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Lonely Vendor's Goal: To Return to Her Family : MARIA ANGELICA and TENORIA PENA

September 05, 1993|CHRISTINA LIMA | Times Staff Writer

From morning to night, Maria Angelica Tenoria Pena sells fruit, candy and pastries at Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. The 48-year-old Salvadoran vendor was interviewed in Spanish by Times Staff Writer Christina Lima.

Every day I get up at 2 o'clock in the morning, and with a friend I ride to Grand Central Market to buy mangoes, plantains and sweet rolls. I am back home by 7 a.m. I push the cart to the corner of Western and Santa Monica. By 9 a.m. I am set up and I stay there until 7 p.m.

When I started here two years ago, my cart was farther from the corner. As other vendors left, I moved in closer. I make about $30 to $60 a day. I pay $250 a month for a room in a house three blocks away from where I work. Besides the fruit, I use some earnings to buy containers, utensils, salt, pepper, lime, chili.

Whatever is left, about $100 to $250 a month, I send to my family. With that money they can do a lot in El Salvador.

When it is hot, I pull up the umbrella. I get my lunch from Panaderia Bambi on Western Avenue. The owners are wonderful people. They let me use the bathroom in their bakery during the day. On my birthday, this past Aug. 2, they made me a big chocolate cake.

I do crossword puzzles from a magazine that I pick up for free at a bakery to increase my vocabulary. I am still learning Spanish. I never went to school in El Salvador. I taught myself how to read and write when I was 22 years old. It was hard, but I did it. I wish I could speak English but I don't really think I can learn it.

I had been told that there were plenty of jobs in the United States, that life was easy, but once I arrived in this country I found out that the reality is much different.

Coming to the United States took me 45 days: crossing jungles, rivers and the desert of El Salvador, Mexico and the southern United States. I traveled with a group of 10 men and 15 women. We had paid the coyotes (smugglers) $1,000 each to bring us to Los Angeles. Sometimes we traveled on trains, on trucks and by foot. At one point, when we had reached the U.S. soil, immigration officers came after us. I ran so fast and recklessly that I fell off a cliff and broke my ribs.

The immigration officers caught up with us. They put us in a detention center. I was in a lot of pain, hungry and thirsty. One of the officers felt sorry for me. He said I reminded him of his mother. He told me to have all the women in the group cry, so that way they would let us go. So all 15 of us began to cry very loud. Other officers came. They wanted to make sure that we were war refugees and not from Mexico. They asked me to sing the Salvadoran national anthem, to identify the Salvadoran flag. Then they let us go. We continued our journey, this time on a bus.

I came to the United States because of the war in El Salvador. I saw too many bullets taking lives. I saw too many starving to death. I didn't have a job, and before I got old I wanted to do something for my children, something that would allow them to have a better life than I did.

Eleven years ago, in a little village in El Salvador, my husband was killed. He was sowing corn when a bomb blasted the fields. From that moment on, I had to be the mother and the father to our children. Instantly, I was responsible for the livelihood of my mother, who was 83 years old, and for my only brother, who is mentally and physically disabled.

Five years ago, the army recruited my oldest son, whom I had adopted when he was 3 months old. Six months later, his military squadron was bombed. The loss of my son hurt me. The thought that I could lose all of my children that way really scared me.

At night the memories of entire families that have been wiped out during the war still haunt me. That is something I cannot forget.

I sold clothing in a flea market, but the money I was making was not enough to support my children. I would go to the market at 5 in the morning, come home at 6 and help my mother make tortillas. My oldest child was 16 years old at the time. He helped me to take care of the younger children.

Time went by. I worked and prayed that I could provide my children with a better life, but things just got worse.

I felt compelled to do something for them, something beyond what I was doing.

So when a friend who had been living in the United States came to El Salvador and asked me to come with her, I jumped at the idea!

That is how I came to America.

I send all the money I can to my children. I want them to go to school, to learn a skill and be able to support themselves and their children. With the money I send, my oldest already has learned to be a mechanic. One of my daughters just became a seamstress, the other is a cosmetologist, and my youngest son is in an auto mechanics school.

I want to go back to El Salvador, but before I return I want to finish paying for my family's house in Apopa. I will need $10,000. It's a two-bedroom house I bought a long time ago. My mother and my children live in it.

I look forward to that.

It is very hard for me to be away from them. I have been here for two years and I have not seen them. I talk to them through letters. I don't have a phone, nor do they, so we never talk, but we write a lot.

For me, the hardest time is at night. Many times I can't sleep. I hear my mother advising me on what to do, and then I think that I am going crazy. A friend of mine gave me some sleeping pills. Sometimes I take them so I can fall sleep. But I begin to think about my children. I hear their voices calling me, "Mama."

I want to be with my children, my mother, my home in El Salvador.

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