Juanita's Choice

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

When I ask to see a photograph of her son Luis Carlos, Juanita goes to her room and returns with a metal-framed stand-alone portrait, a thick 8x12 album, and two smaller cellophane packs. She sits down with them at the dining-room table of the handsomely appointed home where she works and lives in Coral Gables.

"These are the ones I have at hand," she says, opening the big book. By that she means she has many others, drawers full, the bursting archive of a decade of sacrifice and separation, testimony to the ache she has been obliged to relegate to a corner of her heart.

The main subject of the album is a good-looking, rail-thin Colombian boy in Cartagena. On the first page he stands, aged about eleven, in his grandmother's kitchen in the working-class barrio of Zaragozilla, the sun filtering through frilled white curtains. He is dressed sharply in stone-washed jeans and sneakers de marca, an immaculate white oversized T-shirt with a big blue-and-red Fila logo on the chest. Other photos show him with his aunt Doris -- Juanita's sister -- and her children, and several more portray the day of Luis Carlos's first communion a year and a half ago, when he was thirteen. In those he is dressed in a light gray suit -- a bit baggy on him -- white gloves, white shirt and tie his mother bought here in Miami and sent home for the special day; she also sent the tablecloth beneath the spread of cake and snacks, and the festive, sturdy American paper cups and plates. All provided by the missing mom, who could not be there for the joyous occasion.

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
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

Juanita flips the album pages and points out her relatives -- her boy as he changed over the years, younger nieces and nephews she's never met. About four pages in is a page mostly taken up with a vertical full-body shot of skinny Luis Carlos in his Primera Comunion finery, looking at the camera with a contemplative expression. Overlapping that photo is one of Juanita, chosen for the way in which its surroundings and scale combine with the other in a pretense of seamlessness; it's even trimmed along its length so that the mother is nearer her son, at his side, almost close enough to touch him.

Juanita is 35 years old and a Colombian immigrant who has lived in Miami for nearly 10 years without a visa or green card. For all of that time she has been an excellent nanny, in the emphatic opinion of her only two employers: a Colombian couple with whom she spent seven years caring for three children, and the owners of this Coral Gables home; she's cared for their four-year-old daughter, Olivia, and two-and-a-half-year-old son, Mateo, for three years now.

On one level, Juanita's story appears to be a simple one. Somehow the employers of domestic help tend to assume that their own lives -- as well-off professionals, socially active homeowners, payers of myriad bills -- are infinitely more complicated than that of the woman who has everything provided for her -- room and meals and clothing. Her principal concerns have been keeping the children's diapers dry, seeing that they got their naps, and playing with them at the local park. Miami, idiosyncratic and anomalous in so many ways, has a proportion of domestic servants well above that of other major metropolitan areas of the United States, mainly because of the abundance of "unskilled" and illegal Latin-American women willing to work below minimum wage. Their lack of language skills is not a problem for the many financially comfortable locals who hire them. The employers either speak Spanish themselves, or if Anglos, have culturally acclimatized enough to be able to muddle through instructions in pidgin.

But of course such a presumption of the help's uncomplicated existence is arrogant. Juanita and thousands of other women in South Florida have made what must be among the most difficult choices possible -- whether to leave family and friends and move to el nortefor money. And if that choice is not as terrible and definitive as the one made by William Styron's Polish Sophie on the sidings at Auschwitz -- when she gave up her daughter in order to save her son -- it is, in at least one way, more complex. Because Juanita renounced her day-to-day exercise of motherhood -- gave up, in so many ways, her only son precisely in order to save him, spare him the poverty and miserable prospects that attend being poor in Latin America.

Juanita is black, short, and compact, in good shape, and attractive, her straightened hair usually pulled back. I've known her for three years and have spent many hours in her presence on more than a dozen occasions, mostly at dinner or social gatherings or around the pool at the home of her employers, who are my friends. She has always been amiable but reserved, responding with economy to attempts at conversation, such as whether she went out with friends to celebrate Colombia's Copa America soccer championship (she did). She can be a bit more forthcoming on the subject of Olivia and Mateo, with whom she spends much of her day. But overall she could never be described as gregarious.

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."

"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!'

"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."

"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.

Though a green card for Juanita is probably still a couple years off, the fact that she owns a car and has a driver's license has done more than any document ever could to make this woman into a full-fledged resident of the United States.

"I didn't get out much with the first couple," she said. "They always included me in their social life -- parties and holidays and all that. But for the most part I was encerrada [shut in]. On Sundays sometimes they would drop me off at the Town and Country Mall, and that was my outing, for years. I know every little corner of that mall. And the cinema across the street. I saw lots of movies there."

With her newfound mobility, it sometimes seems that Juanita, who has no household responsibilities once either parent is home from work, is trying to make up for lost time.

"She goes out almost every night," says Lisette, not at all disapprovingly. Then, with a laugh: "Sometimes we have to say, “Juanita, tomorrow is our night out, so don't make plans.' Like clear it with her first."

Juanita has also begun taking weekend English classes at the English Center public school by Douglas Park. There she has made new friends from Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic who serve to broaden her world -- her sense of history, politics, community dynamics.

And fun. Among the photos in the cellophane packs are recent ones of the bachelorette party for her best friend Candelaria, who wed last year. There's a lone man, a muscular, long-haired blonde in tight jeans, shirtless, his ripped torso glistening. In the first photo, he's standing with his arm draped around Juanita, both of them looking into the camera and smiling.

I ask if that's her boyfriend.

"No. Es un stripper," she says without a trace of sheepishness.

The bureaucratic wheels are in motion, and Juanita has, according to her lawyer and her employers, a good chance of obtaining legal residence within the next couple years. Whether it comes in two or three years is somewhat crucial in this case, in that if she gets her card before Luis Carlos turns eighteen, she can bring him here legally.

In any case, even though Juanita came here as a young woman never intending to stay, she now says she does not imagine herself ever living in Colombia again.

"I will go to visit, sure. But I see myself here, staying here. I'll try to bring my boy. Here he has more opportunities. Puede salir adelante [He'll be able to make something of himself]."

Whether that means FIU or Miami-Dade Community College or flipping burgers at McDonald's, only time will tell.

Overall things have not worked out badly for Juanita. But if she could go back ten years, to the time when she was asked by the couple from Barranquilla to come with them to the States, would she make the same choice?

During our talks Juanita has never cried. She doesn't cry now either, but her dark eyes glisten noticeably.

"I would tell them: “Si, but with the boy.'"

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