In a single page, space for countless stories

Mirna Diaz came to this country for love. Oralia Vasquez came to escape a violent past. Delmira Amaya came because her father wasn't willing to head north to support the family, and someone, even if it was a teenage girl, had to.

Until recently, these women - all from Central America and Mexico, some who entered the United States legally, some who did not - have been most comfortable being viewed as part of the Washington area's anonymous masses. That's where they've felt the least vulnerable.

But now, as they spread across foldout chairs at an Alexandria nonprofit agency, their children tangled in their limbs, they say they are done hiding, done blending in, done pretending they don't have stories to tell.

The result: Amanecer, or Sunrise. In hopes of winning understanding among women who share their origins and neighbors who do not, they have created a monthly newsletter. It is being printed in Spanish and English at the headquarters of Tenants and Workers United, a group that represents low-income residents in Northern Virginia.

The women behind the newsletter describe the effort as a collective voice for a previously silent group.

"It's just to let people know we're here," Diaz said. She was 30 with a business administration degree and a respectable bank job when a friend's uncle called from Virginia - and that was it.

"When I heard his voice, it all changed," she said, giggling. They spoke by phone for a year - she from Guatemala, he from Northern Virginia - before he asked her father for her hand in marriage and moved her to Alexandria.

Here, she works cleaning and caring for an elderly woman. "All the people said, 'You're crazy,' " she said. " 'You have a good job. Why are you going to the U.S.?' But I wasn't thinking with my head. I was thinking with my heart."

The single-page newsletter, the first edition of which is being distributed this month, touches on everything from immigration law to a jewelry-making class. But the most prominent feature, "Sharing My Story," is "a monthly column about a woman just like me or you with dreams - some of them fulfilled, and others unrealized."

The column writer is Alba Caceres, 56, who has no shortage of material and has written parts of all 11 newsletters scheduled for the rest of year. Her protagonist is a woman named Lupe, whom she describes as short, thin and employed as a maid, despite a breathing problem. Caceres hopes to use stories about Lupe - who is real but whose name she changed to protect her identity - to touch on lives of other women in the group.

"Everyone has a story to tell," she said.

For example, Amaya, 42, crossed the border twice, the first time at 19, alone. For 15 years, living on a McDonald's salary, she paid bills, raised a son and supported six brothers and sisters in El Salvador. That son, Rene, now a 19-year-old college student, said he hopes to find a job so he can give his mother "a better life. I want her to know she's supported even though she's not working."

Oralia Vasquez, 30, is a mother of three who grew up in a violent household and once watched her father punch out her mother's teeth. "Over there, they mistreated people the same way they mistreated animals," she said. "And here, it's not like that. Here, everybody has power."

Maria Solis, 45, came to the United States for a promised job that turned out not to exist. Her life here has been marked by economic and emotional struggles. In a few months, she plans to return to Mexico with her 4-year-old daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, and 9-year-old son, who is not.

As for Caceres, when she moved from Nicaragua to Alexandria with her husband, she left behind a job as a lawyer, along with the independence that came with it. She once drove new cars; now she shares a used one with her husband.

She once bought whatever she wanted; now she has to ask permission because she's not working. Once, she could express herself with ease; now her thoughts are bigger than her English vocabulary.

"You have all these ideas in your head, and you can't say anything," she said. She studies English wherever she can - at the library, through a church group, at a community college - but frustration shows on her brow as she searches for each elusive word. "My friend said, 'Why are you going to the university? At our age, we don't learn. We have to be happy to understand a little.' "

She doesn't agree. She speaks English better than most others in the group, which is why they ask her to speak for them as they enter St. Elmo's Coffee Pub in Del Ray . To distribute the newsletter, the women agreed they should go business to business, asking owners to display copies. That day, five women stop at a bank, a nutrition center and a restaurant, all of which cater to a Latino clientele.

Then, they walk into St. Elmo's, where the water and coffee are flavored and doggie treats are free. Caceres has to do the talking. As the women spread across two benches waiting for the owner, she perches her 5-foot frame at the edge of a chair, ready to leap up at any moment.

"I feel less confident because not all Americans are kind," she said. "Some people don't have the patience to listen to people who speak slowly. They say, 'What? What?' "

But she knows the group can't limit its efforts to Latino-targeted businesses. That would defeat the purpose.

One of the most striking features of the newsletter is not a story, but the masthead, which lists the names of all the women behind it. The women could have published anonymously - and considered doing so - but chose to go public.

"It's important for the people to know who we are," Caceres said. "It's a step to showing them, 'Look, I'm an immigrant, and you don't need to be afraid of me.' "

She's on her feet the moment owner Nora Partlow approaches.

"Can I help you?" Partlow asks. Caceres begins to open her mouth, ready to deliver her pitch, when, to her relief, Partlow says, "Puedo hablar Espanol" - "I can speak Spanish."

Within minutes, the women are smiling and waving goodbye, and Partlow is holding a stack of newsletters.

"It's about time they did something like this," she said. "People have to help themselves. . . . The more you expose yourself, the better it's going to be. You can't stay hidden under a rock."

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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