As we sit in the professor lounge at the NYU School of Dentistry, I think back at everything Juana had to do to get here. She was able to come to a new country with no money, learn the language, work 7 days a week, earn a degree in dentistry, open up her own private practice, and raise a family. She has overcome so much and where we are sitting now is the accumulation of it all.
It all started in the mountains of Mexico, in an area called Vera Cruz. “Growing up in the mountains, there was no electricity and no flowing water. There were about 30 families in the entire community and there all worked the land.” The mountains as she described them were beautiful. “Everything was so peaceful. When you were hungry, you went to the trees and picked fruit off them, when you needed to bath you would go into the pond and swim.” Her simple life in the mountains, was just that, simple. She lived in a straw house, with a father that grew coffee.
One day, when she was eight years old, Juana came down with a severe illness. Seeing that she was the youngest child her family, her father did not want to let her go to the doctor. He knew if he let her go, she would leave him for the city, just like her siblings had previously done. But Mexico City was the only place that had the doctors to give her proper medical treatment.
After her siblings finally convinced their father to let her go to the doctor, they brought her to the city. After five hours of walking, they finally arrived in Mexico City. “My brother lived in a tiny box (apartment). When I first saw it, I said ‘this room is not your real house right.’ The house I lived in the mountains was not luxurious by any means but it was big. We had a lot of space, something this apartment had none of.”
Her siblings housed her as she attended primary school. She learned the ways of her new city life. She realized the fruit was not as sweet here, the cold is colder here and that life was so different. No longer could she just go outside when she was hungry and pick a fruit to eat. Now she needed to go to a vendor and pay for her food. All of the food there was different, everyone dressed differently and she never really able to see her mother and father. “This was not an easy life to live for a young child, having to learn to adapt so quickly. I cried frequently.”
After 3-4 years in school she was able to adapt to her knew environment and even started to forget how to live in the jungle. “I realized I assimilated to the city life after I saw a snake in the jungle again and was terrified. As a child I would never have been scared of a snake.” By the time Juana was 15, all of her siblings had gotten married and could no longer support her economically. She needed to find a job. “I was lucky to find a woman in the city that was willing to help me. She asked if I needed a job, and I told her that I had no training or education. She told me it was fine, and that I could become her dental assistant. And when you I was done, I was going to become a dentist.”
This unnamed mentor was able to share her love and devotion of dentistry to her. She was able to work for her all through high school and then eventually dental school. “In Mexico, the way it works is that you go from high school straight to Dental School.” Unlike her classmates in dental school, she had to work tirelessly to pay for her all of her bills. “Everyone in the dental school was rich. I was poor. I had to work a full-time job, while studying what everyone else was learning. I always used my time wisely, sleeping and studying on my bus trips. Most nights I only had around 3 hours of sleep.”
“I spent a lot of my time in dental school trying to study around the rich kids. Most people thought I was just a random person just hanging out there but in reality, I was peering over their shoulder to read their books. The books were too expensive and I could not afford them.”
After she graduated she came to Washington D.C. “In Mexico, everything was so corrupt that if you did not know the right people, you could not start a practice there. I was lucky enough that there was a lot of opportunities in America because so many Universities offered scholarships.” She went to University of Maryland, because she had a “far cousin, fourth removed” that lived there. She was able to stay with them but needed to pay for her own expenses.”
She found out that “everyone in the community of D.C. immigrants was from Vera Cruz.” They were all somehow related to her, some saying through marriages she never heard of and others saying that they were cousins 10th removed but “everyone knew my mother.” This was the first time she ever really felt welcomed to a new neighborhood and it was very pleasant surprise.
She was able to find a job after a woman suggested that she drive a car and bring food to the church, so, she got her driving license and took the job. She ended up living with this family, babysitting the children and cooking food. “I cooked great Mexican food. I would cook tamales and rice and everything else.”
