Alba Sánchez

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Alba Sánchez is the Immigrant Welcome Center Manager at the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is originally from Costa Rica from a small town called San Rafael in the province of Heredia. She emigrated to the United States when she was twenty-six years old. In this interview, Sánchez explains what San Rafael was like, referring to the landscape of the region and the size of the town. She discusses her childhood and what life was like for her and her family living in Costa Rica and mentions that all of her family members still reside there. Sánchez mentions attending the University Nacional of La Heredia, one of the top schools in her state. She describes what her journey of coming to the United States was like and the challenges she faced once she arrived. She tells me about her drive and passion to learn English and how that was a major motivational factor for her once she was in North Carolina. Sánchez later explains her reasons for moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, and how she became the Immigrant Welcome Center Manager at the Latin American Coalition. She shares that she first became involved with the Coalition as a community member and later as a volunteer. She describes the multitude of services that the Latin American Coalition offers, such as citizenship workshops, ESL classes, translation services, and other resources for the community. She also touches on the biggest challenges that she sees the Latino community struggles with the most in Charlotte. Sánchez closes the interview by telling me about her immigration case and stating her love for this United States and her community.



Marisa Carlton: Hi. My name is Marisa Carlton and I’m here with Alba Sánchez and we’re going to interview her about her migration story. Hola Alba. How are you?
Alba Sánchez: Good. How are you Marisa?
MC: Good. Thank you for meeting with me. So, first of all, I want to ask, [00:00:19] where are you from originally and can you tell me a little bit about the area?
AS: Yes. I’m from Costa Rica. A city that is called Heredia. It’s a very-. It’s a rural area but very pretty with a lot of nature, rivers, rainforests. It’s a small town. We are about six hundred people. Maybe eight hundred. We know each other. A lot of these families are family members.
MC: And—.
AS: [coughs].
MC: Did you always live there?
AS: Yes. Yes. I lived there my twenty-six years. I went to school there. I went to high school there and also, I went to college. So, it is two, three hours to go to high school or college, but we were able to go yes.
MC: Where did you go to school?
AS: You mean college?
MC: Yeah.
AS: The Universidad Nacional. The National University in Heredia.
MC: Oh, wow.
AS: It’s one of the three national universities in Costa Rica.
MC: Do you still—
MC: Do you still have family there?
AS: Everyone.
MC: All your family?
AS: All. My mom. My dad. My brothers. Everyone is in Costa Rica. Yes.
MC: Wow. So, can you tell me a little about your childhood? What living there was like for you? Your favorite memories?
AS: It was a beautiful childhood. Again, it’s nature. I love nature. We were able to play all the time outside. You know, play, go to the rivers, with family members play soccer, going to school. It was a very, very healthy childhood. We didn’t have electronics. The first time I had a TV I was twenty years. [laughs]. The same thing for the telephone. We were very close to our families. So, really our friends were our cousins, our uncles, my mom, my dad, my grandfather. People that lived around us.
MC: Right.
AS: It was a safety community. Safe community.
MC: [00:02:41] When did you choose to migrate to the United States?
AS: The first time I decided to come to the United States was in 1998. And the reason I decided to come was because when I was a teenager, I had one of my best friends that she moved to North Carolina with her family. And, we always keep that communication and I always wanted to visit my friend. I always wanted to speak English too. So, that was part of my big dream to come to the United States. So, through the times I kept her friendship, and I went to apply for a visa in 1998. I was rejected. I went to apply in 2000. I did not was approved. And I went to apply again in December 2001. And that was the time that they allowed me to come with a visitor’s visa. And, that’s how I got here.
MC: Why do you think that they rejected you originally? Is that just how that process is?

AS: It was part of the process but it was also, Marisa, because you were coming from a--. I would say honestly, you were coming from a humble family. You do not have land or big accounts or you know. Also, it was my age. I was in a very critical age. They think, she doesn’t have anything, no family, no husband, no kids. She’s going to go and going to stay there. But, I applied three times and I am here.
MC: And, did you come alone originally? Or, can you tell me more about that?
AS: Yes. I flew here in December 23, 2001. And, I got to my friends in Raleigh. I stayed at her house about four months. The intention again, was to visit my friends and also to go, to be able to go to the CPCC to learn English. Somehow, in my mind, I was thinking that I was going to learn English in six months. I don’t know how, but it was like that. And, I was thinking, it was that--. My expectation was that I was going to go back to Costa Rica and continue college over there.
