National Health Week, which runs from April 2-8, focuses on the Power of Home. The Richmond City Health District has partnered with a variety of organizations across Richmond to fight the false narratives that surround our fellow residents living in low-resource communities. Grid, along with other local publications, are featuring a series of letters from residents in Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority communities. The following is from Evelyn Mejia, 37, a former low-income housing resident who recently purchased a home in Pine Acres.
All my life, my mother has been my mirror. Her great power is that she is servicial: Polite. Helpful. She smiles, she’s positive, she doesn’t see the bad face of the coin. I learned to be the same way. When you are servicial and have faith, you won’t let yourself be defeated.
I came to Richmond in 2001 from Guatemala. I had been working as a secretary at a bank. My father had lost a lot of his money, so I gave all my money from my job at the bank to my mother. I liked the bank. I was always learning something new, but I thought the most important thing then was being in love. I knew the man I loved was no good – he didn’t work or go to school, he liked the ladies a lot – and I wanted to do something different so I could be free of that love and help my family more.
I had a friend from church who had come to Richmond who would call and tell us to come here. When I arrived, I lived in a house with all men, but they were so good to me – they helped me all the time and never disrespected me. We lived over near Walmsley, in Broad Rock, and I liked it – the people the restaurants, the bread, the tamales – but sometimes life is harder if you stay in the same circle. We can say people are discriminating against us but we isolate ourselves too by not trying to connect outside our community.
My first job here was at Happy Mart on Hull Street. They hired me in the kitchen. At first they wanted me to make tortillas, but in Guatemala, we bought our tortillas at a grocery store like everybody else, so I had no idea what I was doing. I think after a while the owner saw that I could do more – I was polite and good with people, so he moved me to the register.
After Happy Mart, I went to work for a cleaning company with some women from Peru, and I felt a little bad about myself then – when I worked at the bank in Guatemala, we had people to clean our desks for us, and now I was the one cleaning. But I remembered my mother saying never to be embarrassed as long as you’re working and doing your best. You only have to be embarrassed if you steal, she said. You can hold your head up about anything else you do.
My sister was in Richmond by then, and we were sharing a room with other women, five of us sleeping in one big bed. I got into a relationship and got pregnant. Just before my daughter was born, my boyfriend and I broke up and my sister and I got our own place and cared for Paula together. It was very difficult, but I knew I needed to keep going to take care of Paula and help my mother and father back home.
My sister knew a man from El Salvador who told us we could make more money working in construction. I said yes right away. I worked in Church Hill cleaning a construction site for a year. That was where I met my husband, too. Later, I started working at a dentist’s office at night. I worked construction from 7-4 and in the dentist’s office from 5-9. In between, I would run up the highway through the toll to take Paulita from the babysitter to her grandmother’s and show up at work, red-faced (maybe smelling sometimes!). But the doctor was Colombian and so nice and understanding. When it was slow, she would teach me everything.
By the time I got pregnant with my second daughter, Lila, I was with my husband and I finally felt so secure and happy. My husband started his own painting and sheetrock company. Then my third daughter, Valentina, was born with a heart defect and Downs Syndrome. We had a very challenging first two years. She needed two heart surgeries, but we prayed a lot and made it through. We were grateful we had Medicaid to help with all the expenses. Now she’s so healthy, and she is the love of our lives. She inspires everybody and unifies us as a family.
I have worked so hard for the good life I have here. I see the same determination in my oldest daughter. She saw all my struggles with Valentina in the NICU and now she wants to be a neonatal doctor or a heart doctor. She is servicial and strong, like my mother, and like me.
I am so thankful to be in Richmond. I met my husband here. We have beautiful children. They go to very good schools. I saw specialized doctors for Valentina who treated us good. We own our own house now. We try our best to be helpful and do what’s right. Any place that you are – if you have principles and are grateful, good things will come to you.
Photo by Cheyenne Varner