“What a beautiful family you have!” people said.
“Yes,” she answered. “But not in the way you think.”
Today, the petite 46-year-old with a highlighted blond bob and a French manicure is a leader in the Washington area’s Hispanic community. She lives in McLean, drives a Mercedes-Benz and along with her husband, a former Secret Service agent whose family is from Puerto Rico, helps local Latino students with their college tuition.
But Thompson-Marquez was once an undocumented nanny and house cleaner.
She arrived in the United States from Peru in 1987 and spent eight years working for two families in Takoma Park, taking the Metro to night school at Montgomery College and then the University of Maryland, where she earned a degree in business administration in 1995.
“The children in the picture are from the families I worked for,” she would tell visitors to her office. “I was a nanny.”
She felt she needed to say it and say it often because so many Hispanic nannies and maids were so embarrassed about their jobs in the United States that they would create fictional identities when telling family members back home about their new lives.
Her conviction that no one should be ashamed of or stigmatized by their history is a theme that flows through “Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America,” a documentary she produced. The film, based on a book by New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, screens Thursday at the Aspen Institute and at the Facing Race Conference in Baltimore on Friday. Directed by Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez, it has one mission: explaining to Americans that the instability the United States created — sometimes through military and intelligence interventions and other times through economic policies — contributed to and sometimes triggered immigration from places such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
“We wanted to address the anti-immigrant sentiments that were out there,” Lopez said, “and make the point that there is more to the story.”
The feature-length documentary includes interviews with Hispanic luminaries such as Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz, Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada, and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu, a survivor of Guatemala’s brutal civil war. These and other interviewees share their personal histories, with an emphasis on Washington’s policies in their home countries at the time their families left for America.
The documentary is being released as the country’s flagging economy continues to fuel a divisive debate over immigration. And with last week’s presidential election highlighting the undeniable importance of the Hispanic vote, Thompson-Marquez hopes that the time is right. “Seeing so many Latinos vote and make a difference gave me so much confidence about the future of immigration reform,” she said. “So what an incredible time to show the film. We don’t have to hide anymore. Maybe more than ever, Americans want to hear our story.”
Retired ambassador Robert White, who served in El Salvador during the civil war there, called the film “essential for Americans trying to understand immigration.
“You just have to ask your cab driver where he is from to know the latest place that America has intervened,” said White, who is also interviewed in the film. “There were very few Salvadorans here before Washington intervention in that country. But when you finance and train a gang of uniformed butchers and they begin wholesale killing and wiping out whole villages, the people don’t immigrate. They flee.”
Her life’s legacy
On a recent sunny afternoon, Thompson-Marquez looks out over a two-story strip mall in Langley Park, her green eyes squinting past a West African clothing store, a Spanish-speaking tax attorney’s office and an Asian supermarket.
“There it is!,” she says. “That’s the Peruvian chicken place. My mouth is watering!”
She’s headed to lunch with Lopez, the film’s co-director. She’s already gotten requests from universities and churches hoping to screen the film. In many ways, she feels this film is her life’s legacy.
Thompson-Marquez’s father was a middle-class Peruvian teacher who named her after Jacqueline Kennedy. He nicknamed his daughter “True Grit,” after the 1969 John Wayne Western, when he noticed that she never procrastinated on her schoolwork. “It’s a nickname that’s defined my life,” she said. She arrived alone in the United States on a tourist visa in 1987 and decided to stay and try to earn a college degree. She was 21 years old.
She moved in with Bertha Donahue, the mother of her godfather, Chris Donahue, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru and a family friend. She immediately started English classes and got a job working for two families in Takoma Park, studying when she wasn’t doing diaper duty.
“She just sponged people up, wanting to learn all she could from their life experiences,” said Mary Jacksteit, 63, a lawyer who hired Thompson-Marquez to care for her children in Takoma Park.
The two women stayed in touch over the years, and Thompson-Marquez attended the children’s college graduations and weddings. When the film was in its final stages, she asked Jacksteit to watch and critique it.
“Sometimes you can meet someone and you can feel their ambition, which gives them a rough edge, makes them kind of pushy,” Jacksteit said. “But Wendy isn’t like that. She has this combination of warmth and playfulness, the kind of person you want to take care of your children. But I always knew she was committed to going the extra 25 miles for everything.”
One year, Jacksteit’s kids asked Thompson-Marquez to help them celebrate Halloween. So Thompson-Marquez made them a haunted house in the basement. “Suddenly, all the kids in the neighborhood wanted to come over,” Jacksteit said.
‘America is changing’
Thompson-Marquez had nightmares for years about being told to leave the country. But she was eventually sponsored by the families she worked for and obtained a green card, a process that took eight years. She became a citizen in 2002.
The theme of being honest about who you are, she says, is a huge part of the immigrant experience — especially when you feel you have to hide your identity or be deported.
With her University of Maryland degree in hand, she left her job as a nanny and started “stalking” Telemundo for a job. They eventually hired her “so I would stop calling. I didn’t have a fancy résuméand because I needed money, I couldn’t do unpaid internships. I had worked as a nanny. So I put that on my résumé.”
She became known as the “persistent Peruvian,” and she rose quickly at Telemundo. Largely, co-workers say, because she had a talent for motivating her staff, embraced working long hours, and was equally comfortable talking with Hispanic activists, construction workers, business owners and academics.
Thompson-Marquez met Lopez in 1996 while he was producing “Linea Directa,” a weekly Spanish-language public affairs show that provides immigrants with information about their rights. She suggested a partnership with NBC4, which now produces the program.
“She really made an impact on me because she had taken a small, moribund television station and turned it into an indispensable voice for the Latino community of the Washington metropolitan area,” he said. “I thought maybe we could work on a large, national creative project together that would deal with Latino civil rights.”
In 2005, Lopez handed her the book “Harvest of Empire,” which to him was “the most important and enlightening book ever written about the Latino immigrant experience in the U.S., because what we saw was the real absence of truth in our national conversation about immigration.”
Gonzalez’s book is used in universities throughout the country. But Gonzalez is hoping the documentary will help give the American public more history and context.
“America is changing, and by the end of the century a majority of people will trace their origins not to Europe but to Latin America,” Gonzalez said. “That’s an enormous transformation. But they never teach us in school here that the huge Latino presence is a direct result of our own government’s actions in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America over many decades, actions that forced millions to leave their homelands and journey north.”
The film does have its detractors; some argue that economic struggle, more than U.S. policies, has driven immigration. But Thompson-Marquez said that sparking discussion of the non-economic causes of immigration was her goal.
Production on the movie started in Los Angeles in 2008, but there were disagreements over its tone, which Thompson-Marquez felt was becoming too sensational in the way it blamed the U.S. government. Soon after, she left her job at Telemundo to work on the documentary full time, eventually moving the project back to Washington and starting over with a local team. In 2011, she secured a $200,000 Ford Foundation grant to buy the rights to 800 pieces of rare archival footage depicting U.S. involvement in Latin America. She also recruited the Bethesda-based Pixeldust Studios, a husband-and-wife Hispanic-American graphics team.
“It was like an immigrant Dream Team making the movie,” Lopez said.
That team humanized the film’s history lesson with voices like that of Mariana Cabrera, a Guatemalan woman who fled to America during her country’s civil war and whose daughter grew up and graduated from Harvard.
“People in the U.S. have no idea why we came to this country — no idea,” Cabrera says. “And if they do, it’s probably the wrong idea.”