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How America Protected My Family

mom and three children
Courtesy of Carmen Navarro
The day in 2006 that 55-year-old Carmen Navarro Talavera officially became a U.S. citizen, she arrived at the ceremony well equipped. "I brought the biggest American flag I could buy," she says. Standing with 300 other immigrants, Carmen waved her flag with fervor. Then she raised her right hand and took the oath that made her an American. Her husband, who'd emigrated from Cuba as a teenager, was slightly embarrassed at the theatrics, but Carmen didn't care. "I needed a big flag to celebrate my big emotions and the greatness of this country."

Her loyalty and love for America go back 25 years, when Carmen and her family first emigrated as refugees from revolution-torn Nicaragua. She had been a married 23-year-old university student when the Sandinistan rebels first began their battle to overturn the government. Carmen's neighborhood soon became an urban war zone. "The most terrible thing was burning bodies in the street. I remember the smell of burning flesh."

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Just six hours before the Nicaraguan government collapsed in 1979, Carmen and her family escaped to El Salvador in a Red Cross plane, then to Honduras by bus with just and a bottle of milk for their baby.

The family settled as refugees in Honduras, where Carmen and her husband had two more children, Javier and Ana. But because her husband had worked for the old government as a military attaché, he had a target on his back. Even eight years later, in 1987, the Sandinistas still threatened him. Finally, Carmen put her foot down. "I said, 'The only place to be safe is America.'"

Seeking political asylum can be a long process, and Carmen felt that the family couldn't wait. So they secured regular visas (they would later obtain green cards as political refugees), and with their children, then 8, 6 and 4, and all the suitcases they could carry, they moved into an apartment in Miami that they'd found through friends. "It was very hard financially," says Carmen. "We sold everything we had to come here." Her husband's new job at an import-export firm paid little, and despite her college degree in education, the only job Carmen could get was as a maid. "But I wasn't ashamed," she says. "I knew things would be better. This is the land of opportunity."

And Carmen knew exactly which four opportunities she wanted: to learn English, to buy a house, to go back to school and to become an American citizen. First came English. To learn the language, she watched TV shows like I Love Lucy until she slowly picked it up. And three months later, Carmen spoke it well enough to land a job as a preschool teacher outside Tampa, where the family had moved, and later got one as an ESL teacher's aide in a different school district.

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But in 1991, there was another setback: Four years after arriving in the U.S., Carmen and her husband divorced, which led to a bitter custody battle. Carmen couldn't afford the mortgage, let alone a lawyer, so her husband won custody and took the kids, then 14, 12 and 10, with him to Georgia, while Carmen rented a room and tried to get back on her feet. "I was devastated," she says.

It took her a year to get her daughter, Ana, back; her boys stayed with their dad. For the next several years, Carmen was consumed by financial struggles and single parenthood. But finally she decided it was time to go for goal number three: an American college degree. With the help of student loans, Carmen began taking night classes. "I'd get up at 4 a.m. to study, then go to work, head to class at night, and get home around 10 p.m.," she says. She toughed out the tiring schedule for three years, earning a bachelor's degree in 2001, at age 46. "This wasn't just about achieving one of my American dreams," she says. "It was also about showing my kids that where there's a will, there's a way."

Things were finally falling into place, and soon the last of her four dreams, U.S. citizenship, would come true. But two years before that proud flag-waving day, Carmen felt the pull of her birthplace. "I was looking to make my peace," she says. So she went back to Nicaragua for a visit in 2004—her first in 22 years."My parents died during that time and I couldn't go to the funerals because I was a political refugee," says Carmen, who cried at their gravesites.

Her spirits lifted when she visited the school where she'd taught 25 years earlier. Months before the trip she'd gathered small gifts—shoes, socks, treats—from the dollar store; now she passed them out to the students. "One little girl had never had shoes," Carmen recalls. "I washed her feet and put on new socks and shoes. Later, she came running back with two eggs, to say thank you."

As soon as Carmen returned to America, she restocked her supplies, and a few months later made a return trip with her suitcases crammed full. She's never stopped going back. "They call me madrina, godmother," she says.

Carmen's hope is to give the children of Nicaragua a little bit of what America has given her kids: opportunity. "My children are all doing well," says Carmen, who is now remarried. "They're working hard, going to school on scholarships." Like their mom, daughter Ana and son Javier are both naturalized American citizens, and Ana is also in the Army Reserves. When she deployed to Iraq in 2007, Carmen was at the ceremony, waving Old Glory—the same one that now flies outside her home. "Ana enlisted because she loves this country as much as I do," says Carmen. "It's her way of saying thank you to America, and I couldn't be more proud."

Melody Warnick is a freelance writer based in Texas. Her work has appeared inLadies' Home Journal, Parenting, Selfand numerous other publications.






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Date: 12.12.2018, 13:09 / Views: 92262