By Katy June-Friesen
Ofelia Laureano was born in a rural village in the state of Puebla where her parents were farmers. The family was poor, and her parents had trouble supporting all their children. Every day, the family ate tortillas and beans. Ofelia took care of the younger children while her siblings worked in the field.
As a girl, Ofelia's dream was to become a teacher. She wanted to learn to read and write, but her parents said no to school. Her father said reading and writing were not for girls.
She saw poverty every day. But she never accepted it. She wanted to get an education, and she wanted to transform the poverty of her community.
When she was 9 years old, Ofelia and her aunt visited her grandmother in another village. Ofelia wanted desperately to meet a real teacher, and in the village she did. The teacher asked Ofelia if she was in school.
Ofelia's aunt saw her niece's desperation for education. She said, “This creature has to go to school.” And so she promised to convince Ofelia's father to let Ofelia attend.
So Ofelia went to first grade and lived with her grandmother. She dreamt day and night about being a teacher. But before she could finish the first grade, Ofelia's grandmother took her back to her father because he needed her to work at home. For Ofelia, home meant no shoes, no clothes and no school.
Back at home, she worked. But she heard that in Mexico City a person could make money and have a better life. At age 10, she decided to go to there and work for a Spanish family as a domestic worker. It was awful.
Ofelia was too young, her skin was too dark and she didn't know how to express herself. She'd never eaten a dignified plate of food. The family treated her like an animal. Sometimes they left her in the servants' quarters on the weekends but locked the kitchen, so Ofelia had nothing to eat. Even at a young age, Ofelia recognized the discrimination.
She endured nine months of jail-like cruelty and missed her family the whole time. Finally, she decided to go home and couldn't wait to see her family. But when she arrived in her village, there was no happy welcome. She was another mouth to feed, and her brother had just died. The money Ofelia brought back from Mexico City was used to bury him.
Again, it was back to the same old poverty. Eventually, Ofelia went back to Mexico City and got another domestic job with a family. It was a much better experience than her first job because the family treated her well. She learned to eat different foods—the family was Israeli. They paid her $145 pesos a month, which was a good wage. Her mistress gave Ofelia new clothes, helped her learn to speak better, and told her she could stay as long as she wanted. Always, Ofelia's goal was to make money for her family.
With the Israeli family, Ofelia was exposed to parts of the country she'd never seen. Once, they traveled to Acapulco for vacation. The family also went to Cuernavaca for regular vacations. It was at the hotel there, at age 16, that Ofelia met her husband.
She sent a letter to her mother and told her she wanted to get married. Her mother came to visit Ofelia. She asked Ofelia if she was sure she wanted to get married. Her mother said, “Do you know his family? Do you know where he lives?” Ofelia realized she didn't know much about her fiancé.
So Ofelia went back to visit her home village and reflect. She promised her mother she wouldn't get married, and she returned to her job in Mexico City. At 18, she married her husband without telling her mother. The couple went to live in Cuernavaca. They lived in the poor squatter settlement called La Estacion. There was no electricity, no water, and the houses were made of plastic and metal. Ofelia found out her husband was an alcoholic.
She had never expected to live with domestic violence, but her new life was different. Her husband was aggressive, but she didn't leave him because she was ashamed. Together, they had six children. The same thing that happened to her happened to her children—they were emotionally broken down by violence.
Like her own father, Ofelia's husband didn't understand why school was important. So Ofelia worked in secret to raise money for her kids to go to school. At one job where she worked as a domestic, the mistress encouraged her to leave her husband. The mistress also gave Ofelia money to start her own grocery store to help fund her children's education.
When they first opened the store, Ofelia's children did the accounting. Ofelia was still married to her husband, but she and the kids ran the store. One day, her children told her she had to learn to read and write so she could do the accounting herself. Her children began giving her lessons after school, and they taught her to read and write.
Then Ofelia met Gerardo Thijssen, a Catholic liberation theologian and activist who wanted to organize the people of La Estacion to demand more rights. He told them, “The greatest struggles are done by women.”
Ofelia organized the women to participate in meetings. They'd never done something like that. At first, they had no idea how to talk in a meeting. They started a campaign to try to get water for their community. After trying multiple times to get a meeting with the governor, they finally caught him driving out of the back of his home. Ofelia talked to him and convinced him to consider their problem. He wrote her a letter right there. With his signature, he gave the OK for water at La Estacion. It was Ofelia's first big victory as a community organizer.
Soon after, she divorced her husband and left La Estacion. She built a new life with her kids in a new house. She worked on an effort to get Habitat for Humanity to come to Cuernavaca. Habitat came, and today it is locally run by an non-governmental organization (NGO) Ofelia helped start.
Today, at age 62, Ofelia still works as a domestic worker. She helps educate domestic workers who are not unionized in Mexico about their rights and family planning. She also teaches Bible study, sells shoes and supports children in catechism. And she continues to work for the housing NGO she helped form.
Her work to build a non-abusive home for her children—a home with open communication and egalitarian decision-making—has paid off. Her children went to college, and today they are a lawyer, teacher, police officer and a hair stylist with her own business.
Her own life has made Ofelia ever-conscious of poverty, and she notices the causes of it as well. Since NAFTA was launched, Ofelia has seen people struggle more and more. She says the only benefits are for huge businesses—ordinary people have no benefits from the system.
Each month various local small businesses, primarily lead by women, set up shop selling anything from terrariums and '60s dresses to the perfect red lipstick.
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