MC: And what were you studying there? I forgot to ask.
AS: Education. Rural education. The reason for me to study that--. It was really--. My main [inaudible] were teachers. And also, I wanted to work on the Indian reservations in Costa Rica. So that was part of why I was interested in that career.
MC: Wow. What was for you, the most difficult part about leaving Costa Rica and your home?
AS: Well, in that time, Marisa, when I left it was not difficult time because I was coming for a few months. I was never thinking or planning that I was going to be here for so many years. And now, almost twenty years. And it took me almost eight years to be able to go back to Costa Rica. So really the difficult time was when I realized my visa expired. I didn’t get a ticket to go back to Costa Rica. And I find myself alone without knowing what to do but with one thing is that I was going to speak English. No matter what. But that was my goal to be here.
MC: Wow. And so, [00:06:26] what was your journey like coming here? By yourself? On a plane trip? Was that your first plane trip? Just tell me more about that experience.
AS: Yeah, it was my first plane trip and it was traumatic [laughs]. I would say it was kind of exciting but also traumatic because again, I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have any problem on the airplane in Costa Rica, but I have to stop and it was in Houston, Texas. And I had to transfer to another airplane. But I didn’t know how to ask for it. Where to go. The airport was big that I couldn’t see the door. I could not read my ticket. I remember my friend told me that in every counter there was supposed to be people that speak Engl--. Spanish. But the two, three times that I asked nobody speaks Spanish. But in the time that I was asking, one girl from Mexico-, that was my first time that I met someone from Mexico, she heard me. She come to me because she saw that I could not communicate and she asked me where are you going? So, I told her, Charlotte, NC. Raleigh NC. And she told me give me your ticket. So, she saw my ticket and she told me oh you’re really late, you have to run [laughs]. And so, I didn’t know to run where. So, she told me just follow me. And she took me to the other place. The door where I needed to be. And so, it was, the airport was so big and I remember I was running taking upstairs downstairs but I made it. I got to the airplane and I got to Raleigh. It was almost ten o’clock. And I left Costa Rica at six AM in the morning. So, it was yes, a little bit traumatic but it was also an adventure. It was exciting. It was something totally new for me.
MC: And, coming from a rural place in Costa Rica, what surprised you the most when you got to the United States?
AS: How everything was so big. The streets were big. The buildings. Also, I loved that everything was so clean. So many cars. That was the first impression more because I came from a rural area so I was not living in the city. So that was nice. That was something that caught my attention.
MC: Yeah. And before you came to the United States, what did you think it was going to be like before you got here? Did you hear anything on the news or from other people? Did you have this--. What did you imagine it being like?
AS: To be honest Marisa, I did not have any imagination where I was coming. Now, after so many years living here, sometimes I think, how I did not even look at the map? Where was this city I was going to? But again, coming from a small country--beautiful country--but we are a little close minded in that time. I’m talking about in the 90’s. Costa Rica is, it was to believe that it was the best country in Central America. And really, you really did not know much about your surroundings. You know about your country and you study when you go to high school, you go to college, you study about Europe. Not really about Central America or the countries around Costa Rica. So, to be honest, I was kind of ignorant. I don’t know how because I was going to college. You’re supposed to learn all of those things but I think I was. I don’t know, maybe living on the clouds [laughs]. I was a teenager.
MC: Yeah, and so when you got here, [00:10:51] what was it like for you? The years after you got here? What was life like for you? How did you get settled down?
AS: So, at that time, it was when I really started having a difficult time adjusting. So, after four months living with my friend, I was not welcomed in her house anymore. Somehow, they--. So, the conversation was, the intention was that I was going to come and stay for six months. Going to college. Community college. Learn some English and go back to Costa Rica. But when I got here, my friend was different. My friend was not the friend that I used to know when we were fourteen. She was married. She has kids. Her culture also changed. So, we did not feel comfortable with one another. I would say that. So, it was a point where she told me if I was not going to be in her house cleaning, babysitting, I was not welcomed in her house anymore. That was the time when I realized that I was alone.
MC: Wow. And what your next steps after that? If you don’t mind sharing.
