Marilu was born in a small town in Puebla to a traditional Mexican family. From a young age, she remembers her father making every decision in the household, even down to when her mother was allowed to cut her hair.  She married at just nineteen to a man who had lived in United States.

Excited by the life which her husband described from his experiences across the border, Marilu applied for a  visa to try to get to the United States.  Her husband promised her that if they worked for five years in the United States, they would have the money to build a house back in Mexico. So in 1998, she legally crossed the border to Santa Monica with her husband. She got a job working at the UCLA cafeteria, where she described being inspired by the students–many of whom were her age–to continue to study. She proudly showed me her diplomas in English courses and the GED she received during her time in California.

Two years into her time in California she became pregnant with her first daughter. Her husband told her that it was time to return to Mexico in order to raise their child. Only one month after her birth, she returned home without her husband, who stayed behind to earn some more. He planned on joining her in December of that year. However, Marilu quickly figured out that the money they had earned was not enough to build a house. Additionally, she became frustrated by her husband’s machismo.  She decided this was no place to raise her daughter, and began planning to cross the border again, this time permanently.

Marilu sent her infant daughter across first to join her husband, and then headed to Tijuana to wait for someone to help her cross. Having heard horror stories from friends, she announced to her to coyote that, no matter what, “I will not walk.” The coyote introduced her to a large, frightening man and told her that he would get her safely across the border. She declined when she learned that she would have to cross the border on foot. After waiting in Tijuana for a week, she was finally connected with someone who would help her cross by hiding her in their car. At 7 in the morning she got in and hid herself; by 9 she was over the border. By that evening she had joined her family in Santa Monica.

Marilu describes her time when she returned to the United States as frustrating. She worked more than her husband, yet he controlled all of the money. She describes coming home, giving him her paycheck, and being told how much she was allowed to spend that week. To her, it was almost like she had never left Mexico. She found solace in her studies, which she continued despite a lack of support from her husband. After coming home from work, she would often study until dawn. Only once her husband awakened would she realize the time that had passed and go to bed for a few hours.

Having heard about Durham from high school friends, Marilu decided to move her family out to North Carolina. The only member of her family across the border, she depended entirely on her friends for support. She found a job at a restaurant and not long after had her second daughter. Wanting more than anything to be a good mother and example to her daughters, she realized that her relationship with her husband was not what she wanted her daughters to see as a marriage, so in 2003 she separated from her husband. When describing the process, she laughed jovially, “He said ‘I’m going to take the TV,’ and I said ‘That’s fine, we don’t watch it anyway!”

Now a single mother, Marilu briefly worked for a cleaning service. She describes being paid the same hourly wage–earned only during cleaning and not during transportation–as the other workers despite her ability to read maps and speak English, unlike many of the other employees. Because of this, she felt she was able to leave the company, and so she did. She decided to return to restaurant work, where a regular of hers introduced her to a woman who was renting her house to a tenant for a year while she was out of the country and needed it cleaned while she was away. This woman referred her to a friend, who referred her to another friend, and soon she had a regular cleaning business.

Marilu quickly decided she liked freelance cleaning better than restaurant work because it gave her the ability to set her own hours and she felt respected by her patrons. She got a sign on her van that read, Marilu’s Cleaning Service. Soon after installing it, she went to the store and watched a woman notice the van and type the number into her phone. She now has 15 customers which have allowed her to leave her job at the restaurant and clean full time.

In her free time, Marilu enjoys to spend time with her daughters and dance. She is part of a Mexican folkloric dance group that performs around Durham almost every week. A great source of support for her has been her Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC). Originally joining a Baptist parish, she found the group to be too exclusive, traditional, and judging. She says she prefers the UCC because it welcomes people of all genders, races, and sexual orientations and treats them all equally. They encourage members to do what they can to give back to the community, which she says has made her feel like a “quality human being.”

Her daughters are also musically inclined–they play the piano and trombone. They are 10 and 16, and the eldest plans on going to college, which Marilu says is a must for them. She wants them to have the life that she didn’t, and she says studies are the first part of that. Marilu continues to study too, taking classes at Durham Tech in small business management and English. She says that one day she would love to go to college, but right now she has to continue cleaning to pay the bills.

— Simone Seurat