I didn’t have a bad childhood, but I had a childhood with a lot of responsibility. 

Ilsa Damari Turcois was born on March 10, 1985 in Silca, a Honduranian municipality of Orancho. A determined, loyal, brave, and strong young woman, Damari has always been a force to be reckoned with. Born to a single mother and the eldest daughter of five children, Damari began working as early as she can remember. Even as a little girl, she helped support her family. Starting at ten years old, Damari cared for her three younger siblings, cooked, cleaned, and sold cositas de harina that her mother would bake for a living. All of these roles she had to play did not leave her much of a chance to be time to just be a child.

Damari attended school until she was eleven years old and was then forced to drop out due to high school fees and the additional responsibilities placed on her. She was the only one of her siblings who was taught to cook and do the chores around the house. Her brothers and sisters had the opportunity to attend school, some even to university, but her mother always relied on Damari to take care of the family. To Damari, this has been both a privilege and a burden.

Even as a curious, passionate learner, she remembers being miserable during the short time she attended school. Her teachers mistreated her and rarely taught her well. “The teachers in Honduras are malcriados. You wouldn’t believe the things they did to me,” she says. Nevertheless, Damari’s saddest memory of her childhood was the day her mother told her she could no longer afford the school fees. If she had been able to stay in school and study, “I would have liked to be a teacher,” Damari reflects.

She recalls having to make her own money so that she could buy herself dresses like the other kids had and help feed the family. After school, she and her sister would go door-to-door selling their mother’s baked goods. If they sold all the baked goods for the day, each child would get to buy a refresco or something of that nature. Damari always savored every penny of the money that she had worked so hard to earn. She laughs as she recalls stories about the adventures with her sisters and friends who would spend their money more freely and go to places they were not supposed to visit. She remembers always following her mother’s orders, unlike her sisters who would often disobey and end up learning lessons the hard way. Although she has many funny memories of her mischievous sisters, no fond memories of her own childhood stick out to her.

For Damari, being a girl in Honduras meant enduring the sexualization of men in the community. It meant never having the chance to just be a child. Instead, it meant having the responsibilities of an adult and always being expected to act like one. Despite her difficult childhood, Damari does not resent her mother or her circumstances. Instead, it has given her the determination and resilience to make a mark on the world.

 

Although Damari now misses her home and her mother more than anything, her memories of Honduras are subsumed by the violence that surrounded her when she was growing up. “Honduras is most dangerous place in the world,” she says. When she saw the opportunity to follow her then-husband to the United States, she jumped at the chance even though it meant leaving behind her two-year-old son, Jefri. At the young age of twenty, she got on a bus and headed to the land of opportunities.

The most difficult moment of the longest trip of my life was when I got off the bus in Durham and I didn’t know how to ask for a coin to call my husband to tell him I was here.

 

Damari doesn’t remember much about her journey to Durham. Her older brother was living in Durham and her ex-husband cousins had a small house near the highway. Durham was the only place she knew in the United States, so she ended up in Durham and has never left. Damari recalls getting on a bus to the city in Honduras where she got on another bus. Days later she was dropped off at the border where an immigration officer, likely paid, gave her a sheet of paper with several tickets. “Every time you get on another Greyhound bus, you rip off another ticket. Once you are all out of tickets, you will know that you have arrived on Durham,” Damari recalls the immigration officer telling her. “It seemed so simple; it was so incredible that I did not get sent back,” she says. Never fully understanding the circumstances of her journey, Damari made it to her new home, Durham, North Carolina.

For the first three months of her time in Durham, they lived with her ex-husband’s cousins as she started working and getting her bearings. After three months, they moved to their own place—they were ready to start their new lives. Damari spent three years working in a factory making windows but later started working at a lavandería. On her day off, she would do laundry for a woman named Maria, whom she met through her cousin. Little did she know that Maria would be her window to future jobs and the person she feels most comfortable confiding in to this day. Damari worked hard at her job, washing clothes all day, under the supervision of a boss who treated the workers poorly and unfairly. In May 2014, Damari experienced what every illegal immigrant in the U.S. fears most. The employees’ papers were checked and, of course, without them, Damari was forced to look for another job.

Damari had decided months earlier that it was time to bring her oldest son Jefri to live with them in the U.S. In Honduras, there is a notion that when you come to the U.S. you are automatically wealthy and have a lot of money. It becomes dangerous for family back home because they get harassed and blackmailed. By this time, Damari had given birth to Jonathan who was three years old. Jefri had been living with Damari’s mother who did not want to send Jefri to live in the U.S., but given the increased violence and gang activity in their town, both she and Damari decided it was time. Similar to her own journey, Damari paid a man to bring Jefri over the border to Durham. How exactly is not clear even to Damari.

Damari was thrilled to have her son back with her and her family back together again. However, her husband’s alcoholism had increasingly worsened. After a bar fight one night, he was deported back to Honduras and their family was once again torn apart. “Five months together was all we got,” Damari says. Damari, then working as a housecleaner full time, was confident that she could support her sons without their father and decided not to follow him back to Honduras. She had worked too hard and risked too much to build her life here to let it all go to waste. “I am not afraid of work and now that the father of my children has left, I am even less afraid because I know that I can do it,” she says.

