(A four-part series introducing on our Niñas Arriba scholarship recipients. Written by Sarah Esther Maslin.)
Xiomara is twenty-five years old. She’s married to her childhood sweetheart and they have a two-year old daughter. Her husband, a trained mechanic who works full-time in an auto shop, wants to build a house on a small plot of land he owns so the three of them can start a life together.
But Xiomara is a climber.
When she was fourteen, she moved from a backward village in San Vicente to San Salvador with her mother. The move opened the door to a high-school education, and attending the Maria Auxiladora School made Xiomara want to go to college. A scholarship from Niñas Arriba made it happen.
Then she learned she was pregnant.
Like so many working women, Xiomara feared that her peers and teachers would see her as less capable because she had a child. That fear disappeared one afternoon when she was eight months pregnant and a classmate invited her to Burger King. Pink and blue balloons greeted her at the door and a crowd of Economics majors shouted, “Surprise!” Her professor showed up to the baby shower carrying a cake.
At first, Xiomara didn’t know how to juggle her classes with a newborn baby. After her daughter Ariana was born in October 2013, she started doing her homework late at night, but she’d lose focus every time the baby woke up.
Eventually, Xiomara learned to study more efficiently—prioritizing assignments, working quickly, and blocking out distractions.
“I couldn’t hole up in the library with friends for hours anymore,” she said. But having less-than-perfect working conditions has prepared Xiomara for a job in the real world. And having Ariana has given her something to fight for.
When I met the two of them at the university one morning, Ariana, in pigtails, wore her mother’s university ID on a lanyard around her neck. In the library—just one big room with a couple dozen bookshelves and a computer cluster—Ariana presented the ID to the security attendant.
Outside, students chatted on benches and gathered at picnic tables, textbooks spread out in front of them. Xiomara pointed out the new Economics wing—a block-like building painted blue, green and yellow with orange Z-shaped staircases jutting out from each end.
As we ate pupusas in the student cafeteria—Xiomara’s scholarship includes a daily food budget—we chatted about Xiomara’s hopes for the future. She wants to get a job at a big corporation, perhaps a car dealership or a technology firm—somewhere where hard work is rewarded by the chance to climb within the company. Quotas excite her; so do the bonuses that come with them.
It was easy to forget what was happening beyond campus walls. July 27, the day before we met, was one of the most violent days since El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war. Gangs called a countrywide bus strike, in an effort to destabilize the government, and over the course of 24 hours, seven bus drivers were murdered.
Meanwhile, thousands of Salvadorans had no way to get to work. They flagged down pick-up trucks, cramming in like cattle, clutching each other for balance as the trucks sped down the highway. The few busses that continued to operate were packed with passengers willing to risk a stray bullet in order to get to their jobs and classes.
Xiomara, Vanessa and Ariana were among them. In Soyapango, where they live, gangs collect a weekly extortion tax from every household. Most people pay “la renta” and try to go about their lives without thinking too much.
When Xiomara’s husband moved to San Salvador to be closer to her and Ariana, gang members assaulted him in the auto shop where he worked. After he watched gangsters pilfer the cash register, a gun against his head, he told Xiomara he couldn’t take it anymore. He returned to San Vicente, where the gang presence isn’t as strong.
Every weekend, Xiomara and Ariana take a two-hour bus ride, followed by a series of local buses and pick-up trucks, to see him. But Xiomara is trying to persuade him to move back to San Salvador so she can work in the city when she graduates. There aren’t any corporate jobs in the village where they grew up.
More importantly, Xiomara wants Ariana to go to a bilingual school. She wants her daughter to have the chance to climb even higher.
Exciting news! Xiomara received a US visa to attend the Aug. 13 Niñas Arriba benefit concert in Austin, featuring Sara Hickman and Suzanna Choffel. Come to the show and meet her!