Welcome, Dinora!

“Mrs. Karen,” said Dinora Zecena when I picked up the phone, “I just passed my

Dinora Zecena
photo by Charlie Ray

citizenship examination!”

It was Wednesday morning, at 11, but right there I started to cry. I’d offered to help Dinora study, but she was too polite to take me up on it.

Dinora, now 43, came to Los Angeles, alone, at 15 to escape the war in El Salvador. Her mother had been raped and thugs, believing that she would report them, threatened to kill the whole family.

I met Dinora 12 years ago. At that point Dinora’s English was mediocre, but she worked hard on it, and everything else. While raising three children on her own, and juggling numerous housekeeping jobs, Dinora attended English classes nearly every evening.

Instead of lunch, we would have English lessons. “Your children helped you with your homework?” I asked one day. “Yes, I got everything right, didn’t I?” I explained that the point wasn’t her children creating perfect homework. The point was HER learning and improving.

Learn she did. A few years ago Dinora went to school. She became a Certified Nurse Assistant. Her two older children graduated from high school, the first in her family ever to do so. Her younger son Emanuel was incredibly proud of his mother and her nurse’s uniform.

A year ago Dinora called, “Mrs. Karen, I need someone to help elevate my self-esteem.” I was worried, since she rarely called, but it turned out she had gotten a better job—“I thought I should have fringe benefits”—but was concerned about her English and the more sophisticated charting the new job required. “Has anyone complained?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.

“Everyone is nervous at the start of a new job, Dinora. Everyone. Your English is wonderful. I don’t know many native speakers who would say, ‘elevate my self-esteem’!”

It was fabulous to watch her make such strides, and now citizenship.
“Tell me everything,” I said, “What did you wear, what did they ask?”

“I wore a suit and a black blouse. Some people wore flip-flops, like they were going to the mall! There were a lot of people at the building. They even made me take off my shoes to go in.”

She’d asked me months ago, what to wear, if she needed to dress up. I said no, just to be clean and respectful. But this was really important to her. She’d taken a day off work and gotten herself a suit.

“Officer Washington was really nice, and tried to make me feel very comfortable. He asked me who is the commander in chief of the military. I said the president is.”

Officer Washington! Truly, I couldn’t, wouldn’t, make that up. She was surprised that the test wasn’t harder.

I promised to take Dinora and her youngest Emanual, a high school senior, out to celebrate.

“You’ve been working for this for so long. What are you going to do next?”

She answered instantly.

“I’m going to learn computers.”

About Karen Ray

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