AS: So, after that. Because I talked to my friend and explained to her, and she already knew my visa-- it was going to be expired. I didn’t have a ticket ready to go back to Costa Rica. So, she told me I can help you to find an American family that will allow you to stay at her house. And, she told me I will help you to find a job. And you decide whenever you’re ready to go back to Costa Rica. But, I was going to live with a family that I never saw in my life. I didn’t speak English. I didn’t have a car. So, I was just going to live in a house, you know like--.
MC: With strangers.
AS: Yes! With strange people that I cannot even communicate with. So, again, because my dream to learn English, I said it’s okay. So, I went, and I moved with this family that was again, in Raleigh in North Carolina. And I stayed in her house, in their house. They were a married couple. They did not have kids. And honestly, they were very welcoming. And even when we cannot communicate we were writing with a paper on a dictionary anything we want to ask or say, or question, or direction. They were very kind to me and to--. That is the main people that I appreciate every single day for me to be here today because they offered their house to me.
MC: Yeah. Wow. And how old were you then?
AS: I was twenty-six.
MC: Okay.
AS: And so, once I started living with this family I also found a job in a factory. And also, I was able to register at the community college. And in that time the community college offers transportation. So, I was going to the community college from seven thirty to maybe noon. They took me back to the house where I was living and I was going to work at the factor start at three o’clock to midnight. And that was every single day. Sometimes when I went to the CPCC classes, I was so sleepy and tired and I didn’t understand any English yet. So, I did that for maybe four months until really, I started understanding the language a little bit. I stayed with that family for about eight months. Almost a year. And I moved to Charlotte. When I left, when I moved to Charlotte I did not say bye to my friend because by that time they did not speak to me anymore. So, with that, I realized that I had become undocumented. That again, I didn’t have any family and was also poor. And I was in a big country where I was alone. But now, it was up to me to stay here. To go back. To do something or not. And, again, part of my dream to speak English, that passion, somehow helped me or gave me the strength to continue every day here until today that I’m a citizen now.
MC: Yeah. Congratulations. [00:16:06] How did you decide to come to Charlotte? Because you were living in Raleigh, right?
AS: Yeah. When I was in Raleigh, I did communicate with two friends that they were living here in Charlotte. Two sisters. One of them, she was my classmate in high school and the other she was classmate in college. And, they did move to Charlotte around--. One of the sisters was around the same year I moved. And her sister was here a long time ago. And I talked to them and I explained to them, you know, that I was there alone. That I was needing some support. And so, they were kind and nice and also, they know me in Costa Rica. We spend time over there. They went to pick me up and we ended in Charlotte. And at the end we were five Costa Rican girls living together. One from Michigan because she was here a long time ago but she was living in Michigan but she was also moving to Charlotte. Another three ladies from the same city, Heredia, with me. We were three. And another lady from a different city in Costa Rica, and we started living together. We started finding a job, working and going to community college. YMCA. Every ESL classes in the city we were going.
MC: What--. Did you finish the classes that you were taking in Raleigh? Did you get a degree? Or could you tell me.
AS: No, it was English--.
MC: Oh! It was just English.
AS: Basic ESL classes.
MC: English classes. Oh, okay. At the college.
AS: Yeah because that was the only program you can register when you were undocumented.
MC: Okay. Wow. And so, you started taking college classes here in Charlotte?
AS: Now. Yes. Years ago, but in that period of time from the beginning my first five, six years it was just ESL basic classes. Basic ESL classes.
MC: Yeah. Yeah. [00:18:18] How did you get involved with the Latin American Coalition?
AS: So, when I moved to Charlotte, I mentioned before, I started my life here. I found a job. I continued going to ESL classes. Later in life I married. I got married here and I started knowing the city. By a newspaper, I believe, I knew about the Latin American Coalition and I started attending some of their workshops. And during that time, I was also, I come for the services. You know, I have some questions about some services and the city, and this was the main place to come. So, that was another way that I got connected with the Latin American Coalition. By 2007, around 2008, I was kind of like a volunteer with the Latin American Coalition in different workshops and learning about civic engagement. Learning about community resources in our community. Learning about immigration policies. You know, just learning about the city where you were living now. One of the great ways was to be a volunteer, meeting different people, also continue learning English, about the resources. And it was like that how I became part of the Latin American Coalition at the beginning as a volunteer in 2006, 2007.
MC: And then, how did you get the position as the Immigrant Welcome Center Manger?
