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Emilia's Story

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Emilia and her family when she was little.

I’m a native of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, but I was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico due to the birth complications my mother Carmen had at the age of 31. My parents have told me that it’s a blessing or a miracle that my mother and I are both alive. I am the youngest of six but was raised with five siblings because my older sister was stillborn. My dad was ten years older than my mom; they didn’t have much schooling, my mom made it to the end of fifth grade and dad made it to fourth grade. In 2013, I lost my father. I still can’t get over it. My mom turned 90 years old in October 2023, but she looks as if she were fifteen.


Even though my father didn’t have much schooling, he was still a very intelligent man, he was a farmer, he always had animals and we never missed our daily bread. He worked at a dairy farm nearby.  I remember getting up around three in the morning, with such a delicious smell, to have a bit of black coffee with my dad before he would go to work.

He would go to work, and I went back to sleep to wake up later and go to school. I wouldn’t say we were poor, but we were comfortable with what we had. We lived in the country with a house made out of wood with a roof made out of zinc (metal). 

Rural terrain with chickens and trees in Puerto Rico.

A house in Puerto Rico with a white dog in front of it.

There wasn’t grass around the house but there were chickens, dogs, and many other animals on the property. The owner of the house was the foreman of the dairy farm. I loved when it rained because of the sounds of the raindrops made when they landed on the zinc. I learned a lot from dad. He always had an invention to fix anything. My toys were a bicycle wheel with no rubber and a little racing stick, a small car with two wheels made of cans and a long wooden stick, I jumped wika (rope), and I played hopscotch in the dirt with a pebble. Even though they weren’t brand new from the store, they were fun, and that never bothered me. We didn’t have the custom to celebrate December 24th (Christmas Eve), but we celebrated the three wise men on January sixth. I remember that I would put a little shoe box with green herbs and a little bowl of water for the camels. They would eat and drink and would leave me a toy under the bed. Such a small thing was so exciting. Now looking back, I never left anything to eat for the three wise men.


I was eight years old when Luis, my mother’s foster brother, sent her a plane ticket for Mother’s Day so she could go visit him in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Mom decided to travel in December, and since I was the youngest, I traveled with her. I remember seeing snow for the first time, it was an unforgettable experience.

 A snowy landscape at night in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

What a beautiful thing, being able to watch the clouds fall in small white chunks from the sky, I would close my eyes, open my mouth, and grab them with my tongue. My mother then decided that it was a good change and a good way of life to raise her kids in the United States. Luis helped her find all the resources and services necessary to be able to bring the rest of my family to live in Waukesha, Wisconsin. In less than a month, my family was living together in a small apartment. My older brother decided to stay in Puerto Rico and start his own family, and dad had left him the house until he could find his own. Yes, the truth is that everything was nice and cute at the beginning in the United States, but thinking about it, I had it all in Puerto Rico: tranquility, entertainment, friendship, and I felt free. 

Christmas and New Year’s break passed, and my second semester of school started in January. For the first time in our lives we had to attend an American school. My siblings had the luck to attend bilingual public schools while I had to attend a catholic school that wasn’t bilingual. To this day, they say that my brothers have more of an accent when they speak English than I do. I think it’s maybe because they didn’t have to try as hard as I did to learn the language. Thank God, I met a Puerto Rican guy named Eddie who spoke Spanish. Since I didn’t know any English, the reality was that I didn’t know how I was going to communicate with the teachers nor understand what they were saying to me. Most of my communication with the nuns was through signals like I want to go to the bathroom, I want to eat…I even answered the numbers in Spanish.


My family would move quite frequently, depending on the cost of living. Going into the fourth grade I had to attend a different school, this time it was a public school and again, no one spoke Spanish. I could barely speak English; I only knew what was necessary. I felt alone for the very first time. I didn’t have friends, I didn’t know anyone, and everyone would look at me as if I were from another planet. My first day was so horrible that I told my mom I didn’t want to go back to that school. I would cry every morning because I knew the terror I would have to face. I didn’t know what bullying and discrimination was, but I was living it at a very young age. They would point at me and laugh, they would give me nicknames like “spic,” “wetback,” “illegal,” they would tell me to go back to my country, they would pull on my hair, would throw my lunch on the floor, and would eat my dessert. I was always the last person to leave class.


One day, I noticed a girl from my class crying, Debbie. I asked “you ok?” All she said was “Bev,” then showed me through the class window who Bev was. Debbie was a bit bigger with a lot of freckles all over her body and Bev was the same girl with her friends who were also bothering me. We were at recess and I signaled to Debbie to follow me outside. I was about 3 feet tall but Bev was like two of me in height. I went up three cement steps and called “Bev.” She and her little friend group turned around quickly while laughing and said, “What do you want stupid?” With my hand I told her to come, when we were face to face, I responded with a punch that left her on the floor. Everyone laughed at her, and from then on she never bothered us again. Debbie was my best friend in elementary school. I’m not saying that that was the solution, but that’s where we end up when we don’t have anyone to defend or help us. I never had that experience in my country, nor did I see it at the Catholic school. What a difference it is in the upbringing of parents with their children; one’s color doesn’t matter when it comes to raising them well. The truth is, it's not easy to understand why there has to be so many unpleasant people in this world. 

Emilia and her friends playing sports outside when they were young.

By sixth grade, I was quite fluent in English. I loved sports and competing. I even had my first boyfriend, and I had the best teacher in the world, Mrs. Cook. She supported me, was my tutor, and would bring me gifts. She also paid for my guitar lessons for six months. She watched how I suffered, cried, and how I grew in the last two years. One day she told me ‘’Emilia, keep your head held high and don’t look at who may be around you and follow your dreams.” At eleven years old I had my first job, a paper route, and since then, I haven’t stopped working. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA and received a scholarship in mathematics. My passion has always been to work with the youth and their parents for a safe and healthy life. 


At 25 years old, I was fortunate enough to be the program coordinator for Latinx youth in Waukesha. I worked with parents and their kids from age 10 to 21. I would help the parents translate and navigate issues dealing with school, the police, doctors, communication between family, and more. With the kids, I would work the hours necessary to help them achieve and maintain a safe and healthy lifestyle by participating in educational talks, sports, tutoring, and more. To better help families, I made good alliances with the Justice Department, the Police Department, the School District, and with Universities and Tech schools, and other organizations in the area.

That’s how I met Maria Barker and formed a connection with Planned Parenthood. Maria gave educational discussions about sex, STIs, and about contraceptives for the youth. I remember the day that I was with friends and Maria was also there. She already knew my passions, she talked and introduced me to the CCmáS program and the work of the Promotores. She looked at me with that bright smile she has and asked me “What do you think? Are you interested in being a Promotora and working with the Latinx community?” I asked her to give me a moment to think about it. In August 2021, I finally said “Yes.”

A Flame Tree (El Flamboyán) near water.

Thanks to my past experiences, setbacks and knowledge of life, that “yes” is what motivates me to educate families so the have knowledge about laws, how to negotiate and fight for themselves, to recognize discrimination, and to take care of and protect their health. I proudly follow Mrs. Cook’s advice to keep my head held high looking for community resources and offering family planning and reproductive justice so others’ families can have a healthy life.

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