Story Hunters: Part 2

Hey all, Lowell is my hometown and my friends and most of my family live here; I very naturally call this place home. But, it was not like that for everyone, especially my family. I am a first generation American. My parents immigrated here from Medellin, Colombia. My mother, her parents, and younger brother arrived in Lowell, MA in 1979 to work in one of the last remaining textile industries in Lowell. They weren’t wealthy back in Colombia, but they were happy enough, nevertheless, the allure of an opportunity to financially secure their lives and better their own standards was enough to prompt them to sell their home and all their belongings to move to a different continent, country, with a different culture, climate, language…everything. I sat down with my grandmother, Alba, a couple of days ago and asked her about her experience coming to the United States…she wasn’t to thrilled to share. It was hard for her to relive the process of leaving and starting over even though it was almost 40 years ago… My grandmother left Colombia on August 19th, 1979 with her husband and her children. They had a modest living but her children’s schooling was too expensive and they were often short on money. Her brother, Pastor, was recruited by a textile company based in Connecticut five years prior. Story goes that these guys just showed up one day at Pastor’s company in Medellin, the industrial city of Colombia at the time, looking for some textile technicians. “English, anyone speak English” my grandmother said they shouted in the factory; Pastor had been studying English for some time and understood it enough to be selected by the representatives of this company  to recommend some of his coworkers and come back with them to the United States and work in this mill in Connecticut. From Connecticut he went to Manchester, NH and from there he settled in the Wannalancit Mill here in Lowell.  As an important figure of Wannalancit, he was able to request people to come into the country….mainly he requested his family, my grandmother being one of them. Her mother was sick when she left. She says leaving her mom was the hardest part. Here she goes into detail about how sweet and good hearted her grandmother was, small and frail with clear, light eyes. She tells me a few stories to familiarize me with my own great grandmother. She passed away four months after my grandmother’s arrival in America. Her son Juan, who now goes by John, was excited to leave. He was about 16.  He loved and still loves American Rock n’ Roll. He married an American woman and had two kids, one’s in Chicago and one is in LA. He is by far one of the most patriotic “red-white-and blue”people I have ever known. Her husband at this point was orphaned and had very little family left. The only thing he cared about was his kids and whatever it was that his wife wanted.  He was by far the most selfless and loveliest person you could have ever met. Her daughter, Beatriz, was a social butterfly of 18. She had friends for miles, and ardently loved her home country. She  really, really, really  DID NOT want to leave. But, she went and is still here, with her husband, daughter (that’s me), happy in her adoptive home, with no desire to move back. Alba and her family arrived on a Thursday and started working on Monday morning for the hourly minimum, at the time, of $3.15. Her husband and son started working immediately in the Wannalancit mill as technicians . She and her daughter, started at an electronic company, but 4 months later made their way to a threading company called the Lincoln. The Lincoln paid them 5 cents more on the hour. This doesn’t seem like much, but if your working 16 hours a day for 7 months, it adds up. And this is precisely what my grandmother did when she first arrived at the Lincoln factory. She worked two shifts. One from 6 am to 2pm and another from 3 to 11pm.  My grandmother says each family member took over a responsibility: my grandfather was in charge of groceries, my uncle took the apartment bills, my mother paid for the furniture, and the debts in Colombia were hers. So, for seven months she worked to pay off all those shackling debts and wipe the slate truly clean. 7 months working 16 hours a day my grandmother said sometimes she just fell asleep standing in the shower. She got sick from the miserable, dirty conditions of the factory. Her asthma acted up. Over the course of those months, she developed an allergic reaction to the wool fibers that got swept up in the hot, humid air and stuck to her skin. She got a rash all on her arms. And when she was offered a chance to leave and work at a medical supply company she jumped at the chance. Alba was adored by her boss; she remembers him fondly. He pleaded with her to stay because she was a hard worker who produced more bobbins and even polished her machines- she made up some vague excuse about going back to Colombia to not hurt his feelings, because finding a kind boss was something of a rarity for her. But truth be told, she couldn’t stand being in there for another hour…the work was too harsh. So, She left to go to the medical supplies company. She said the floors gleamed and it was so much more bearable and even enjoyable. She stayed there for 19 years before retiring. Abuela This is one of the many immigration stories from Colombia. And what’s truly wonderful is that Lowell recognizes, appreciates, and embraces these global immigration stories. Superintendent, Celeste Bernardo, stopped by on Colombian independence day this past Wednesday, July 20th, and delivered a beautiful speech recognizing the commitment and dedication of the Colombian community in Lowell. She was speaking about people like my  grandmother, family, and the hundreds that came along and after, and even those decedents from immigrant workers, like myself. I am incredibly lucky to be part of this continuing story. I have inherited the recollections of my family and carry the understanding of something larger than my comfortable position. I recognize strength and strife, and this understanding grants me compassion towards the many immigration stories I hear today. There is nothing more human than the desire to better the  situation of one’s family and self. That is something everyone can understand. I am so proud of my Park for telling and preserving Lowell’s stories. I am beyond fortunate in finding a community in my National Park that supports and appreciates my culture. I cannot be more thankful to the wonderful people who stood by me, my family, and fellow Colombians on this day; symbolizing with their presence the beauty of acceptance and friendship. Bonds like these make the world a better place, and the Lowell National Historical Park is radiating the joy that comes from unity. We are all part of the Lowell Story, no matter where we come from… Until next time, Daniela Sierra Superintendent Celeste Cumbia Ranger Amy


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