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Meet Carolina Hernandez

Filed Under: Family, Featured, Help, Immigrants

Carolina Hernandez briefly recalls hearing bombs exploding in San Salvador, followed by the grisly sight of dead bodies tossed around from the impact. She remembers a time when she and her grandmother immediately fell to the floor as bombs exploded nearby. This was the 1980’s during the Salvadoran Civil War when civilians were terrorized by both the government and guerrillas.

“I was 13 years old when my grandmother and I left San Salvador,” she explains, pausing as she recalls the events. “We feared persecution because of my father’s involvement with the guerrillas. Our journey to the U.S. was a crazy adventure. I remember being on a train in Mexico when someone screamed ‘la migra!’ My grandmother and I were tossed from a moving train and rolled down a hill. I remember lots of small things, like wearing bright colors when crossing ‘el rio’ and finding it hard to blend in with the rocks. These memories are funny to me now, but at the time I was terrified until we made it safely to San Francisco,” she said, as she shyly chuckles.

Arriving in San Francisco, Carolina and her grandmother lived with her very strict father. Her grandmother had raised her all her life, so she felt culture shock on two levels: adapting to her father’s rules and to an entirely new culture in this country. In addition, Carolina was bullied at school, well before teachers and parents recognized the terrible impact bullying can have on children.

In a soft, sad tone, she shared how, “from middle school to high school, girls made fun of me because I started puberty early. I felt alone and depressed, and remember asking my grandmother why we couldn’t go back to El Salvador. Finally, I reached a point where I was fed up with being teased and started skipping school. Eventually I dropped out of high school.”

Carolina’s life didn’t get any easier as she got pregnant when she was 16. Angry, her father threatened to send her back to El Salvador, going so far as to stop the process for Carolina to become a legal resident. Tensions got so high that they didn’t speak to each other for 10 years. Carolina eventually received legal residency through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, but her struggles continued. By 1991, she was the mother of two girls and found herself in an abusive relationship. Without an education or other support, she was unable to find a job. She feared going back to school because it was located near her father’s house; at that point, they still had not reconciled. To get by, Carolina babysat children, but the money wasn’t enough.

“I tried looking for jobs, but not even McDonald’s would hire me. Looking back I can see why. I would walk in carrying my two girls and ask to apply for work. What else could I do? I had no way to pay for child care,” she said.

Fortunately for Carolina, during a visit to San Francisco General Hospital, a case manager helped place her girls in Head Start and referred her to IFR’s 1992 Summer Youth program where she was hired for a temporary position filing paperwork. Unfamiliar with the history and mission of IFR, she remembers a meeting where she was told the Executive Director would be present.

“In my mind, I expected a woman in a suit would walk in, but then, Concha Saucedo walked in wearing huaraches and traditional Mexican clothing. I didn’t realize she was the ED so I didn’t greet her. I was embarrassed by my reaction, but I was very young and unaware of a lot of things.”

Dra. Saucedo later offered Carolina a full-time permanent position at IFR. “I was so happy and surprised that I started crying. I couldn’t believe someone was giving me an opportunity. I had always doubted myself, so I asked Concha if she was sure she wanted to hire me. I didn’t really know what I was doing!” I remember Concha saying, “I’m not going to pay you much, but you will have a check on the 15th and 30th of every month, and it will be enough for you to survive.”

Carolina’s happiness was short-lived as her daughters’ father was angry at the prospect of her working. To reinforce his lack of support, he refused to help her buy work clothes in hopes that she would quit; and he refused to help her drop off or pick up their daughters from Head Start. Somehow—like so many single mothers still do—she pushed through the difficulties and has kept her position. Carolina has been employed at IFR for the past 24 years.

She credits IFR for changing her life in several ways. Professionally, it helped her believe in herself. After being told throughout her life that she was dumb and incapable of surviving on her own, she’d lost faith in herself before IFR. Personally, working at IFR taught her to speak up for herself and advocate for her rights as a human being. This gave her the courage and resources to leave her ex, and successfully raise and support her girls as a working single mother.

“IFR taught me que hay muchos colores en la vida, and I was stuck on one color. No matter what your struggles are, siempre tienes que ponerte guapa and smile at life.”

Twenty-four years later, Carolina does just that. She is the first person to greet trauma-affected or grieving individuals seeking help at IFR, and she does it with a warm and welcoming smile. Aside from providing reception support, Carolina operates as a program assistant for the fiscal and human resources departments. On a personal level, Carolina is happily engaged, and is now a young grandmother of four. She and her father have reconciled, and they traveled to San Salvador together this past summer for the first time in 30 years.

Carolina says she “will always be grateful to IFR, to Concha and to Estela for giving her the big opportunity to grow professionally and as a woman.” We at IFR are grateful to have her.

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