As she tried going to school in Washington, she realized she could not keep up with all the work. She could not do Dental School, work so many jobs and learn English at the same time. That is when she met Brian. Even though it seemed as though Juana did not want to speak about her ex-husband, she explained how important he was in her journey of coming to New York City. “Brian told me that I must quit school, come live with him and learn English in New York.’ I told him ‘I cannot’ and that ‘my visa forced me to go back to Mexico after school.’ His solution was for us to get married.”
“We left together for New York and after we got married, I learned English as best as I could. But as soon as I got the hang of the language, no one could stop me. Shortly after, I applied to NYU Dental School. They had great scholarships for the tuition and for the books. It was still very difficult for me to read the books and write papers but learning how to use computers might have been the hardest.”
Juana graduated NYU Dental School 20 years ago. “I opened up a practice in Brooklyn. The reason I did this is because one of my friends in the city had a mother that was a nanny for a Jewish family in Midwood. She told me how many Mexicans there were, working as maids, babysitter’s cleaners and cooks.The Mexican women there worked almost 24/7 and lived in a small room in the house. And if they ever complained, the families threatened to have them deported.”
Kings Highway stop, Midwood, Brooklyn
Illegal immigrants in America are notorious for being underpaid overworked. According to Rivera-Batiz, that undocumented Mexican immigrants “have an average 6.3 years of schooling” versus the average non-Mexican undocumented worker which has “on average 10.4 years schooling, which is about the same as the average years of schooling of the overall immigrant population.” Because of this, undocumented Mexican immigrants have a stereotype of being “uneducated.” Because of this they are often taken advantage of. Of the 212,000 undocumented Mexicans in New York City (Passel, 1986), “The average per-capita family income among Mexican (undocumented immigrants) was $5,662 while for non-Mexican (undocumented immigrants) it was $8,429.” (Rivera-Batiz, 2001)
“I realized I had to do something. The Jews in Midwood needed to learn that we can be educated and raise a proper family and are not just cleaners or babysitters. I bought my practice from a Jewish doctor. Many of the Jews in the neighborhood refused to come to me because I was an immigrant. But I made sure I gave dental care to every one of the maids living in the neighborhood. I talked to these women and expressed how they deserved more respect. It may not have ended as perfectly as I wanted it to but now the Jewish people in this neighborhood know that us Mexicans can have brains too.”
“I learned so much in NYU, but I wish I took more business classes. After opening up my own practice I realized how little I know about running a business.” “The new graduates as well are going to be blindsided when they come out of here. They have no idea how hard it is running your own practice today.” “Another thing I regret was coming to Brooklyn and opening up a private practice. I have made a decent living as a dentist but not as much as you’d think. It is still hard for me to pay my bills, my dental insurance andmortgage. My patients are not very wealthy, so they could only give me so much for my services. If I had to do it again, I would have stayed in the city and worked for a rich dentist. I would have made a lot more money.”
Although she would have made more money elsewhere, she knows that her good work has not gone to waste. “I found everything I have accomplished very rewarding. I have changed many lives. I once had a very smart girl as a patient, around 14-15. She was Honduran and lived in a very poor home. She told me that she wantedto become a nurse, and I was able to convince her to become a doctor. There is nothing wrong with being a nurse but being a doctor is a lot better. I helped her in school and her college applications. She graduated with honors in high school. She just recently finished her residency.”
This girl isn’t the only person Juana has inspired. “I have made a big impact in this neighborhood. I have helped all of the women here. I was able to join the military and give dental service to people who really needed it. I bring my family here and pay for their schooling so they can have the same experiences as I do. And I also let people live in my home whenever they are down on their luck. You can always enter my home and see new guests, musicians from my home town, an aspiring Mexican artist and fellow people from the military.” She has become a keystone of her community.
Passel, Jeffrey S. “Undocumented Immigration.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 487, no. 1, 1986, pp. 181–200., doi:10.1177/0002716286487001012.
Rivera-Batiz, Francisco L. Illegal Immigrants in the U.S. Economy: A Comparative Analysis of Mexican and Non-Mexican Undocumented Workers. Columbia University, 2001, Illegal Immigrants in the U.S. Economy: A Comparative Analysis of Mexican and Non-Mexican Undocumented Workers.