It was cancer: breast cancer, to be specific. This is the same cancer that killed my grandmother, the same cancer that scared the rest of my family to death a decade ago when my mom found a lump, the same cancer that killed my mom’s best friend just months ago. My very first task on my very first external accompaniment was to let María*, just 49 years old, know that she had cancer. Not that it needed translating –– cancer is the same, English or Spanish.
And María hardly needed much translating anyway; her English was good enough to navigate the hospital by herself. She understood a lot of what the doctors told her before I even said anything. That’s not why I was there – why she requested accompaniment. I was there because her three grown children were all at work or away for school, and the oncology wing of a hospital is a very tough place to be alone.
I think that’s the heart of the matter. Of all the services we provide here, referrals and translations and accompaniment and more, the most significant, in my experience, has simply been being present. A compañero’s most essential role is to be present and available, because no one should face down their challenges by themselves.
When María heard the diagnosis, she didn’t cry. Her immediate response was silence. For a long time. Then, she shocked me. When she finally spoke, it wasn’t about cancer. Rather, it was to start planning her 50th birthday party, almost 6 months away. In between multiple appointments, with an incredible amount of time spent in waiting rooms, I got to listen to her story, framed by the guest list to her 50th birthday.
For María, the oldest of 9 siblings and a mother of 3, family comes first. It’s why she came to the US in the first place, and she dedicated her life to raise her three children. I’ve never met a prouder mother and certainly never a prouder aunt. She spoke for hours of the various accomplishments of the nieces and nephews, even those she hardly know. The birthday party was a big deal because it was a reunion; with half her family in Mexico and half scattered across the US, it was rare for them all to be together.
As I heard her life story, I was awed. At each step, some ridiculous obstacle or cruel injustice almost prevented her from succeeding. But María, with help from her family, persevered through it all, and managed to build a life here in a foreign country where she didn’t know the language – where everything seemed out to get her.
In my time at Taller de José, I’ve seen an incredible amount of injustice, large and small. One client was found liable, pending appeal, for over $100,000 because of a car accident from over a decade ago, despite not even having enough money to pay a lawyer to contest it. Another was evicted, and because of fear of their immigration status, decided not to fight back, all so the new owner of his building could replace it with a luxury complex. Even the smaller injustices – people taken advantage of because of things like literacy and English language ability, which I, and most Americans, would take for granted – begin to pile up over time.
What continues to shock me is the resiliency of those faced with adversity. No matter how dire something looks, I never hear “I can’t do this” or “there’s no way out,” only “how do I make this work and what do I need to do?” Time and time again, each person I meet, no matter how dire their individual problem is, faces it with a similar attitude: one of perseverance, of unyielding strength, with their head held high and hopes for success undimmed. Ultimately, we may not be in control of our circumstances, and how others treat us is out of our hands, but we can control, in the most fundamentally human way, how we act in response.
At the end of my very first accompaniment, María told me point blank that she would be cured of cancer before her 50th. With no medical evidence to suggest that that would be the case, I asked her what made her so certain. She said “because I decided that I will be, because I have to be strong for my family.” For a woman who has fought her entire life for her family, I can’t imagine any response that would be more fitting.
*name changed for confidentiality