Don’t think that working as a housecleaner is the same as cleaning your own house. It’s a hard job that kills. But I like my independence. 

On average, Damari works cleaning houses six days a week alternating between four houses. She works independently for families that her first boss, Maria, the wife of a Duke Law Professor, found for her. For some families her job involves house cleaning, but for others she cleans, cooks, and washes the family’s clothes.

Damari learned to clean houses through a cousin who trained her when she started cleaning houses part-time to supplement her work at the lavandería.  “My cousin was strict about how I cleaned a house and would point out every spot I missed, but she taught me well,” she says. “She was good to me.” Damari takes pride in her system and her work ethic. Typically arriving at eight o’clock in the morning, she gets to work first in the kitchen and works her way up to the second and sometimes even has to clean a third floor of the house. It usually takes Damari four hours to clean each house, but she is often paid an extra hour or two to do laundry. “I am lucky because they provide me with all the tools I need to clean the house. All I need to do is bring my purse and my gloves and I am set.”

She does not know her bosses well and often cleans when they are not home; however, she does confide in Maria. In addition to finding her more work, Maria has helped her learn the school system, find a family lawyer, and make her life here in Durham. Damari is forever grateful for her relationship with Maria; however she is very self-aware and is constantly grappling with the contrast of her life to the lives of those whose houses she cleans. Though the pay is not as high or as stable as her previous jobs at the window factory or lavandería, Damari likes cleaning independently.

Every morning, Damari puts her sons on the bus to school and goes straight to work. She arrives back home at two o’clock most days in time to cook dinner for her boys and spend time with them before they go to sleep. To Damari, the sacrifice of lower wages is worth it. She is her own boss. She manages her time. She has agency over her own life. Those who know Damari know that although she is not afraid of hard work, her identity is not defined by her job. “Money is not everything,” she says. “Family is most important.”

 You must plant to harvest in the future. 

Although Damari has family, including her older brother and cousins, in Durham or in the greater North Carolina area, she does not see them very often. “They disapprove of me not following my husband back to Honduras and being a single mother. They are constantly judging me for being alone,” she says. She is the only one out of her four siblings that has continued to send money back to her mother so that she no longer has to work. In addition, with her salary, Damari supports her niece who lives with her mother.

Damari is the proud mother of two boys. Jefri is eleven and in the fifth grade in the Durham Public School System. Jonathan is four and in pre-school. They are her whole world.

Jefri is tall and mature and is often found playing soccer or chasing his younger brother around. He works diligently on his homework and rarely complains. Although his favorite subjects in school are math and science, his dream is to be a professional soccer player. Jonathan is active and ferociously curious with the vocabulary of a middle-aged man. He wants to be, well, whatever his brother wants to be. The boys have only lived together for a year, but they are incredibly close. Jefri takes good care of his brother and works to be a male role model for Jonathan in the absence of a father figure.

In order to help her boys with their homework, Damari has recently begun taking classes at Durham Tech. “At first, I would sit in class with my hands sweaty,” she says. “I did not even know one word in English.” Now, Damari is in her third month of school, increasing her breadth of vocabulary every day and scoring the highest marks on the quizzes.  She loves school and it’s important to her that she can have the knowledge and ability to help her sons succeed. “My dream is that my boys go to university so that they can have what I didn’t have,” she says. “This is why I persevere.”

I am in the land of the opportunities and that is why I overcome. 

Damari adjusted quickly to life here in Durham. Despite the stark contrast between the greenery of Honduras and the streets of Durham, Durham offers Damari opportunities that she would not otherwise have back in Honduras. As an uneducated woman, she would have very few choices in the work force and no chance of climbing the ladder of development. Here in Durham, she has found a way to make a living that has empowered her to be the best mother she can be.

Damari does not express facing discrimination as a Latina woman in Durham in part because of the increasingly large community of Latino immigrants in which she lives. However, she often feels distrusted by her bosses or their friends because of her identity. She recalls one time in particular when a friend of one of the family whose house she cleans would not leave the key to the house out while Damari was working for fear that she would steal it. Damari tried to explain she had her own key to the house and would not think to steal her key. The woman would not believe her and they had to wait until Maria’s boss got him to settle the disagreement. This lack of trust is something that frustrates Damari and makes her feel like an outsider. It is only times like these that cause her to question her place in the community. “People think I am quiet and timid and antisocial but I like to talk. I just need to feel like I can confide in the person and that doesn’t happen very often.”

Although the culture and food are very different from what Damari was used to when she first arrived, Durham’s resources for the Latino populations are growing with the influx of Latino immigrants. Damari can find most of the ingredients she used to cook at home in local supermarkets. Her Sundays are spent making Baleadas for Jonathan and Jefri and any cousins that come over to visit her on the weekends. Damari loves to invent new recipes and takes pride in making everything from scratch—even the tortillas. It is her way of keeping her roots strong and intact and the Honduranian culture alive even miles and miles away from her native country.

— by Sofia Stafford