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How an Encounter Changed My View About the American Dream

A Moment I Had With a Hotel Maid Reminded Me Why I Should Be Proud of My Roots

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Ana Maria Rea is an Education and Community Outreach Specialist at RAICES. She dedicates this piece to her mamita, Soledad.

"¡Buenos días, señorita! ¿Es un día grande? Good morning, miss! Big day?"

"Morning, ma'am! No, no. I'm headed to a training," I replied.

"¡Ah! Pues, no dudo que será la más presentable. ¡Me gusta su saco! Oh! Well, I have no doubt you'll be the most presentable in the room. I like your suit jacket!"

Ding. We hit the fourth floor and she walked out of the elevator. "¡Espero que haya disfrutado su estancia, señorita!" The elevator doors closed.

My mother used to clean hotel rooms, too. She decided to pick up extra shifts on the weekends to help my dad, who worked weekends just to make ends meet. She didn't want to leave us home alone, so she'd bring me and my siblings to her four-hour shifts at the hotel on Saturdays and Sundays. She taught me how to perfectly form right triangles on the corners of the sheets so the bed looked neat.

When the señora in the elevator said I looked presentable so many years later, I was taken back to 11-year-old Ana Maria who used to love stacking the hotel soaps in the most impeccably straight rows. I guess I've always been quite the type A.

Ding. The elevator made that noise as it descended. Third floor.

My mother's boss was an angry man. I remember he often yelled at her and her coworkers. I had no idea what he was yelling about — I hadn't picked up English yet. Whenever he did so, my mother would say "Tenemos que apurarnos. Andale." We have to hurry. So, I'd fold the corners of the sheets as fast and as neat as possible so the man would stop yelling.

Ding. Second floor.

There was a vending machine in one of the hotel hallways, and if I helped my mother would give me enough coras — quarters — to buy a can of soda that I never wanted to share with my little brother.

Ding. First floor.

"Será la más presentable . . . You'll be the most presentable." I wanted to go back up and tell the señora I would never be as presentable as those neatly folded sheet corners I knew she'd take care of all day. As I walked to my car, I couldn't get her words out of my head — or the way she looked at me.

I finished my bachelor's degree at the age of 29. After high school, my parents couldn't afford to put me through college, and I couldn't get financial aid because I was undocumented. Even if they could have, I don't think I would've attended. Back then, I didn't think I was good enough for books.

The day of the elevator encounter, I was wearing a suit jacket because I was headed to an American Bar Association training. At the time, I was a legal assistant for RAICES, the organization that to this day allows me to fulfill my desire to help the immigrant community. I'm not an attorney — yet. I'm a 30-year-old who's just now getting a taste of her dream profession.

I feel like I've joined the game so late. I'm often very hard on myself for not being on par with my peers, but the señora made me reflect in a way I hadn't before. She looked and talked to me as if I was a big shot. I'm not, but something tells me that even if I had told her that, she'd still look and talk to me the same way, because my mother looks and talks to me that way, too.

I came to this country on Aug. 1, 1998. This August marked my 20th year in this country I proudly call home. As I walked out of that elevator, I was reminded that, despite expecting so much from myself and often feeling like whatever I do is not enough, my mother would beg to differ. She'd say I've come a long way.

My parents knew we needed to leave our country in order to have suit-jacket opportunities. I'm so appreciative of those seven-day workweeks, sometimes with double shifts, and all the sacrifices they've had to make so I could be here.

My parents knew we needed to leave our country in order to have suit-jacket opportunities, and they were so brave to actually do it. I'm so appreciative of those seven-day workweeks, sometimes with double shifts, and all the sacrifices they've had to make so I could be here, in this elevator. All that work so that their kids could one day wear a suit jacket to a training in Houston, TX.

I was humbled by the señora. I felt grateful. I felt a little accomplished, and while I'll always struggle with not feeling like my efforts are enough, I've realized the importance of acknowledging them. While I may think playing catch up isn't good enough, my mother has expressed how incredibly proud she is. She has given up so much that I'm only doing a disservice to her by taking the product of her efforts as something menial.

I'm grateful for the elevator encounter with a hotel maid in Houston because she reminded me of this: from presentable sheet corners to presentable suit jackets, I am doing all right.

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