Maria Magdalena Souto and Cindy Hernandez escaped a very difficult life in El Salvador to make build a life in Oliver. Submitted photo

Multicultural Champions: Escaping a difficult life in El Salvador

Two women escaped a very difficult life in El Salvador to rebuild their lives in the South Okanagan

Celebrating multiculturalism and diversity in the community, 14 multicultural champions were selected to be featured and have their stories shared in the Penticton Western News on a monthly basis in partnership with the South Okanagan Similkameen Local Immigration Partnership Council, South Okanagna Immigrant and Community Services and Respect Network.

No obstacle could get in the way of this family’s dream.

Maria Magdalena Souto and Cindy Hernandez came to Canada looking to escape a very difficult life in El Salvador. Souto was a single mother supporting three children. She worked long hours, in her own restaurant, earning little money and half of those earnings had to be paid to the government.

“We had nothing. After paying for food and housing we were just barely surviving,” said Hernandez.

Related: Multicultural Champions: Shifting from an era of fear to love

In 2007, Souto decided to create a new life for her family by moving to Canada. But her attempt turned into a nightmare. She was detained en route in the United States because she didn’t have the proper paperwork. She was thrown in jail for 21 days.

“It was very scary. For the first three days and nights I was placed in a cooler. It was very, very cold,” describes Souto.

Souto was sent back to El Salvador but she refused to give up on her dream. Her second attempt was a success thanks to former Salvadoran neighbors who had already migrated to Oliver. Souto was ecstatic with her achievement.

Related: Multicultural Champions: Landing in wine country

“I love Canada. I had so many jobs to choose from and the pay was amazing. I was earning $10 an hour compared to the $5-7 that I earned working all day in my country. I made $1,100 in two weeks. Never in my life did I make that kind of money,” Souto said.

Souto eventually sponsored daughter Hernandez and the pair worked as fruit pickers. They found the transition to be difficult, at first, largely because they couldn’t speak English.

“When people would say ‘hi,’ ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon,’ we didn’t know how to reply,” explains Hernandez.

It was the staff at South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services that came to their rescue. They took English classes in the evening after working 12 hours shifts.

“We learned to speak English and my mother was able to achieve her dream of getting her qualifications to open her own restaurant,” said Hernandez.

Souto was able to buy her own food truck that she has operated for two years now. Until recently, Hernandez was a technician at a winery in Oliver. Hernandez has returned to school full-time at Okanagan College studying math, English and computers. She also has a part-time job in a pizza parlor in Oliver.

The hard work and study lifestyle leaves little time for recreation for the mother and daughter. But they do take two hours off every Sunday.

“We go to church and give thanks to God for all the good things he gives to us,” said Hernandez.

Hernandez is also very grateful to two families in Oliver. She kept her son in home day care before he was old enough to go to school. Recognizing that the boy was quite intelligent, the caregivers decided to enroll him at a ‘Little Wonders Montessori Child Care Centre.’ It’s a school that provides a creative environment that helps children develop to their full potential. The action by the caregivers had a profound effect on Hernandez.

“When I found those two families, my life changed. I saw Canada as the most beautiful place.”

Coming from El Salvador, winter has been a big adjustment to make for the pair. But it does have its advantage.

“Because the daylight hours are shorter we get to sleep a little longer,” Hernandez said.

The mother and daughter are grateful for the opportunities they have been given and rightfully proud of the achievements they have made, so far.

“We are contributing to the Canadian economy by working very hard,” said Hernandez.

When asked about what they find interesting about Canada, the pair replies, almost in unison, “everything.”

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