AS: So, last year, it was a position opening. It was actually people around the community that contacted me to--. Letting me know about the position. I was looking for a position. I was in transition from a job to another and I applied for this position. The reason I applied for this was because it was very direct to the Latino families, assisting them with their issues, with the challenges. Very similar things I experience in my few years here. So, I wanted t to be a part of something that I really can make a difference in people’s lives. A meaningful job. I do want to be a part of that. And it was how I applied for the position and now I am here. So that was how I start with this position.
MC: Yeah. And [00:21:05] can you tell me more about the role of the Immigrant Welcome Center Manager? What you do every day?
AS: Yes. Here the Immigrant Welcome Center will assist the community in two ways. One of those is crisis. It can be crisis about shelter, bills, rent, food, even clothes. So, we assist families and we coordinate services with crisis assistance and the shelters around the city. Another way we serve the community is connecting them with different resources, assisting them to register their kids for school, to connect them with the health department, with the local clinics, with the lawyers, with the court system. With the services like the YMCA, child care resources. All of those services that are in our community that helps our community to improve their quality of life. But a lot of the times because of the language barrier, because maybe they just moved to the city, or to the state, or they were new arrivals like me. Sometime in the past, they don’t know about these services. So, that’s another way we connect them or we serve them. We also provide basic ESL classes, advance ESL classes--that’s conversational classes, basic computer classes. And a lot of the series of workshops that are needed for them to know more about the resources that integrate with our community.
MC: Wow. Working in your position, [00:23:00] what are the biggest challenges that you see that Latinos in the community struggle with? Or come in to talk more about?
AS: Personally, I believe, Marisa, the biggest struggle for our community is not to speak the language because again, from personal experiences, once you speak the language, you develop your confidence. Because you can communicate, you can ask for what you need. But, not to be able to do that creates a lot of fear, a lot of isolation, anxiety. So, I will say that is the biggest challenge for our community. That, but also immigration, you know. Because there are so many immigration policies at the federal level, at the state level that are continuously affecting the community and not just the Latino community, the community in general. So that you know, you’re working in one area in your life and there is a new policy that is coming and can stop this process for you. So, that is something that is affecting our community constantly.
MC: And so, [00:24:20] can you talk more about the resources the Latin American Coalition provides? The different workshops and the Immigrant Center?
AS: Yeah. We offer…one of the workshops, for example, is divorce and custody workshops. We offer that once a month. That is a collaboration with the North Carolina or Mecklenburg County court system because family law is very expensive so our families sometimes are totally unable to pay for a family lawyer. So, the court offers that workshop once a month. They do it in Spanish. They bring all the forms. They help the individual to complete and helping them to understand how to submit the forms and what is the process, how much maybe it takes. A great workshop. That’s one of the things we do. We also collaborate with the CMPD (Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department). So, the individuals they can have a presentation here about different topics about the community’s safety. So, we create that space. We also bring lawyers from different areas that can assist our family with fraud, scams. Like I said, family law, immigration. Consumer protection. Tax issues. So, we offer those kinds of workshops based on the community needs. I will say that this is some of the workshops we offer. We also offer translation and notary services. We have been-- if they need to send documentation to different organizations that are requesting this, but they do not own a computer or they do not know how to use it, or they don’t have an email. So, this is like a one stop place that they can do everything they need in their own language and we do not do the things for them. We help them. We assist them because we want for them to develop their confidence. To develop their potential. That they can do so many things by themselves and they just need to believe in themselves and you know, follow the process to be able to complete it.
MC: Well thank you. That’s all the questions I have. [00:26:49] Is there anything you’d like to add? Any last comments?
AS: No. Oh well, maybe what I mentioned before about my immigration case. It took me many years. So, it’s going to be nineteen years this December. So, to become a legal resident, to become a citizen, it’s not something that happens in five years. It can take years for an individual. So, to have that support from our community, from our institutions, we’re really helping individuals. No matter which country he is from or which language they speak. Allow them to be a part of the community and they also like today, Marisa. I am a citizen. Yes. And thank God for that. But before a citizen, I was doing everything I can to support, not just my Latino community, but every community member in so many different ways. Because, we do love our community. We do love this country. We do want the best for this country. So, yes. We do speak a different language but our heart is here. Our families are here. And we are not so different than sometimes people think. So thank you for allowing me to share a little bit about my personal story. Thank you for the job that you are doing. I think that will be all.
MC: Alright, thank you. [END OF INTERVIEW]