This article was written by Ella Bradley in spring of 2021 who is now senior U-32 High School.
Special thanks to Ella’s Spanish teacher, Adam French
Every day Karla Perez wakes up and begins her English classes. She logs into a zoom with other adults across Vermont seeking to become fluent in English. She focuses on the conversation and pronunciation needed to navigate an English-speaking job, to get back to her old life.Three years ago, she was an elementary school teacher, 2000 miles away, in Olanchito Yoro, a small town in Honduras.
Karla lives with her family and works with four members of her family as a custodian at U-32 high school, in East Montpelier.
Her story is one of a family carrying each other from a world they knew into a different one while rebuilding their life.
Karla’s childhood was in an idyllic version of small town Honduras. Miguel, her father, was a farmer and grew corn along with other vegetables. Karla and her four sisters were expected to help with work on the farm, and also to wake up early with their mother, Reina, to cook for her father. Karla said the thing most engraved in her mind from Honduras is the landscape: the rivers, expansive valleys and mountains. “It was paradise.”
Every day Karla’s father Miguel woke up at two in the morning and headed to work on a friend’s cow farm. She saw him return at two in the afternoon, before the hottest part of the day, and continue to work on his own land, where he grew corn, beans, plantain, and rice. It was backbreaking work, but their family was a strong unit.
“We didn’t have money – we weren’t rich, we weren’t poor – but we had plenty of love.” Karla said. “We had good people to look up to.”
Karla attended school and trained to become an elementary school teacher. She taught first through eighth grade, depending on the year. She would often end up paying for the uniforms and school supplies of kids unable to pay with her own salary. She would buy hungry kids food as well. Teaching was hard work – one time she had a class of 60 sixth graders, but she “really really loved it.”
Karla at school with one of her classes in Olanchito Yoro, Honduras.
As Karla moved into adulthood, though, she witnessed changes in Honduras. Due to climate change, droughts and storms are now a staple in Honduras. In 2014, Antonio Parez, Karla’s uncle, was working on his small coffee farm when a hurricane struck and washed out his house, farm, and entire village. Most of his belongings were gone, and the land was left torn up for months.
Poverty has also contributed to changes in the environment. Most people cannot afford a stove, so they cook with firewood, making lumber a valuable commodity. “30 years ago, there was a balance in the flora and fauna,” Karla said. “The wildlife, rivers and forest, there is almost no control over how those are maintained.”
Honduras has also seen a rise in gang violence since Karla grew up. La Mara Salvatrucha, (also known as MS 13), is a street gang with its roots in the American prison system. According to BBC, MS 13’s annual revenue is roughly $31.2 million, mainly from extortion and drugs.
“Unfortunately, in my lifetime I have seen the violence and crime move from the big cities, where they once were, to “el campo,” the rural parts as well,” Karla said. “The gangs make a lot of money and going into the country was their way of expanding their business.”
Once, a group of teacher colleagues were riding a bus home to their villages and some gang members stopped the bus and robbed everybody at gunpoint. A similar thing happened to her son when he was in grade school riding a bus home. Karla said gang members would stand outside banks and rob anyone going in or out.
Eventually, she watched families in her village begin to pay a fee to avoid violence. The gangs make it hard to find a job because travel is dangerous and businesses are being destroyed.Karla had a stable job as a teacher, but as her children grew older she began to think a lot more about their futures too.
18 years ago, Karla’s sister Xiomara met a man who was on a service trip in her village. They fell in love and eventually married. Through him, Xiomara had access to US citizenship. She was faced with the difficult decision of whether to leave her home country. She decided it was the right thing to do, to escape the violence and poverty.
Once Xiomara became an American citizen, it opened the opportunity for the rest of her family to go to the embassy and start the process of becoming US citizens. Karla said that the decision to move was difficult, but it was the right thing to do.
“It’s hard to understand here [in Vermont], but it’s so common there to have to leave everything behind because of these situations of threat,” she explained. “I’d love to return to Honduras with all my heart, but with my kids, no way.”
Karla with students in Olanchito Yoro, Honduras.
Karla’s parents Miguel and Reina, who were in their 50s at the time, obtained tourist visas from the embassy in Tegucigalpa and for eight years travelled back and forth, never staying over six months. Then, 10 years ago, Reina was able to establish residency with Xiomara. Miguel has been in Vermont for six years, while Karla and her children have been here for two.
When Xiomara was settled in Vermont and Karla was still in Honduras, U-32’s custodial staff collected cans from the school for Xiomara, who took them to a redemption center. She sent the money back to Karla, who used it to buy school supplies and food for her students.
Now, most of the family works at U-32 as custodians, along with other cleaning and waitressing jobs around the Montpelier area.
Karla Perez, right with her parents, Miguel and Reina, and her son Miguel, arriving for a shift at U-32 in June 2021. Xiomara, Karla’s sister(not pictured) also works as a Custodian at U-32.
Chantell Boulanger is another custodian at U-32. She admires the family’s diligence and strength. “They’re an amazing family,” she said. “They come here, work their butts off, smile, and keep working.”
Adam French is a Spanish teacher and friend of Miguel’s. They talk every day after school. “I think that the decision to just pick up everything and leave everything in your 60’s is just so brave,” he said. “I would not be able to do that, most of us wouldn’t.”
Miguel helps clean the school, along with the rest of his family, from 3pm to 11pm. Even with a mask, his smile radiates. He says he knows people who have had to travel across Mexico on the tops of trains or on foot to enter the US illegally. When he talks to them on the phone and they ask him how he is, he always just says “great.”
“The first time I came to Vermont with Reina it was for two months,” he explained. “Other people, they might take two months to cross all the countries to get to Mexico.”
Karla called their process of migration “Una experiencia bonita,” a beautiful experience. “We haven’t had to suffer at all, unlike other folks who are forced to come illegally,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go anywhere else, my sister was here. I love Vermont.”
Karla and her Students in Honduras
Still, they all miss Honduras. Xiomara misses her friends, extended family and the rich environment, especially the vibrant colors of summer. “Behind our house we had a backyard with many fruit trees – mangos, pineapples, oranges, and papayas,” she said. “I miss things like fresh mango a lot.”
Karla misses her job and finds it ironic that she’s back at school, but in a different way. “I don’t feel bad about work here,” she said, “because I came here with an open mind and I see this all as an enriching experience, another stage: una ‘otra etapa.’”