Women build life in Truckee despite cultural barriers
Maria Chavez came to Truckee eight years ago seeking a safe place to raise her two children. In addition to her belongings, she also toted along her dreams of starting her own business and becoming a “strong, independent woman.” In Truckee, she has achieved both.
When Laticia Aguilar moved to Truckee 23-years ago, she found it was difficult to feel accepted by the community. Today, she says things are much better. She is very happy to be in Truckee, running the small day care out of her home in Sierra Meadows that she started 15 years ago.
Margarita de Nevarez has dedicated her life in Truckee to working to improve the lives of others and being a voice for the often silenced and ignored Latino community. Her hard work over the years has earned her numerous awards including the “Woman of Distinction” honor for 2000.
All three of these women, natives of Mexico, represent the ever-growing Hispanic population in Truckee. While the most recent census data from 2000 indicates that roughly one in seven, or 12.8 percent of Truckee residents, are Hispanic, the numbers are likely much higher due to language barriers and fear of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Despite these numbers, the stories of the many Hispanic men, women and children in Truckee are ones that are rarely told.
Although from varied backgrounds, ages and experiences, the stories of the above mentioned women offer a telling glimpse into the close-knit community and cultural niche Hispanics have carved out for themselves within the confines of a homogeneous Truckee.
Clinging to Tradition
“My daughter’s teacher said that she should only speak English from now on, but I disagreed,” Maria said, as she made change for a customer buying some Mexican candies, or “caramels” from her store.
“I want my daughter to accept herself as being Hispanic. I want my kids to learn Spanish first, they’ll have plenty of time to learn English in school.”
Meanwhile, Maria is embarrassed by her own English. She shakes her head and blushes when she fumbles a word or phrase, even though her English is excellent.
“It’s hard, we come here and have to speak two languages perfectly,” she says with a laugh.
Maria said one of the biggest challenges in her life in Truckee has been trying to hold onto the culture of her homeland while concurrently trying to assimilate and find her place in the community.
For herself, she struck a balance by starting her own business five years ago. Boneteria Chavez is a “family store” laden with Mexican goods, music and clothing located off the main drag on Donner Pass Road. Maria seems to know everyone who comes in on a first-name basis and chats with them about how “la familia” is doing.
There’s barely room to walk through the aisles crowded with clothing, pi-atas, baby accessories, religious candles and the latest CDs from Mexico.
“This is really the only store in town that serves the Mexican community — my store is for everyone, every race, though,” she said, ruffling the lace of a pearl-colored first communion dress she has set aside for a customer.
Another service that Maria offers is the ability for people to send money orders to their families in Mexico, a commonplace practice since the wages in the U.S., while typically considered low by American standards, are higher than those south of the border.
While Maria connects with her culture through “la tienda,” or store, Margarita and others rely on their religion and their relationships in the community.
“The Latino community in town is extremely close, everyone supports one another,” Margarita said.
She remembers a time when one of her friends, who worked at Truckee Elementary School passed away and the whole community came together to throw a special dinner to raise funds so the deceased’s family could fly to Mexico.
“A lot of times, when someone is ill, or a single mother needs help, we’ll throw a “kermese,” a party with food and games for sale to raise money for the family in need,” she said pointing to an upcoming kermese penciled in on her busy calendar.
Margarita also feels it’s important to educate children on their culture, their ancestors and their history. Recently, she’s started a program reading Mexican legends to schoolchildren.
“The kids love it, and the parents are happy too,” Maria said. “Personally, I feel that we can never get rid of our culture. What we really want our kids to be is bilingual and bicultural, to share American values as well as our own.”
Challenges in a Mountain Town
“The Spanish people deserve respect, we need it,” Maria said. “We are very hard workers, we pay taxes — not everyone causes problems. We give others respect and deserve it in return.”
For Maria, she sees a level of disrespect for the Hispanic community in Truckee, in particular by local law enforcement.
“The police see people with brown skin and an old car, and they feel like they have the right to stop and search them for no reason at all,” Maria said shaking her head. “A lot of times they call immigration services for no reason at all. They think they have the right to do anything.”
Maria did add, however, that there have been times when the local police have come to her rescue.
“Some of the officers are good people,” she said. “But they really need more police who are fluent in Spanish because a lot of times problems arise out of nothing because of misunderstandings in communication.”
Maria said sometimes when she sees Mexicans stopped by police in front of her store, she runs out to translate for them because she sees that both parties are confused.
All three women cited the language barrier as being the biggest hurdle for their community.
“When I first came to the United States in 1962, the only things I knew in English were my Hail Mary’s and the Our Father,” Margarita said with a laugh.
She quickly learned the value of speaking English and enrolled herself in classes at Sierra College, University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of California extension in Sacramento.
According to Margarita, not everyone has the time, money or ability for this degree of education, though, and Truckee greatly lacks the number and range of affordable classes that the community demands.
“We need different level classes, too, because a lot of times people get bored and just drop out,” Margarita said.
Laticia is equally as concerned with the lack of affordable housing and health care available.
“Sure, everyone works, Hispanics work hard, but since a lot of them are undocumented, and because of the kinds of jobs they have, they are ineligible for benefits and can’t afford decent housing,” Laticia said. “You see three and four families, each with three kids, living in one tiny little house,” she said. “It’s so hard to see that. You think, ‘How can the kids possibly be happy or healthy in that situation?'”
Chances for New Beginnings
One way that Laticia, as well as the other two women, have found solace regarding the struggles of their community, is by immersing themselves in the politics, social service agencies and schools in Truckee and serving as a voice for that community.
“I didn’t want my children to face discrimination in school, and was worried about how they were being treated and so I started volunteering in their classes, all of the time,” Laticia said. “I think I drove the teachers crazy because I was there so much. They see me coming and say, ‘Oh, hear comes that lady again.’ But I was very open with them if I saw something I didn’t like. You need to be involved as a parent.”
All three women praised the Tahoe area for the opportunities for community involvement that exist.
“The greatest thing about living in the U.S. and Truckee for me, has been the opportunities that women have,” Laticia said, remembering the days of having to go to work when she was 8-eyars-old and forfeit an education to support her family. “Here, we can work, and we are equal with men. If I was still in Mexico, we’d be going to sleep hungry. I didn’t want to end up like my mother with 18 children and no money. Today, I have two children in universities.”
Maria also praised the area for the opportunities she has found here.
“I came here with a dream and only $1,000,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to make something of myself, not just be a housekeeper.”
“Now look,” she said pointed all around the Boneteria. “Look at what is possible.”