Juanita Zerda came to the Boston area from Colombia after finishing law school there. Juanita wanted to pursue her interest in human rights and the theoretical aspects of human rights law. She had another interest: martial arts and Aikido in particular. Boston College offered the opportunity to pursue a PhD in the philosophy of law and Boston had one of the three most important centers for Aikido in the United States so Boston it was.

At the Aikido Center in Cambridge Juanita met her (now) husband Tony who had come to Boston from Belfast, Northern Ireland. They fell in love and decided to stay—two immigrants from different parts of the world with different stories. Tony had won his green card in a lottery; Juanita had hers because her father had lived in the U.S. and had enlisted in the army during World War II and became a citizen. They married and settled in Somerville. Once Juanita was expecting their first child they began to look at suburban communities, the condition being that the town couldn’t be farther than 15 or 20 minutes from their Aikido Dojo. They found a home in Winchester and have been here since about 2005.

Though it seemed clear that Juanita and Tony had put down roots in Winchester, Juanita delayed applying for citizenship, keeping her Colombian passport so that she could more easily travel to Colombia to visit her father who was ill for many years. After he passed away eight years ago, she began the process. It was clear that she wanted to be part of this country, be able to vote, and cultivate a sense of belonging.

Challenges to Belonging

What are some of the challenges she has faced? Juanita is quick to say that she has not had as rocky a time as many others, largely because of her martial arts community where she quickly felt at home. She has not experienced the kind of interpersonal racism that many immigrants have. At first the hardest adjustment involved trying to understand the nuances of New England culture and experiencing the challenges of being a young, successful woman in the workplace. “The first time I really felt different was when I moved to Winchester,” she says. She sensed unwritten rules, particularly around parenting. Navigating American/Winchester culture as a mother who wants to honor her heritage by passing it along to her children can be difficult.

Juanita and her husband have both noticed that they are treated differently as immigrants. People seem delighted to meet someone from Ireland but she gets a different reception. “There seems to be a right kind of immigrant or a wrong kind” she says.

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Making Others Welcome

Reflecting on how we can make Winchester welcoming to immigrants, Juanita suggests: “Invite new neighbors over. If your neighborhood is having a block party, don’t just slip an invitation under the door; stop by and invite them personally.” She adds that “There needs to be more diverse voices in town government, and clubs and organizations should look at their policies and practices—be proactive in welcoming newcomers.” For example, some clubs have a policy that you have to be recommended for membership by two longtime residents. If you are new, that poses a problem. Perhaps an interview process would be an alternative. Every organization in town can make an effort, she asserts.

Contributing to the Community

In the relatively few years Juanita has been in Winchester, this vivacious, energetic woman who exudes warmth and kindness, has contributed enormously to the town. She has invested her energy and talents wholeheartedly in different sub-communities here. When her boys attended Lincoln School she served on the Parent Teacher Association there, and once she had gained citizenship, immediately joined the League of Women Voters. There she felt welcomed and valued for her contributions as a Latina woman. Through her involvement she met a variety of women, all trying to make a difference in the community. It was empowering.

Juanita has also served on the board of the Winchester Community Music School where, she says, Director Laurie Russell is an important part of the community and is welcoming to all. Now she is finishing a two-year term as president of the board of the Multicultural Network. She credits a friend, Susan Lewis, for getting her involved in the Network and says she has met a lot of committed people. “I realize I personally need the Network and have become a much better human being through my work with the Network. I wasn’t aware of my own biases,” she says. “I have learned so much!”

Inspired by Her Mother

The one woman who stands out as having inspired Juanita is her mother. The youngest of eight in a family with scarce resources in Colombia, she had to leave school at the age of 15 to work to help pay for one of her brother’s education. Juanita says her mother breaks all kinds of stereotypes as someone who has gone on to be a successful businesswoman in Bogota, well respected in the city and in the business community. She has always supported her siblings and when her husband became ill, she cared for him for 15 years until he died. “My mother is a model of someone who has maintained a kind and generous heart even when life hasn’t been good to you. She has the capacity to love others and do the right thing, and I aspire to be like her every day,” Juanita states.

Advice to Others

Juanita’s advice to other women who have immigrated to Winchester is to “lean in. We have a responsibility (as immigrants) too,” she asserts. “We have to get out of our comfort zones and get involved. Once we take that leap, we will find others like ourselves and will carve a path for others coming next.”

Watch this space each Friday this March for another of our five Women’s History Month 2019 honoree.