As a young wife and mother, Maria miraculously obtained a visa to leave Mexico and join her husband in the United States. However, the visa eventually expired and Maria lived for many years as an undocumented worker, trying to keep her family together and make a living for her children. Maria has now obtained a visa and is working towards her GED, while sending her children to college and serving as Primary president in her ward.
Where did you grow up?
In Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato, in a beautiful city called Acambaro. It’s an ancient city, and it’s very beautiful. Acambaro is famous for its bread. They make really delicious bread there.
How many kids were in your family growing up?
There were nine of us kids in total — seven girls and two boys. But three of my siblings died as newborn babies. I only remember the youngest baby that died. My mother’s last pregnancy was twins, and the boy twin died in infancy. The girl twin lived and is grown and married now.
Have you always been a member of the LDS Church?
I was baptized when I was just a little girl, when I was eight years old. My parents were converts to the LDS Church. When my father was younger, he had been studying to be a priest in the Catholic Church, so I come from a very religious heritage. My parents, my grandparents, everyone was Catholic before. They always liked religious things. My parents were introduced to the Mormon Church when I was a little girl. So we were all baptized when we were young. We grew up inside the church.
How involved were you with the church when you were growing up in Mexico?
You could say that I had my moments of rebellion like any other teenager. I can’t say I was always perfect. But I went through the primary program and then the Young Women program. I loved the church; I always knew it was a good place to be. Of course, there were times when the classes bored me. So I’d leave class, and my dad would come to find me in the hallways, and tell me to go to class.
My family, particularly my father, was very strict about religious matters. My father enforced Sunday as a day of rest. As many youth experience, I didn’t like all the rules and always having to go to church. It became monotonous for me. And I saw the other teenage girls getting all fixed up on Sundays to go out to the parks and to walk around town, and here I was, locked up in my house on Sundays, just watching all the other girls through my little window. I remember it was very difficult for me.
We read scriptures together every day as a family. My father also made sure we had Family Home Evening every Monday night. With so many kids, sometimes we ended up fighting and debating each other. A funny memory I have about Family Home Evening–you have to understand that my father was very strict with us girls. One of the rules was that he didn’t like to let us go out very much to hang out with our friends or walk around town. But I knew that when we held our family council together during Family Home Evening, I could ask him for permission to do things, and because it was family council he would be more likely to give me permission to do what I wanted. So I would save up my requests to go out and do things with my friends for when we had our family council. And if I asked him then, my dad would always say yes.
Did you attend seminary?
All my brothers and sisters and I attended seminary. We got up at 5:00 am and went to the chapel. The seminary teacher was really nice and would meet us there with a lesson and with a small breakfast–hot tea and cookies. Every day! And from seminary we would go straight to school. It’s different there in Mexico than it is here–the churches aren’t so far away from the schools. So it was easy for us, as we didn’t have to drive long distances to go to seminary. There were usually about fifteen to twenty youth in each seminary class.
When did you gain your testimony of the gospel?
As I went along, I grew up, and started my independent life as an adult woman. I began to think about the church, and whether I had a real testimony or not. When I met the young man who would become my husband, he wasn’t a member of the church, but I taught him about the church. He eventually accepted the church, was converted, and he even went on a mission. I made that a prerequisite to marrying me–that he had to go on a mission. He served a full-time mission for two years in Puebla, Mexico.
But I feel that I gained my real testimony of the church later in life. When I arrived in the U.S., I was a young mom, and I didn’t know how to get to church. I didn’t know where it was located, I didn’t know how to drive, and I didn’t know anyone. So I began to grow apart from the church, and that had never happened before in my life. But I began to miss the church, and I began to really need the messages and teachings of the church.
I didn’t want to go to church just out of habit, or because it was what my parents had always done. I wanted to do it for me, and for the right reasons. But I didn’t know if I could say I had a testimony of the church. So I prayed to God for a testimony. I always had lots of faith in God since I was a child. I always knew I wasn’t alone. I knew God was always going to answer my prayers. So I began to pray again. I began to ask whether the church was really true, if it was what I really needed in my life. But God didn’t answer me at that time.
