I’m back in Olneyville, in August, and it’s hot. The never-ending road construction has made it hard to walk, and I trip and fall and cut up my knee. I consider going home, but I haven’t made any pictures yet, so I fight the urge.
I decide to stop and gather myself, and go into a restaurant I’ve never noticed before. A Spanish-speaking woman greets me, directs me to put my stuff on a table, and shows me to the rest room. When I return there are bandages on the table, along with a menu. There aren’t too many customers, so over the course of my breakfast we talk.
She tells me that her name is Ana. Holding a pot of coffee, she asks me about my camera, and I explain that I’m making portraits, trying to understand who lives in Providence. She says she understands: Estamos cerca, pero no conocemos los otros, she says. We are all close together, but we don’t know one another.
Ana tells me a little about herself – she was a teacher in Guatemala, and now has a family here, in Providence. I ask her if I might make her portrait, and she gives me her phone number.
On Ana’s day off, I pay her a visit. She lives in the West End, in a third-floor apartment, but says she doesn’t know her neighbors. Outside her living-room window she’s seen people dealing drugs, and she can’t leave a stroller outside without its getting stolen. By this window we make some portraits, and then I have to leave. I ask if, on another day, she will tell me the story of how she came to Providence. She agrees.
Weeks go by. I call Ana, text her, stop by the restaurant to try to make another date. She says she works six days a week, is tired at night, and on her day off often has appointments for her three children. I regret not having asked her more on the day we made the portraits, and I also worry that I’m being intrusive. Nevertheless, one day I go to her apartment unannounced and knock on the door. Ana answers, holding her little girl, whose hair is wrapped in a towel. I’m relieved that Ana seems happy to see me. She invites me in.
By this time it is cold outside and there’s a Christmas tree standing in the living room. The tree is bare of ornaments on the bottom half, so that her toddler daughter won’t get at them. There are letters tucked in the branches, from her two sons to Santa.
We settle on the couch, and as soon as Ana starts speaking she begins to cry. She tells the story of a violent father, whose own father was killed in Guatemala’s civil war. She describes an uncaring mother, and the years of abuse that went unchecked. She recounts a long journey north, paid for by an uncle, and the years she was first in the United States, living a life she’s not proud of. As we talk, I’m struck and humbled by what some people go through – by how hard it can be to create a life for oneself.
Ana says there will always be a knot of sadness inside her, but that she is happy – because she has her children. She tells about the good man she has met in Providence, and of her many sueños – dreams: to send for her siblings; to work part-time so that she can spend more time with her children; to learn English and become a teacher again. She describes the house she would love to own – in Johnston, or Warwick – somewhere mas tranquillo, where the streets are clean.