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