Even though I hadn’t received an answer, I started going back to church again anyway. Members would pick me and give me a ride, and I just kept going to church, to see if I could get an answer. But I hadn’t resolved my anxiety about whether the church was true or not.
So did the answer ever come?
One time I was invited by some ward members to go on a trip to Nauvoo. I wasn’t very prepared for this trip, but I went anyway. Many members went together on this trip in large vans. I remember that it was raining, and it was very cold. We went to visit Nauvoo, and the other church history sites. We went to the jail where Joseph Smith was held prisoner, and it was there that I gained my real testimony of the church. When I entered into that jail I felt something strong–something beautiful. There was a tape recording with the voices of Joseph Smith and Hyrum, and while it was playing I felt a warmth inside of me. It was so strong! I began to cry, and I couldn’t stop. And I knew, I really knew, from that moment, that it was real. That God really can talk to us, that nothing is impossible, and that we can receive revelation. The Spirit testified to me that it was true, and that everything Joseph went through to give us the church, to give us the Book of Mormon, that all of this was real. It was so real. This is how I received my testimony.
Why did you decide to come to the United States?
I came to the U.S. because my husband came here. When we first got married, he went up to the U.S. to work for a few months. When our first daughter was born, I was actually alone, because he was in the U.S. working to earn money for our family. There weren’t a lot of jobs in our town so he didn’t have many options. My daughter was several months old before she met her father for the first time. And then he’d only been home for a few months when he needed to leave to go earn money again, and I didn’t want to have this separation for us, for our family, for my life. I knew as a married woman I had an obligation to be at my husband’s side, and I also knew that the best place for my daughter to be raised would be with a father in the house. So I decided to go to the U.S. My husband kept saying that he was only going to stay in the U.S. for a short period of time, but I knew otherwise. I knew how it would end up–that we’d always be separated. My husband in the U.S., me in Mexico, our daughter without a father.
What options did you have to come to the United States?
I started to investigate coyotes–the people who you could pay to bring you to the U.S. illegally. But that type of arrangement made me very nervous, because crossing the border can be dangerous, and my daughter was only a few months old. I had no experience with this kind of thing, and I didn’t want to put my child at risk, nor put myself at risk.
My mom was very nervous when I announced my intention to follow my husband to the U.S. She said to me, “Look, I know you want to be with your husband, but don’t put your baby in danger. It’s too risky. Leave your baby here with me, I’ll raise her, and then you can join your husband in the U.S.”
That night I was thinking, thinking, thinking about what my mom said. I looked at my baby sleeping next to me, and I thought about leaving her. I knew if I left her to go to the U.S., it would not be easy to come back and see her. I knew it might be many years before I came back, and I knew I just couldn’t do it. I realized that the purpose wasn’t just for me to go and be with my husband, it was to reunite us as a complete family. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up without the love of both of her parents. So I decided I couldn’t leave her. But I also wasn’t willing to put her life in danger. I didn’t know what to do.
But God is good, and God prepared a way for us to come to the U.S. I was inspired to have an idea about how to arrive in the U.S. safely. My Heavenly Father showed me His power and love through the power of prayer. I have no doubt of God’s existence, and I know He isn’t far from us ever. He is always in constant communication with us. I began to pray to my Heavenly Father. I told Him how much I wanted to be with my husband, the man I had promised to be with. But I also told him how much I desired to be with my daughter, and how much I wanted her to be raised with two parents. I told God, “You know my husband isn’t really coming back. You know we’re never going to be able to have a normal life–he’s going to be there, and I’m going to be here. Please help me! I don’t want to put myself or my daughter at risk. But you know how to fix this, you will find a manner in which to help us.”
How did God prepare a way for you to come to the U.S.?
