Mayra’s Journey to Freedom Beyond Borders

Mayra Ventura’s father passed away the day she illegally migrated to the United States.

As a 22-year-old, Ventura left her home in El Salvador to escape the violence of a thriving civil war in the country. Before starting her long journey to the United States in 1991, Ventura said she promised her father that she would take care of her mother regardless of her absence. “The day I left, I abandoned my dying father and my two-year-old daughter” she said through tears. “I left so I could give them a better life even if it meant not seeing them again.”

Ventura’s now-husband, Mario Flores, left three months earlier seeking better job opportunities. She said that her father encouraged her to leave because of her husband. “I told my dad I could stay if he wanted me to,” she said. “But he told me to leave because my future was with my husband and not them. He said, ‘My hope is set on you’ and that is what ultimately motivated me to leave.” Ventura ensures that, since she left El Salvador, she has not once stopped economically supporting her mother, despite their lack of closeness and communication. “Although she never hugged me or told me she loved me, I have not stopped sending her money” Ventura said.

Abandoning her young daughter and saying her final goodbye to her father were not the only hardships Ventura encountered when she migrated to the United States. “When I was crossing the border to California, an immigration agent caught me and sent me to jail,” she said as she anxiously tapped the table with her hand. “Fortunately, I had people who paid for my bail, and I tried to cross the border again.” Ventura stayed in the United States illegally for seven years after crossing the border for a second time. During her stay, she gave birth to a second child, Mario. 

While wiping the remaining tears in her eyes, Ventura explained that she and her family went back to El Salvador to retrieve her daughter. “We stayed in the country for five years until my husband’s residency was approved,” she said with a calm tone. “When he came back to the United States, migration officers questioned him for going to El Salvador often as a U.S. resident, so he had to move to California.” Ventura and her kids moved, too, once they got a tourist visa. “My husband’s residency was a blessing,” she said. “But we could not get married before, or else he would lose his chance to become a resident.”

Shortly after moving to California, Ventura decided the coast was not for her. “After getting married, we moved to Siloam Springs and bought our house,” she commented with a slight smile on her face. “I got my residency 10 years ago, but I still struggled finding a job.” Due to her status, Ventura was not able to find a paid position because of banking complications. Many local businesses could only pay her with checks, but she was not able to open a bank account. “For a long time, we suffered because I could not work,” Ventura said with her voice cracking. “There were times when we could only afford to pay rent, and we had already three kids to care for by that time.”

One of Ventura’s most memorable job experiences in the United States was working as a cook at an ice cream shop. “I worked at there for eight years doing just about anything,” she commented. “I was then chosen to be manager, but I rejected the offer since I don’t like managing others.” Ventura said she ultimately got stressed out seeing the other employees mediocrely do their jobs, and she quit. Her next job as a cashier at a local grocery store was, according to Ventura, one of her worst experiences in the United States.

“I am banned from working there ever again because of a silly mistake,” Ventura said laughing. “My English is not great, so when I accidentally sold tobacco to an underage girl as part of a test by the employers, I was immediately fired.” Ventura said that she never felt as ignorant as she did back then. Although she was selected as the best employee during her first month, Ventura said she had a hard time speaking to the customers and following guidelines because of her choppy English. “Speaking the language and finding a good job were always the hardest parts of coming to the United States,” Ventura said in a serious tone. “Some people pretend they don’t understand the little English that I speak, or they see me as less than them just because I am Hispanic.”

Despite Ventura’s bad work experiences, she said she feels content in her current job at John Brown University. “An acquaintance worked as a custodian for JBU, and she told me there was an open position in the facilities services department,” she said. “I was scared to apply after being unsuccessful with my last job at the grocery store.”  According to Ventura, God helped her to get the job as a custodian. “The interviewer was a former customer I met while working at the ice cream shop, and he still remembered me,” Ventura said with a glint of excitement as she reminisced. “I did not need an interpreter for my interview, and I was called that afternoon to let me know I got the job.” The best part of her job, according to Ventura, is getting to know the students and helping them.

Hannah Means, junior nursing major, said she has known Ventura since her freshman year during her work-study hours. “Even if she is just cleaning or doing her job, she makes a big impact on people’s lives,” she said. “She takes the time to ask how students are doing and to genuinely get to know them.” Ventura not only connects with American students very well, but she also empathizes with international students who also left home in search of better opportunities. Nazaria Bol, freshman international business major from Guatemala, shared that Ventura has been crucial for her adaptation at JBU. “Ever since I came to college, Mrs. Mayra has been like a caring mother despite us not meeting before,” she said. “She really loves people, and I admire how she persisted to make her dreams come true by trusting God.” Ventura, a mother whose kids already went through college, said she understands sleepless nights and lack of motivation. “I see all the students as my own kids,” she said. “I remember when my son called me late at night telling me he was not going to sleep at all, and I understand that feeling.”

Besides achieving success in her working environment, Ventura’s life looks quite different now. “After almost 20 years of living in the United States, I took the scary step of applying for a citizenship,” Ventura commented as she scrolled through pictures of the ceremony in her phone. “I had to memorize 100 questions in English, but I was only asked six questions during the test.” In addition to acquiring her citizenship on November of this year, Ventura pointed out that she is thankful to see her kids grow up to be independent. “I miss having them at home sometimes because we don’t get to talk a lot during the week,” Ventura said with an evident frown in her face. “But they have gone on to go get their degrees, find good spouses and buy their own houses.”

Ventura’s journey from being an illegal immigrant to becoming a United States’ citizen took her more than 20 years and required a lot of strength. “It is never easy to know that there is an entire family depending on you, and you have no way to help them,” Ventura said. “God loves me more than what I deserve because He brought me here and gave me this chance to remake my life.”

Stories like these, whether they be at John Brown University or in other parts of the United States, should remind everyone to treat immigrants, who have gone through many trials to be our neighbors, coworkers and friends, with respect.

Photo: María Aguilar, The Threefold Advocate