The Story of Lucia Artega
“I wanted to help people, and it made sense to design a job where I could do that on a daily basis.”
Editor’s Note: While this story is true in all respects, the name has been changed and the picture withheld by request for security reasons. This energetic, diminutive, happy woman is a blur of activity as she moves gracefully from one room to another, taking reservations, giving directions over her cell phone, supervising while serving her guests meals, and altering the final count on the next meal at the last minute which doesn’t faze her in the least. Whenever she wants to emphasize a point, Lucia does so by repeating it three times which I find adds to her charming, enchanting personality.
My diligent work ethic is a trait I share with my mother. She is an industrious and resourceful woman who renovated her own large home into two apartments which she rented to locals in San Salvador at one time. She managed the property and lived on site for many years.
When I was growing up, my parents were extremely strict in raising us kids in the Roman Catholic faith. I married my first boyfriend. Our families were neighbors and friends, and I knew him since I was three years old. I was pregnant and without experience when we got married. He was with experience. Our first daughter was born when I was just sixteen. When I was nineteen, our second child was born.
My husband and I lived with his family for two years after we married. I adored my father-in-law. He was a beautiful person, always smiling and like a father to me. I knew nothing, nothing, nothing at the time I married including how to cook. I remember one extremely hot and humid day my father-in-law asked me to make him and three other men in the family a specific type of refreshing cold drink. Although I had heard of it and knew it was pink and had cinnamon in it, I had no idea how to make it. I was out in the kitchen trying and trying to figure it out, and he would periodically ask, “Lucia, how are those drinks coming?” and I would say, “In a few minutes” and kept trying to stall because I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know how to prepare it while four men waited. Finally he came out and patiently taught me how to do it. That was a turning point for me. I decided then and there that I would teach my girls how to prepare food so they would NEVER be in that same awkward, humiliating situation. My girls can cook as well as I can!
My father-in-law was in the wholesale business distributing goods such as beans, rice, detergent, soap, and napkins from warehouses to small stores. He trusted me by teaching me the business. I went to college and studied to be a secretary. That is where I learned English.
After two years of living with my in-laws, my husband was transferred from a position as business administrator with his job to manager of a company in another city. I always chose to remain financially independent.
Perhaps because I was young and naïve and a bit too trusting of people, I then made a big mistake and got into a financial situation that got way out of control. A friend of mine asked me to lend some money for a loan, explaining that if she went to the bank, she would have to pay interest. So I wrote her checks. Then she double-crossed me and reported me to the police saying I had not paid the amount needed. Because I wrote personal checks to her, I had no proof of anything. Persons who could have helped me left the country. I could have gone to jail. My husband did not offer to help me, and I did not ask him. It was my error in judgment, and I needed to be responsible and rectify the situation.
The only way I knew to make fast cash was to go to work in the U.S. in order to work off my debt. I went to the U.S. a couple of times for four to five months at a time to earn enough money. My young children remained with their father. I would hear them beg me to come home when we spoke on the phone; this tore at my heart, but I had no choice. It was my fault I was in this mess, and there was no one able to help me.
One of the jobs I did in the U.S. was work at a clothing factory from 6 AM to 9 PM, standing the whole time cutting off loose threads from tags. We were not permitted to take a bathroom break. Once a woman fell and bled and everyone avoided her. I went to get her some paper towels to help her clean up. Immediately the boss came over yelling at me to NEVER do that again. There was too big a risk of HIV/AIDS. Another time we were working and I heard someone yell, “IMMIGRATION!” and I continued working while the rest of the workers scattered in all directions. I then followed suit and left the building, but when I got outside, I realized that I had left my wallet inside the factory. I didn’t even have bus fare to get home. Fortunately I ran into a co-worker who lent me enough to do so. When I got off that job, my night job was to deliver dry cleaning all over the city.
Another time I worked in another city where I spent mornings cleaning apartments in a hotel and then quickly changed clothes in a car and worked at a restaurant nights. The restaurant owner said his place was never cleaner than when I worked there. I tended to work day and night in two back-to-back jobs. It was exhausting. I am hoping that now that I am established in business, I will never have to return to the U.S. again.
The positive part of these experiences is that I discovered I really loved working with people. Others also noticed I had people skills. When I returned to El Salvador, I had nothing, nothing, nothing. I had no house, no money, no car. My older daughter was studying at the university and was living with my mother. The younger daughter was in school. I had been helping my mom with her apartments which were always busy. I proposed to her that because I needed financial help and she needed help with her guest house, we should strike a deal. She would do the rooms and bills keeping the money from the rooms, and I would prepare all the food keeping the money from the meals and live in one room. By my being on the premises, I could be there to be of assistance to guests who may potentially have needs arising overnight in the event of emergences. This seemed to work out well for both of us.
I was dividing up my time living between my mother’s house in San Salvador when she had guests and my husband’s house out of town with my family. It was clear that I no longer wished to return to be with my husband full-time but never told him until our younger child finished college. I had been married for 25 years.
My mom decided to close her guesthouse business. Although I had been trained in secretarial skills, I never used them, and all I knew how to do and all I loved doing was working with people in hospitality. Besides, I wanted to help people, and it made sense to design a job where I could do that on a daily basis. My father-in-law had taught me about business early on in my marriage, and I loved it.
I made the decision to ask my mom for help to get a bank loan to become established in my own guesthouse business. People discouraged me from going into my own business, but I was determined not only to undertake it, but also to work hard at it and grow it because I love, love, love it! There have been some months when the rent comes due and I have had no guests but I always think, next month will be better.
COOING DOVE IN CORNER OF GUEST HOUSE
My younger daughter is my right arm. She works all day at her office and then comes here after work to help me however she can, whether it is to cook or serve or whatever I ask her to do. I have recently taken a chance with renting a second guest house which is larger because I now have some groups that have booked their delegations with me for the entire year. The other house is set up for larger groups and has bigger facilities for dining and meeting rooms. I have that place on a trial basis to see if it will pay me to keep it or not. I have to give it some time to see how it works out. The rent is more and I need additional staff, of course. I struggle to survive but feel it is worth taking a chance. I so enjoy what I do.
I do not advertise my guesthouses because of the threats of the Mara gangs. They are known to go door-to-door and require monthly “rent” or extortion money from business proprietors. If you refuse to pay, they kill you. I rely on word of mouth and repeat business only.
God is my center; He is always in my heart; He is my angel and I trust him. He gave me all this. He sends me people. I usually attend Saturday afternoon worship because I need to serve Sunday morning breakfasts to my guests.
When my guesthouses are full, I am energized. When I have no money to pay my bills, I go to bed and I feel alone. My dreams are for my girls’ health, happiness, and stability. My personal dream is to provide for my guests.
Editor’s Note: Today Lucia has just come from her other guest house where after she spent the morning changing the beds, she discovered a lake of water on the floor of one of the rooms. There was a leak in the roof from the night’s torrential rains, and the landlord is out of the country requiring her to find a repairman, flip three mattresses, re-make the beds, and mop the floors all before the next 27 guests arrive. Then on her way over here for our interview, she stopped to pick up two prescriptions for the guest with “amoebas.” After she serves the evening meal at both guesthouses, she plans to return here at 4 AM to see our other group off to the airport. She could not be deterred from fulfilling what she sees as her final duty as their hostess. To watch Lucia in action, one would think she is in her late 20’s or 30’s rather than in her 70s!