The idea came that I should try to get a visa, and with a visa I could travel safely to the U.S. to join my husband. I decided that I would do everything on my side to get a visa, to work as hard as I could, and that if I did my part, God would do His part. So I started all the paperwork. It’s miraculous, because to get a visa, you have to show that you have a lot of money, that you have a profession, that when you go to the U.S. you won’t become a burden. You have to show that you have a career and property in Mexico that you’ll be coming back to. But I had nothing. I was a young mom. I lived with my parents. I had no money, and I am not a very educated person. But I told God that if He would help me get the visa and get to the U.S., I would promise to always do good things while I was there, that I would never become a burden on the country or the people who lived there.
But isn’t it pretty hard to get a visa?
When I was working on the visa paperwork, no one believed I would be able to do it. My in-laws said, “Quit dreaming. It’s never going to happen. What makes you think you’re ever going to get a visa?” Everyone laughed and made fun of me. Everyone said I was crazy. They told me stories about really wealthy people they knew who had tried to get visas and were denied because even for them it wasn’t enough. But I didn’t listen to them. I knew I had put my life in the hands of the most powerful Being of all. So I continued with the process.
When the time for my visa interview came, I went to the consulate the night before, so that I could sleep on the street outside to save a place in line. The line was so long, probably hundreds of people. During the night I talked to many of the people waiting in the line. One man told me about how he owned a large ranch and how he had a lot of resources to show to the consulate to prove why he deserved a visa. I was ashamed to tell him that I had nothing. I had basically just a small sum of money that one of my brothers-in-law had given me, so that I could put it in my bank account to show the consulate that I had financial resources to provide for myself while I was in the U.S.
But inside I said to myself, “I have you, Lord, I don’t need anything else. If it’s your will that I get the visa, I will get it. You know that I don’t have any bad intentions in my desire to go to the U.S. You know my heart. I just want to reunite with my husband and provide a good life for our daughter.”
What happened during the visa interview?
When my turn came to talk with the officer, it was a very short conversation. He said to me, “Where do you plan to go?” I said, “To the United States.” He asked me, “But where are you going to stay?” and I said “I am going to stay with my husband.” He asked me about my financial solvency, and I showed him my bank account papers. He glanced at the papers for just a moment, and then he looked into my eyes and said, “You pass.” And he sent me to go stand in the line with the people who had passed the interview and would be getting a visa. I couldn’t believe it! These are the miracles that the Lord gives us when we put our confidence in him.
Later that day I ran into some of the people who had been in line with me the night before. I found out that the man who owned the ranch was not given a visa. I don’t know why the officer gave me the visa, other than that God had answered my prayers.
I came home from the consulate crying out with joy. I went and spoke with my in-laws and the others who hadn’t believed in me. I told them, “I got the visa! I got the visa!” and they could hardly believe it. And I didn’t just get a visa for me, I got a visa for my baby daughter as well.
I called my husband in the U.S. and said “When do you want us to come? Because we have visas and we can come anytime you want.” That was fifteen years ago.
If you came here legally with a visa, how did you become an undocumented immigrant?
Although my daughter and I entered legally with visas, after a certain period of time we didn’t have legal immigration status anymore, because our visa status expired. If you don’t have valid visa status, life is really hard for you in the U.S. When I needed to start working, I began to realize how difficult it is to be undocumented here in this country. For many years I was able to stay home with my daughters and take care of them while my husband worked. But when I had to start working, I saw that the only jobs I would be able to get were the jobs that paid minimum wage, or even less than minimum wage.
What are some of the jobs you’ve had since coming to the U.S.?
My first job here was in a Kool-Aid factory. My job was to pack the envelopes of powdered Kool-Aid into boxes. There were hundreds of envelopes of Kool-Aid, packed into hundreds of boxes every hour, all to be shipped out around the country. It was difficult because the machine that brought us the envelopes was very fast, and I wasn’t used to moving my hands so quickly. It was hard to keep up. And doing the same movement with my hands all day caused my muscles in my wrists to become inflamed. I developed carpal tunnel syndrome.
After my second daughter was born here in the U.S., I had other jobs as well. But it kept getting harder and harder to get a job. I found that most places wouldn’t allow me to work for them unless I presented a social security number to prove I was here legally. So the types of jobs that I really wanted to have, they wouldn’t allow me to work there. The only places where people were willing to hire me were the jobs no one else wanted. I got a cleaning job in a restaurant. I worked seven days a week, 365 days a year. I was never allowed a day off, not even for Christmas or other holidays.
