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Woman Realizes American Dream Of Citizenship, Votes For 1st Time

Patch logo Patch 10/27/2020 Lisa Finn
a person standing in front of a flag: Auro Ochoa's journey to the United States spanned 30 years and much hardship, but she said it all fades in the face of the pride she feels at earning her citizenship. © Courtesy Aura Ochoa. Auro Ochoa's journey to the United States spanned 30 years and much hardship, but she said it all fades in the face of the pride she feels at earning her citizenship.

GREENPORT, NY — The journey to the voting booth took Aura Ochoa more than 30 years and encompassed a journey marked by struggle.

Ochoa, 52, officially became an American citizen last week and when she votes on November 3 in the election, it will be her first time, despite having lived in the United States for decades.

Her story of leaving El Salvador — and her cherished children — in order to create a better life for her family is "nothing short of a miracle," said friend and coworker Jackie Field, who works with Ochoa at San Simeon by the Sound in Greenport.

Ochoa shared her experiences with Patch in a soft-spoken voice that belied the hardscrabble conditions she endured.

She traveled from El Salvador twice, walking for miles and crossing the border into the United State in a crowded truck.

The first time, when she left to come meet her former husband, she left behind a toddler, 3, and a baby, just a year old; the children stayed with family and friends.

Four years later, she returned home to her children and had another baby. During the 12 years that she stayed in El Salvador, the country was ravaged by war.

When she came back to the United States, Ochoa came to a realization: "I said to myself, 'I have to do this a different way. I have to learn English and do this legally.'"

Describing the trip to the United States, she said. "That was a terrible walk. In Mexico, it was not good. Especially for women, who are so in danger of being raped or killed."

During the first trip she was put in a hotel; her group was divided, with men and women separated in different rooms. Men who "did bad things to women" tried to approach Ochoa and the others, but the men she was traveling with chased them away with sticks and rocks, she said. "They were trying to save us and protect us."

The trip was pitted by danger, she said; the group had to leave the hotel quickly before authorities came to take them back to their countries.

When asked why she left, Ochoa said: "In El Salvador there were no jobs.. .and there were so many guns. I had to leave my kids and that was so scary for me because my kids were in danger. But I said that when I came here, one day, I would bring my kids to be with me."

When she left the first time, she was just 23 years old. She had saved up about $8,000 to pay the individual who shepherded her group across the border, she said. The second time, when she returned to the U.S. and crossed the border again, she paid more than $10,000, she said. She'd saved the money from funds her husband had sent back from America, where he was working.

"I saved every penny I could, and I worked," she said. In El Salvador, where she lived with her parents, who helped to care for her children, she worked as an artist and sold her paintings to help fuel her journey, she said.

After the long, hot walk through Mexico, she and the others were put in a trailer. "All of us were hiding inside for 12 hours or more. When we got out, we couldn't stand up .We fell to the ground because we were so stiff from being inside for so many hours. It was very uncomfortable."

The first time, Ochoa had a husband waiting for her but the marriage was marked by physical abuse, she said.

"He never let me work," she said. "But when he'd go to work I'd run to the supermarket and buy food for people who gave me orders, and those people would give me tips," she said. "I had to be home before he came home, because he was bad to me," she said. "Every day, the first thing he would do in the morning was kick me."

New to the country, Ochoa said she didn't know how to defend herself or assert her rights. One day, the woman who rented a room to Ochoa and her husband told her, "You don't have to be with this man,'" she said. "'You have rights. He's not supposed to hit you.' I will never forget that."

She began looking for a way to make her escape. Ochoa found that chance one day when a man came to the supermarket and asked if anyone would like to come and work at his home in New Jersey.

"That's the way I got away from him," she said.

Although her husband searched for her, she said, "I never came back." The two were eventually divorced, she said.

Later, as she learned to speak English, Ochoa said she moved to Greenport.

When she went back home to see her kids, four years after she had initially arrived in America, she said: "Everything was barren. There was nothing to do for work. There were a lot of dangerous people. So I came back again. But the second time I knew in my mind I had to do this in a different way. I have to be here legally."

Ochoa was enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status, or TPS program. Over the years, she had struggles, including a an immigration lawyer who stole thousands from her when she tried to initially get her green card.

In the United States, she became involved with another man and gave birth to two daughters; today, she has four daughters, all of whom in the United States — one works with her at San Simeon — and one son, who opted to move back to El Salvador.

Ochoa soon found herself alone in the United States with her two youngest little girls. "They were born here, and I raised them by myself," she said. "I had to work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. I worked at Peconic Landing. But I did it. And thank God I have very good girls," she said.

Later, she began working at San Simeon, where she has been employed for 10 years, working with the seniors who live there. "I love my job. I love what I do because I am the kind of person that likes to help," she said.

Still, her heartstrings were deeply tied to her homeland. "One day, I was crying because my father was suffering from cancer in my country. My father was my life. He was everything for me."

In 2014, she got her green card and began her quest for citizenship in earnest, studying American history. "I studied all the time. I'd have my book with me at San Simeon and study on my break," she said.

When she finally got an appointment date on August 19 to be interviewed for citizenship, Ochoa said she was filled with anxiety. "I went in there and I almost cried, because I felt so emotional."

Faith carried her through, she said. "I always believe in God. I put God in front of everything," she said. "I believe that what I have, God has given me, and God is going to work with me until the end. I prayed, 'Stay here with me, God.'"

When the interviewer entered the room, Ochoa was nervous. At first, she was standing, answering questions and literally sweating with fear.

"Then she told me it was okay to take a seat," Ochoa said. "There was an empty chair next to mine and I said, in my mind, 'God, take a seat,'" she said.

Despite her trepidation, Ochoa answered all the questions. The woman told her, "'You passed. You did great,'" she said. "You have no idea how I felt. I forgot the place I was and I started jumping and screaming. The lady said, 'I'm not supposed to hug you but I want to give you a hug.' Then the lady from immigration hugged me and said, 'Congratulations. I know you're a very good person and you deserve this.'"

A ceremony followed on August 21. "I was so emotional, I almost cried. When you have a bird in a cage, if you let it go, you feel free," Ochoa said.

And finally, Ochoa said, she was free to embrace life in the United States. "Now I can raise my American flag and say I am American!" she said. "I was so emotional, so happy."

Her youngest girls, now 15 and 18, were up all night baking for her special day, she said.

On October 21, her official certificate arrived, she said. "That is like the key to the country," she said. "The official thing they gave me to say that I am totally American, just like I was born in this country."

And the first thing she said to herself, Ochoa remembered, was: "Oh, my God, I am able to vote. I am so excited to be voting for the first time. I always wanted to do that."

She plans to vote at the Third Street Firehouse in Greenport.

Ochoa said she understands that some feel there are immigrants who should not be in the United States. "A lot of bad people come; they can't be here. But I love my people, my country, and I know so many people that are good. If you work hard, and do everything right, you will get your prize, like I did."

Ochoa said she is proud and happy; all the dark memories of past hardships are gone now.

Asked about her dreams, Ochoa said: "I alway said I wanted three things: To learn English, to be legal in this country — and to buy my own house."

And although finances are a challenge, Ochoa has no doubt that one day she will owner her own home. "The hardest work, I've already done," she said. "Being legal in this country, that's not easy. Having a house, I think, is easier. And I know God is going to help me, because God gave me this —and this is so important to me."

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