Filmmaker Nina Alvarez produced the epilogue to the WIDE ANGLE film, 18 with a Bullet.
The day we met, Vilma picked me up at the hotel in her red SUV and said that she still did not quite understand what I was doing there. We ate lunch at a Marie Callender’s and spoke for a long time. She was in tears for much of it; she was in tears before we even got out of the car. She couldn’t utter her son Diego’s name without breaking down. She has never seen WIDE ANGLE’s 18 with a Bullet and has no desire to see it. She wondered aloud why WIDE ANGLE, or anyone for that matter, would care about anything she had to say.
I am a second generation Salvadoran-American, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants. My parents were bright and educated young people; my father was an engineering student and my mother was a teacher. They came to the U.S. for the promise of bigger and better things. They would come, work in their craft and learn, and go home to help make their country a better place. That was the plan.
When they arrived, my mother worked as a nanny and housekeeper. She received room and board and $100 per month. On her time off, Friday afternoons and Saturdays, she worked in a beauty salon in the Bronx. My aunt Dolores left five kids behind, only to care for and clean up after someone else’s kids in New Jersey. She also worked in a factory and she and my mom pulled all-nighters washing and styling wigs.
My mother and her sister also left behind three younger siblings. In the early 1980’s, amid El Salvador’s bloody civil war, it was nearly impossible to get into the U.S. While the U.S. government financed the conflict, it refused to recognize the victims or provide them political refuge. My mother, who had originally intended to return to her beloved El Salvador, became a US citizen instead and worked relentlessly for almost four years to bring her little sisters and brother to safety. They arrived in 1984.
In 1992, the Salvadoran government and guerilla groups signed a peace accord. Despite great hopes, post-war El Salvador has failed to bring peace, democracy and economic prosperity for all. In fact, only five years after the war ended, El Salvador was the most violent country in the western hemisphere, according to the World Health Organization. Many demobilized young former combatants had few opportunities to change or improve their lives. Small arms were readily available. Furthermore, the U.S. increased its deportation of violent gang members who violated immigration laws. Put these elements together, and you have a social and economic minefield.
This is the world in which Vilma raised her sons, alone. Then a fire destroyed the San Salvador market where she sold her baked goods. Her dwindling resources soon made it impossible to pay for housing, the car, and food. Vilma decided to leave for the United States with the hope of earning more money. For Diego, the very act of his mother leaving to make his life better had the opposite impact. He sought family and found it with the gang. For Vilma, it was an ironic and cruel consequence that nearly invalidated her sacrifices in the United States.
One thing has remained constant across the generations of immigration. It is never easy to be far from home. And yet immigrants make Americans’ lives easier on a daily basis: cleaning our homes, caring for our children, parking our cars, or cooking our meals (if you eat out in New York City, I bet you have at least one meal per week prepared by an immigrant). Free of these burdens, everyone else has the time to be professionals, doctors, entrepreneurs, and even filmmakers.
Vilma works hard: sweeping, mopping, wiping; stovetops, venetians, under the sink, behind the fridge, inside the vase, on top of the bookshelf where no one even looks…it is backbreaking work. And I know that now. One day when we were filming, a homeowner asked that I not film in their house. I wanted to be helpful, so Vilma agreed to let me clean. Let me tell you, I was exhausted after about an hour. Vilma took one look at my work and suggested that I stick to making TV.
It has been eight years since she left El Salvador. Vilma did not think she would be here this long and does not know when she might go back; she very much wants to see her son and family. I sensed a streak of resentment in Vilma because she feels forced to stay in the U.S. Despite the accusations she sees on the evening news that illegal immigrants steal our public services, Vilma contributes here and pays taxes like everyone else. She has no health insurance and despite my own observation of her less than optimum health, she says she has never gone to the hospital. “Whenever I feel ill,” she says, “the cure is thinking about the bill!”
Vilma is a fighter with a heart of gold. She is keen about helping the immigrant cause. After evading the idea of being on TV, she concluded that she was in a better position to do this than others who do not have legal status. She has a heart, a conscience and admirable empathy.
Diego’s mom inspires me and devastates me. She makes me proud of her, of my mother, my aunts and all the women who have left entire lives behind to make life a little better for their families back home and especially us, their children. I hope Vilma’s future and that of her family are more like my own. I hope Vilma can not only improve the lot of her family, but also improve her own life and be happy. My own mother survived 35 years of racism, classism, and xenophobia, but never wasted an opportunity. Today she is a public school teacher and a PhD candidate in Education. She is and has always been an asset to this country, and so is Vilma and millions like them. Perhaps the acknowledgment of this fact is a necessary step in improving U.S. immigration policy.
Photo credit: Simon Vanquaethem