What kind of work do you do now?
Today I work as a cook. I love my job. I am so grateful for this opportunity. I have always liked being in the kitchen, and I love being around people. I love to chat with people, and this job is perfect for that. I prepare food at a deli counter. I am in charge of a deli station. I open it up every morning at 10:00 am, and I make the food specials each day that my boss instructs me to make. I attend to the people, serve them their food, and I try to practice English with them as all of my customers are Americans. I try to speak English as much as I can. I’ve been at this job for over a year now. I’m very excited about my job, because it’s a fun place to work. I like it a lot.
What is the church like for you here in the U.S.?
I attend a very united ward–a Spanish ward. We are truly just one big family. We have maybe 200 or so active members. We have been growing a lot lately. A family with six kids just moved in the ward! I have been attending this same ward since I first came to the U.S., and it’s where I’ve had a lot of spiritual development.
The majority of the members of our ward are undocumented. Well, primarily the parents do not have documents, but most of the children are born here so they are U.S. citizens. Many of the kids even have a hard time speaking Spanish at church, because they speak English at school all day. Some of the parents try to teach their children Spanish and have a hard time.
I don’t think that the smaller children understand about their parents being undocumented, so I don’t think it affects them too negatively. But as they get older, I would say around eight or nine years old, they start to hear about their parents’ status and it makes them feel scared that someday they might be left here without their parents. They worry that their parents could be taken away from them and never return. They know that their parents could be deported to their country, and yet the kids would have to stay here because they belong to this country now.
The kids in the ward also experience discrimination in school, because of the color of their skin, and because people assume that their parents are undocumented. They feel this rejection from the community, and it negatively affects them. It’s like a dark shadow that follows them around, always, reminding them that they are different from the others.
What are some of the challenges of being in a ward with so many undocumented immigrants?
A few years ago, there was a warning on the Spanish radio station that there was going to be a police checkpoint or road blockade in our area, and that INS was going to be stopping cars and checking people’s papers. We decided to go to church anyway, but when we entered we discovered the chapel was almost empty. During sacrament meeting, the bishop stood up and said how sad he was to see that so many members of the ward had decided to stay home. He challenged us to have more faith in God. He said that if God had brought us all the way to this country, he would protect us while we are here. He reminded us that when we are on the Lord’s errand, it doesn’t matter whether we are documented or undocumented. God doesn’t have borders or bars separating anyone from his blessings. God doesn’t care about immigration papers. God only cares about our hearts. God wants us to have confidence in him, and to make good choices to live our lives righteously. So long as we are doing our best, God will protect us in this country.
Tell us about your calling.
For the past two years I have been serving as the primary president. This calling has been challenging to me, because it’s something completely new for me. It’s a large responsibility to be in charge of all of the children. There are about thirty-five or forty kids that regularly come to primary. For me, as a president, I feel such a great responsibility to teach the children, to inculcate in them a testimony from a young age. It’s so important that they have a strong testimony of our brother Jesus Christ and of our Heavenly Father. This is my main goal in my calling: I want them to grow into young women and young men with strong testimonies of who their Father is and where they come from–to know that they are never alone.
Besides teaching them on Sundays, we have lots of activities. I love having children near me. I want them to feel like they always have a friend. Sometimes I like to pretend in my mind like I am a child again, so I can put myself at their level and understand them better. We recently had such a fun activity, we had a water balloon fight and all of the kids were chasing after me and throwing their balloons at me. It was so fun for me, to be totally surrounded by these wonderful kids. One of the greatest satisfactions I have is when a child comes close to me, hugs me, and tells me, “Sister, I love you.” Priceless. This is the greatest gift I could ever receive from them–to receive of their pure love.
While you have been serving as the primary president, you’ve also experienced other challenges. Tell us about those challenges.
