Karen Burrell is from New York, but lived for over 20 years in Mexico, working and raising a family. Separating from her husband prompted a life-changing move back to the United States with her four children (and even the family cat). Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Karen Burrell
I arrived at LAX international airport having flown from another world less than four hours away. I was leaving many years of life in Mexico and determined to make a new life for my four children and myself.
Getting to California was not easy. Apart from packing over eighty boxes and having them crated for shipping, I had the tougher job of saying goodbye to the many friends and a way of life that I had loved and that my children were totally used to.
The technicalities of getting all of the paperwork completed so that we could leave were almost insurmountable. I had a residential visa and the birth certificates and permits for each child had to be released. There was an atmosphere of suspicion at that time, as conditions were such that many well-educated Mexicans were seeking positions in other countries and moving their families in order to live better lives. It was called the “brain drain.”
I was questioned as to the purpose of my travels and why I was taking all my children. I lied and said that we would be taking an extended visit to be with my elderly mother who had not been well.
I started many months in advance, anticipating the usual snarl with government paperwork. As it turned out, I got my papers the evening before my flight, after tears and tantrums as the offices were closing.
The fear in my belly was that I was afraid my husband would cause me to fail yet. He knew I was leaving, and refused to let me tell his family the truth. His impression was that we would reunite in Los Angeles and he would work there. I was very ambivalent, but pretty sure that once I was in my own country with all my rights, I would make even bigger changes. It was not a happy marriage.
I cried much of the flight to LA and was exhausted when we landed. Going through the line for immigration, the American officer seeing my papers said “Welcome home!” I was very touched and decided it was an omen for good for us all.
My three older children traveled by bus to McAllen, Texas where they stayed with an aunt until I could send for them. Meanwhile, Natalia, my five-year-old, was with me, and also Pumpkin, our cat who was sedated and in a birdcage. We stayed with my mother. She was a nurse and lived near the Cedars of Lebanon hospital in Hollywood where she worked.
Julie, a friend from Mexico, was a godsend. She had a car, and everyday we hit all the rentals we could find in Culver City where she said the schools were good. Nati was with us.
Pumpkin was nowhere to be found. For three days we worried about him and I was terrified that I had lost him. He was very traumatized by the plane ride and the many changes. On the third day he crawled out from some hidden space we had not seen and got his first drink of water in four days, along with food, much petting, cooing, and attention that started him on his recovery and acceptance of his new life, minus a big dog and many birds.
It had never occurred to me that I would have trouble renting an apartment. No one wanted a single woman with four children! When I looked at what I thought should be my monthly rent, I saw places where my son would have to sleep in a closet to have a private space, or a child approached my daughter and told her that she would have to b e able to fight if she lived there!!
I went home to my mother and tried to show an optimistic attitude, but I was beginning to think I would not find anything. I was afraid, very tired, and quite discouraged.
One day Julie suggested that I pay for a service to find me a place. It was money that I didn’t want to spend, but decided to do it. The next day they had one place for me. We went to see it, I liked it, and it would work for us. I lied this time and told the landlady that I had three children. She liked me and said that she would take a chance on us. Little did I know what I was getting into.
Our apartment was one of four and on the bottom floor, less than half a block off of Washington Blvd., which was a principal street. We were close to an old landmark – the Helms Bakery. The high school, which my older children would attend, was in walking distance, and so was the elementary school for little Natalia.
My first job was at the high school. I had gone to the employment office in Culver City, and back then, they interviewed me, asked my education and employment history, and even sent me to a counselor who gave me great advice, warnings, and ideas for my many adjustments in a radically new life.
My job in Mexico as a dress designer had been exciting and well-paid. I realized that my position in Mexico City would not mean much towards a new job in that field in Los Angeles. Much more importantly, I knew that the many changes we were facing necessitated my being much more available with predictable hours for my children. Working in the school system appeared to be the best for our needs.
After the first year it led to a wonderful job at Natalia’s school. I was given the whole second floor to create an open and exciting combination of library, audio-learning stations, a television corner for pre-kinder viewing, and a large area with tables and cabinets for teaching different art-media that I was personally in charge of. I was given a budget for decorating and a time period to do it in.
I painted murals in bright colors on the walls, set up colorful dividers, sewed and stuffed appealing pillows for the small children to sit on. I worked very hard, with the principal encouraging me every bit of the way.
When it was finished, not only did the children get to parade by all the new facilities that they would be using, but also the administrators from other schools came by to see it. It was a very satisfying project for me. Until I left the position, I enjoyed teaching many different arts and crafts to all of the children there.
Things had settled into place and I was able to build a new life for myself and my children in California.