Justice For Our Neighbors - Tennessee
When the Chinese restaurant where María de la Paz Chávez cooked chow mein and chop suey shut its doors, she knew it was time to leave El Salvador. The single mom of two had seen her San Salvador neighborhood grow dangerous and crime-ridden. Gangs extracted protection money from business owners; many shops closed. She wondered whether her son, then 11, would one day fall in with the gangsters who lurked outside his school.
Chávez's own career hopes had dissolved — she dreamed of becoming a nurse — and she didn't want the same thing to happen to her kids. "If you have children," says María, whose name means "Maria of Peace," "you want them to do better than you did." So she boarded a bus for Chiapas and paid a guide $7,000 to take her to Arizona. "It was awful," she says, her eyes streaming. "We slept on a mountain ... walked three days and nights in the desert. There were snakes, coyotes, scorpions. We could hear people crying out at night. It sounded like they were about to die. We thought the same thing would happen to us."
Oddly, it was on her horrific odyssey through the rugged Mexican desert that Chávez's confidence took firm hold. The group waited in a safe house, exhausted and hungry. No one took action to get people fed. So she told the guide, "Let's go to the market." She cooked beef soup for the whole group, on Mother's Day of 2005. That's when she realized that being able to do things gave her power and leverage. Even so, Chávez recalls, she didn't feel safe until she set eyes on her brothers in Nashville. She found a job at a Mexican restaurant, and another one cleaning buildings. With those, she started saving money to send for her kids. When her little girl's father joined her from Maryland and offered to help, she was overjoyed.
"But he wasn't the same person he used to be," she says. "I lost hope." They began to argue when he insisted she turn over her paychecks to him. And then one day, he hit her. "I wasn't going to put up with that," she says firmly. She called the police and showed them the bruises. They promised to make an arrest.
When a domestic violence counselor at MNPD told Chávez that she might qualify for a U visa — available to victims of certain crimes who cooperate with police — she didn't believe it. "I thought, 'I'm undocumented,' " she recalls. " 'This won't work for me.' "
Chávez was lucky. She had two advantages: a domestic violence support group that assured her that yes, it would work; and a savvy brother who told her, "Keep your life in order." He advised her to always use her real name (so there'd be a record of her employment history, her cooperation with police, etc.); to keep a single job long term; and to pay her taxes every year. Doing everything by the book helped Chávez immensely when she met with JFON attorneys and applied for the U visa. Even better, she learned that a U visa would extend legal status to her children too. She'd been away from them for more than seven years, saving money to bring them to the States safely — "not the way I came," she says, shaking her head.
When she picked up her 19-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter at the Nashville airport last fall, Chávez recalls, "it was beautiful." They hugged her and met their 4-year-old sister for the first time. And they begged her to take them out for pupusas, a Salvadoran specialty.
"I took them to Red Lobster instead," she grins. "I wanted to show them that it's different here."
These days, Chávez says she's thinking of opening her own restaurant in Nashville — a city that finally feels like home to her.
She cooks scrambled eggs and beans for her husband and kids on Saturday mornings, and then they stroll the park with other moms and kids from her daughter's school. She loves hearing her little girls speak English with each other.
But she also wants them to remember where they came from. Some of her Salvadoran friends' kids, she says, act "superior" when they visit home, "like they're afraid to touch the dirt floor, because there's no carpet on it." She likes to remind her two oldest: "You were born there."
Chávez exudes a tranquil, gentle self-respect — evident in the way she called police at the first moment of violence at home, and in the way she raises her kids to see themselves as equal to everyone. She says it's a trait she learned from the grandmother who raised her. "She taught me manners and how to cook," she smiles. "Knowing things gave me confidence. And she told me I didn't have to be afraid."
María de la Paz Chávez spoke through a translator;
Nashville Scene reporter Kim Green
Photo by Eric England