This calling came to me at a very difficult time in my life–probably the most difficult time I’ve ever had. It was right at the same time I was in the process of officially separating from my husband due to some abusive circumstances that had been going on for many years. So when the bishop extended the calling to me, I prayed to God and told Him I didn’t think this was the right moment for me to be taking on this calling. I didn’t feel worthy or prepared. I intended to tell the bishop that I was going to reject the calling. But when I prayed about it, I realized I couldn’t do that to my Heavenly Father.
Many times over the past two years I’ve asked myself why I had to receive this calling now. It’s been hard being a single mom, and the divorce process has been so difficult. At several points I’ve held two full-time jobs, all while being the primary president at the same time. It’s also been tough because both of my counselors went inactive after they were called, and we struggle to have consistent teachers. There was one Sunday when not a single primary teacher showed up for church! There have been many challenges. But I know that I’m not doing this calling for the bishop, I’m doing this calling for the Lord and for the kids. It’s truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever had in my life.
I have received an answer as to why God wanted me in this calling at this time–it has been such a blessing to me. My testimony has grown so much in this calling. And it has strengthened me emotionally. There have been times when I’ve been so sad and depressed about my marriage situation, and then I’ve gone to primary and immediately upon sitting down next to a child, I’ve been surrounded by such a peaceful feeling. My heart has been filled with happiness and joy.
One time a little girl stood up to give a talk in Primary, and she spoke the most beautiful words of pure truth about her feelings about God, about how she knew God loved her. It touched my heart so much, and I realized what a blessing it is to serve in the primary. If I hadn’t had this calling, I don’t know if I would have had the strength I needed to leave my husband and start a new life. I might have ended up going back to him, as I had many times before, if I hadn’t been strengthened by the kids. God knows what we need in all moments. He has our lives in his hands. We just need to trust him.
What do you wish that people understood about life in the U.S. for undocumented immigrants?
In reality, it’s very difficult. I wish that everyone who was born here in the U.S. or has legal status could understand a little bit about us and our lives. I want them to know that our lives cannot be conducted in a normal way. Our lives are limited, and this frustrates us. We are people who have dreams, and we have goals. We want to progress and move forward, and without documents we are limited. There are things we are not permitted to achieve.
We feel that the people reject us, that they don’t want us here because we aren’t documented, or perhaps because of our race. We know that we are qualified for certain jobs, but because of the fact that we don’t have a piece of paper, we cannot obtain those jobs. This is so frustrating and so sad. So we just focus on surviving. We have to survive. We fight so we can survive. An undocumented person experiences many miseries in this country. We can’t continue with our education, or with a career, as adults, and we also see that our children who weren’t born in this country have the same limits placed upon them. It’s heavy. It’s a sadness we have.
To not have our papers, it means we can’t get drivers licenses, or other things that are part of a normal life here. So we confront difficult situations. There are so many risks to being here. We know that at any moment we can be picked up, and sent back to our country. We know that we could be separated from our children, that they might have to be alone. But we continue forward, and we can’t have fear. We just have to have faith.
What are your biggest fears?
We fear everyday when we leave to go to work, that since we’re driving without licenses we may be picked up. We know every morning that when we drive to work, there is a possibility that we won’t see our children again. At a moment, we could be detained, held, and investigated as if we were criminals–just because we want to drive to work or to church. The laws right now are hard. When people are detained by immigration, the bail money is set so high–they ask for amounts that are impossible for people who are just struggling to get by day to day.
So I fear leaving the house every morning, not knowing what will happen to me on the way to or from work. If I am picked up, I’ll have to face a judge, a judge who will decide my fate without considering everything good I’ve done in this country, or that one of my daughters is a U.S. citizen, or that I have dreams, goals, or anything else. It’s very scary to think about.
I also fear waking up one morning and no longer having a job. I know that if I don’t work, I won’t be able to feed my children. There is no safety net for people like us. It may sound drastic, but it’s my reality. It’s how I live. I greatly fear not having a job or the ability to work and provide for my family.
How do you have the strength to keep going?
I just focus on my children. I have two daughters, I am a single mom. I have to survive so that they can have a better life. And I remind myself that even though I don’t have papers, I shouldn’t be robbed of my dreams. I can still dream of a better life, of a better situation. I focus on just finding as many opportunities for myself and my daughters that I can.
