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."