A class of curious first graders at Logan Avenue Elementary spent part of their Wednesday afternoon learning about a beloved classroom aid’s immigration to the United States.
Now in her 18th year in education, Natividad Cartagena originally began her journey to America in the early 1980s as one of many fellow Salvadorians looking to escape the country’s brutal civil war. In telling her story of adventure, adaptation and sacrifice to the class, Cartagena demonstrated the importance — and blessings — of her newfound freedom and citizenship, fitting in with the student’s project-based learning unit over the democratic process.
“It was very, very dangerous to go out at night,” Cartagena said of the conflict in El Salvador. “Soldiers used to come to houses and take people out, and you wouldn’t see them again. It lasted for 12 years, from 1980 to all the way in 1992.
“I knew coming here would make for a better life than over there. In El Salvador, you’re not really a professional. It’s hard to find a job, and when you do, they pay so little. Over there, you’ll make $5 a day. If you’re lucky, you might make $10 a day. It’s crazy. When I go back there to visit my family, I think, ‘How do people survive here?’”
In 1983, Cartagena was 23 years old when she left her mother, father and infant daughter behind to pursue employment in the U.S. in order to support them. Because she didn’t have a visa, Cartagena was forced to make the more than 2,000-mile journey by bus, taking almost an entire month to reach California due to entry problems in Mexico. During her time south of the border, Cartagena was often forced to go without food. On the days where she was lucky enough to find some, her intake often consisted of a single, small sandwich and a bottle of water or soda.
“I only packed one pair of pants, one pair of shoes, some underwear and a couple shirts,” Cartagena said. “When I got to Los Angeles, I didn’t have any money at all. I had nothing. I did have a family member there to help me, though. Then, a few months later, my uncle from New York City bought a ticket for me to come there.”
While in New York City, Cartagena was able to live relatively comfortably after finding employment at a Salvadorian restaurant, and later as a maid.
“I couldn’t speak any English, and the person I worked for couldn’t speak only but a little Spanish.” Cartagena said. “I used to have to call my friend on the phone to have her translate from me.”
Knowing she could find steadier employment if she was bilingual, Cartagena enrolled in English language classes at Bronx Community College and was quickly able to speak at a somewhat conversational level, which only improved through practice. After getting married and moving to the Emporia area in 1986, Cartagena’s next major goal was to gain U.S. citizenship.
“When I came here, I knew I had to become a citizen of the United States,” Cartagena said. “It’s not easy, though, when you’re not born here. It was very hard for me. I had to go to school and study everything there was to know about the United States … There were 100 questions they could ask that I needed to know about to pass the test. They don’t ask all the questions, they just go into the computer and take 10 or so. If you answer all 10 questions in a row, they don’t ask anymore. I was able to do that because I studied for a long, long time.
“I wanted to become a citizen in order to vote, which is very important. You have more opportunities, you can have a better job, and you can pick your president.”
After Cartagena was forced to move on from her home-based courier business in 2001 due to El Salvador’s switch to the U.S. dollar, her immediate thought was to look for an opportunity in the field of education. Being something she had always been passionate about — and being able to communicate with students from a variety of backgrounds — made the fit an especially easy one.
“When I was little … my goal was to become a teacher,” Cartagena said. “ I’m not a certified teacher, but I’ve been working for the district for 18 years. My dream was to work with kids, and that’s what I get to do now.”
In closing, Cartagena encouraged students to think about how fortunate they were to live in this country, pointing to relatively simple aspects of the local community which can often be taken for granted.
“One of the most important things is that I’m free to go anywhere here at anytime,” Cartagena said. “If I want to go to Walmart at 1 o’clock in the morning, I just open my garage and go. Over there, you couldn’t go out past 7 o’clock because it was so dangerous.
“I appreciate everything. I appreciate having my own house and I appreciate having the job that I dreamed for. I appreciate things like being able to eat at any restaurant. It’s about that freedom, and so many people want to come here because they know it’s a better life than a lot of places.”