Several months after the initial interview, Rebecca met up with Maria again. During this time, Maria had been granted a U-Visa and is now on a pathway to legal permanent residency and eventually U.S. Citizenship.
How were you able to fix your papers and obtain legal immigration status in the U.S.?
God has given me so many miracles in my life. I am only here now because it is God’s plan for me. It is His will. As a survivor of domestic violence, I was able to qualify for a U-Visa. The government gives U-Visas to people who have been the victims of crimes and who help the police investigate those crimes. I look back now on the years of violence I endured, and while it was so horrible and so difficult, I have come to realize that without those experiences I would never have qualified to receive a U-Visa, and my daughter and I both would have remained as undocumented immigrants. Isn’t it interesting how the Lord works? God allowed me to have such difficult challenges, but then God put me in the right place at the right time to meet the people who would help me start a new life for myself and my daughters.
What are some of your goals and aspirations?
I came to this country with the intention to make positive contributions. I didn’t want to be a drain on this country. I think it is so important to give back to this great country. I always try to volunteer for community projects. Right now I volunteer with an organization that assists families in crisis in the community. I heard they needed assistance, so I contacted them and signed up to be a teacher. One night a week I teach classes about physical and emotional health. Times are hard for families right now. People are losing their jobs that they have had for years and years. The economic situation makes them depressed, and it causes problems in marriages. So I try to help these families by collaborating with them on positive changes they can make in their lives.
Now that I have my U-Visa and legal work permit, I feel empowered to achieve even more with respect to my professional life. I’m finishing up my GED right now. I’ve passed all of the examinations except for math. So I’m taking a private math class once a week. In one month I have the math examination and then I’ll be done.
Once I get my GED I would like to continue on with my studies. I would like to study nursing. I feel like I can help people who are sad and have hard things in their life by sharing my positive attitude and faith with them. This is a beautiful country, and I feel that my opportunities are now limitless. I am so grateful to be in this country.
Tell us about your daughters.
I am a very proud mom! My oldest daughter is eighteen and just graduated from high school and is going to start college at BYU this fall. She has dreamed of going to BYU since she was a little girl, and now she is realizing that dream. She has a calling at church–she is the ward librarian–and she also volunteers with a program that helps children with intellectual disabilities. She gives them encouragement and is a positive influence with them. She’s always changing her mind, but as of right now she says she wants to study medicine and become a doctor. My youngest daughter is a very positive and happy child. She always has a smile and is laughing. She enjoys sports of all kinds.
I am very proud of my daughters because they have many aspirations and goals in life. They are girls that have passed through very difficult circumstances in their lives, but they are strong. They aren’t intimidated by the problems they have passed through. I am so proud of their faith–nothing makes me happier than when I walk by their bedroom at night and see them studying the scriptures for seminary or praying. I love it! This is the greatest blessing for a mother.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I want to tell everyone to never give up on their dreams. No matter what your circumstances are, you must always have a goal. Nothing is easy in life. More than anything else, we can’t forget who we are, and where we came from. God is our father and is directing our lives and our circumstances. We must trust Him. Miracles don’t just happen in the scriptures, they can happen in our lives as well. We cannot doubt that God exists–the same God that loved the people in the scriptures is the God that loves all of us now. If we have sufficient faith, no blessing will be withheld from us. Don’t let anything intimidate you, just move forward and try your best. Take advantage of all the opportunities that come before you. Life is only a small moment, and we don’t know how long we will get to be here. We can’t waste any time being unhappy or focusing on the negative. Put your life in God’s hands, and have faith in Him.
At A Glance
Maria de Jesus Cristina
Location: United States
Marital status: Separated, in the process of obtaining a divorce
Children: Two daughters, ages 14 and 18
Occupation: Deli counter cook
Schools Attended: Primary school in Guanajuato, Mexico; in the process of obtaining a GED in the U.S.
Languages Spoken at Home: Spanish and English
Favorite Hymn: “How Great Thou Art”