had ever expressed during their frequent telephone calls any reproach or recrimination about being left behind.

"Not in those terms, but sometimes when we're talking I feel him to be very distant. He asks me when am I going to bring him to America."

Because she does not have a valid visa or a green card, Juanita cannot leave the United States, not if she wants to return. With the support of her employers, she has tried to arrange for Luis Carlos to come, legally. The heads of the household sent to the U.S. consulate in Cartagena a letter of invitation for the boy, promising to cover all his expenses, saying he would be their guest and that they took responsibility for seeing that he did not overstay a tourist visa. Even so, the visa application was denied.

Juanita's employers are also making every effort -- spending significant sums on lawyers and hours filling out forms -- to legalize her status. She arrived by air in early 1992 with the well-off Colombian couple from Barranquilla, U.S. residents who had, during a visit to Cartagena, met her and proposed the idea of coming with them to Miami as a nanny. After she agreed, they obtained a visa for her -- she calls it "una visa domestica" for a servant -- though it appears to have been a tourist visa.

She overstayed the term of that document.

"The idea was for me to spend five years with them here. Luis Carlos's father and I were by then separated, but he was a good father and we had a friendly relationship and I talked with him about it, to see what he thought, and he did not try to persuade me not to. He said, “Do what you think is best, you know the boy will be taken care of.'

"The idea of getting to know the United States had always appealed to me. As a way of making progress, of being able to buy for the boy what he needs, and of helping my sister and mother," she said.

So she came, and spent nearly seven years with the family from Barranquilla, caring for three children -- Joey, Ryan, and Lauren -- and sometimes their four cousins as well, extending her original plan. She said that during the final two years with the first couple she also spent much of the time caring for the 90-year-old great-grandmother of the children, after the entire family, who Juanita describes as "good people," implored her to stay on to help with the matriarch.

"Me vencian [They won me over]," she said.

Of course the economic factor weighed heavily. Though she was not well paid by her first employers, her salary was ten times what she could have hoped to make in Cartagena. And her current $1200 per month is almost double what she was making with the first couple.

Indeed she acknowledges that she has been very fortunate to have had only sensitive and supportive employers.

"Other women have not had the same luck, of finding good people. Many have had to suffer hard things just to get here, trips of many days, by land, only to be treated badly in their jobs," she said.

Lisette and Carlos, her employers, demonstrate both respect and affection for Juanita, and count themselves equally lucky to have found her. Their relationship appears to an observer to be a model of its kind.

But it is, inevitably, a complicated arrangement, perhaps more so on the emotional and psychological plane than on any other. Modern life in the First World being what it is, Lisette, by choosing to continue her career as a businesswoman, has also relinquished part of the exercise -- the duties and obligations and small quotidian joys -- of motherhood. And as she learned not long ago, it's painful to hear your child call another woman "Mama."

"Mateo would come toddling into the kitchen if we were both there and say, “Mama?' and we would both look and answer, and I would say, “Pero, Juanita! Yo soy la mama!'

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