Juanita's Choice

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

"The first time you hear it, it hurts. I know it's just jealousy and maybe that's not the most noble sentiment, but it's as simple as that. Mateo loves her like a mother and loves me like a mother, too. But it was bothering me and we sat down and talked and I said, “Juanita, you've got to work with me on this.'"

Carlos and Lisette and my wife and I were sitting around their dinner table talking after a meal. Juanita was out for the evening.

Carlos, an empathetic soul, said, "But she gave up her own child."

Bill Cooke
Stand-in Mom: Olivia, four, and Mateo, two and a half, are Juanita's current charges
Bill Cooke
Stand-in Mom: Olivia, four, and Mateo, two and a half, are Juanita's current charges

"I know, but what can I say," Lisette responded. "This is my child. What if she had a compañero who spent a lot of time here and Mateo started calling him “Papa'?"

"I'd send him away," said Carlos, laughing.

"There's the shoe on the other foot," his wife said, laughing too. Then: "It's not her fault and not Mateo's fault, either. He loves her like a mother. But I'm his mother, too."

Mateo, because of chronic ear infections as an infant, is about a year behind the norm in speech development. "We're trying to get him to call her “Nita,' if Juanita is too hard," says Lisette.

Juanita is well aware of the sensitive nature of this issue. She cared for Joey, with the first couple, from his birth until he went to school, and he called her Mama.

"Joey's mother was bothered by it too sometimes. It's normal. But other times, when she would get exasperated with the boy, she would tell him half-joking, “Go on, get out from underfoot around here. Go over there with your Mama.' Meaning me," said Juanita with a chuckle.

"I see these children that way, like a mother, while recognizing that they are not really my kids. But when their mother goes to work, they are my responsibility. And they have given me a lot of strength, to bear the absence of my own son. Joey was a pillar for me. He helped me a lot. I would talk to him and his siblings about Luis Carlos, show them pictures of him. Every year at his [Luis Carlos's] birthday, I have them take a formal photograph of him and send it to me. That way I see him grow up in pictures."

Juanita sends money to Colombia every month, generally about half of her salary, but sometimes almost all of it. By last year her mother had set aside enough from the remittances over the years to buy a small house in Zaragozilla -- "The first house my family has ever owned," Juanita says proudly. Her mother lives there with Doris and Doris's two children, and Luis Carlos spends some of his nights there, though the boy resides primarily with his father, a truck driver who remarried and has three other children with his second wife.

"But I pay for everything for Luis Carlos. Everything. Food, clothes, school. From the beginning. I always want him to be well dressed, and by sending money every month I have the sensation that I am dressing him," Juanita said.

The degree to which she remains involved in her family's life in Colombia, despite the distance and the decade gone by, is remarkable. One morning when I was at her house, she was on the phone with a dermatologist's clinic in Cartagena; she was arranging an appointment for a niece who has developed splotches that may be a pigmentation disorder.

"One of the nieces I've yet to meet. I made the appointment from here to be sure that she goes. I called my mother and Doris and said, “Look, you have the appointment with so-and-so at such-and-such clinic on Wednesday the 22nd at 3:30.'"

I saw her a couple of weeks later and asked if the appointment was kept.

"Yes," said Juanita.

Would this niece have been able to go to that doctor had she not had a hard-working, dedicated aunt in the United States? Would Juanita's mother and sister have their own home? Would el flaco (the slim one) Luis have new Nikes on his feet, a wristwatch, and most important, the chance to make his way in the coming years from Third World urban poverty to the professional class, a quantum leap between two worlds as abysmally divided as Juanita's two worlds, her old one and new one?

"It has been a very big struggle," she said. "But it has been worth it. We have things we otherwise would not have had. My niece even goes to school."

That "we," of course, includes Juanita. Though the sea changes were nearly nine years in coming, her life of late has been transformed into something she, daughter of a black carpenter in a South American slum, could not have dreamed possible.

Parked in the driveway along with the SUV and the Beemer is a beige '92 Toyota Corolla, Juanita's very own wheels. Carlos spent a few months earlier this year giving her lessons in the evening. She then took a course with a local driving school and last summer got her Florida license. Lisette and Carlos bought her the car, which she is paying off on soft monthly terms.

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