When Jessica’s father bought her a one-way ticket to the States from Guatemala when she was 25, that was his way of saying, “I believe in you, hija, and I expect you to truly ‘be ‘somebody’.’” Now go do it.
Years later, those are the very words Jessica lives by, believes in, and tries to instill in the six young Guatemalan girls who call her teacher.
And most often the best teachers and the most influential leaders are those who have been in the same position as those they’re teaching, those they’re leading. Born in Philadelphia, raised in Guatemala, Jessica earned a degree in elementary education from a well-known university in Guatemala and lived a life many would find completely satisfying – one full of family, friends, and plenty of fun. She did as well until she started listening to something telling her differently. “I knew in my heart that I was meant to do something special and good,” explained Jessica. “I had come to a point where I was tired of living an empty life; sure, I had everything there, but really I had nothing. I had to change my path, and that meant moving away.”
Like many other immigrants, upon arrival Jessica carried with her several bags of doubt and questions, a couple containers of apprehension and confusion, but a suitcase stuffed to the brim with hope for a better life, a life of meaning and purpose.
The daughter of a surgeon and a nurse, Jessica knew perfectly well what success and hard work looked like. Yet before leaving for the States, her father made sure she knew that to indeed be successful in this next chapter in her life, she would have to start from scratch.
“It won’t be easy,” he warned.
Relying on the limited English she learned from her Guatemalan teachers, Jessica jumped headfirst into her new life. She spent her first months in the States living in Texas with friends, and then quickly decided she wanted to join the Navy “to get more discipline in my life.” When that didn’t work out, she set her eyes on Chattanooga, where some of her family resides.
Once again it was the words of her father, as he put his daughter on the plane, that rang true for her not long after she left. Jessica found herself cleaning toilets and scrubbing sinks at her uncle’s shop. “Once something gets in my head, I do it,” Jessica said, “I will do whatever I have to do to get it.” I believe the ‘it’ she is referring to was her search for why she came to the States in the first place, that nagging voice saying there was more to her life than what she knew in Guatemala.
However, not more than a year after she moved to the States, Jessica was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic, autoimmune disease that causes fatigue, joint pain and swelling so bad that Jessica had to return to Guatemala four times in nine years to receive special care, forcing her to abruptly quit her new-found jobs each time. “Against my parents’ advice, I always came back to the U.S.…because I knew that my life was not there [Guatemala].” Each time when she returned, she had to start all over again.
Being uprooted and beginning again, that Jessica understands well. It was through such personal experiences that allowed Jessica to truly identify with what ‘her people’ were going through and how they were living, this time in Chattanooga. “Through my work in various jobs over the years, I have seen firsthand how ‘my people’ struggle and how they cannot communicate their needs,” said Jessica, referring to the Guatemalan immigrants living in Chattanooga. “Then it hit me: they needed somebody, and I needed to help.” Alas, she had found her passion.
Two years ago Jessica was hired as Bilingual Parent Facilitator for Girls Inc, a national nonprofit organization working with young girls, primarily from high-risk, underserved areas. Last year she was in charge of a program that focused on building relationships between African American and Latino girls and keeping them enrolled in school. Jessica recruited seven elementary school age girls in 2008, and upon graduation, six still remained in the program entering middle school.
This year Jessica will continue working with the girls, but will focus more on the family as a whole, especially the mothers. This position will allow her to partner with local organizations, such as La Paz de Dios, to hold a series of workshops for the families, including how to communicate with authorities, with school administrators and teachers, healthy eating, and protecting your family.
While her job description has changed slightly this year, Jessica’s underlying mission has not budged.
“The Latino community needs to learn how to think differently,” said Jessica. “I want to help educate this community, especially the women, to be independent and think for themselves, to learn more about the U.S., Chattanooga, and themselves.”
By Laurie Cook Stevens
The Mission of La Paz is to empower and engage Chattanooga’s Latino population through advocacy, education and inclusion.
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