Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Salvadoran immigrant refused welfare, became employer

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Sarah Esperanza had been in Winnipeg for a year when her sponsors set up an appointment for her so she could collect welfare.

But when she got to the appointment back in 1983, the immigrant from El Salvador realized she could not go through with it.

"It's not what we came here for," the ebullient Esperanza said recently, remembering her thoughts at the time. Now, 30 years later, she is an employer, a property owner, a landlord and a great-grandmother of Canadian children.

That decision at the welfare office was a brave and landmark moment for Esperanza, who'd just been through more than two years of unimaginable uncertainty and danger. At one point, she was hiding from immigration officials with her three small children in Dallas, then landing in a freezing-cold country she knew nothing about in the middle of February, with no education, no money, no friends. She didn't know a soul.

But after working hard and saving money, she started a store and for more than 13 years now, she's been the proprietor of El Izalco, the go-to Latin American grocery store in Winnipeg for items such as corn flour, chiles, frijol salvadore±o beans, vanilla and authentic salsa.


The funky Sargent Avenue store with its mishmash of bulk and packaged goods, faded pinatas hanging from the ceiling and Esperanza's Pomeranian, Pancho, barking a greeting to every new customer would definitely be out of place in the St. Vital Centre shopping mall.

But it's a fixture in the West End, where customers of every ethnic persuasion come to shop, many of whom have learned a little Spanish from the charming shopkeeper with gold dental work and a flower in her hair.


"It is not like a factory of money," she said in her expressive but grammatically choppy English. "I have here friendship. Everyone is my friend. Everybody."

That includes some of the neighbourhood's street workers who Esperanza said she never turns away.

It's partly because she can remember enduring her own terrible hardships.

She left war-torn El Salvador in 1982 with only $70 in her pocket, forced to leave her three young children with her mother-in-law. She eventually found work in Dallas -- as an illegal alien -- and was able to get her children out a year later. But not long after, U.S. immigration authorities discovered her and gave her 30 days before she would be deported to El Salvador.

A co-worker told her of a Dallas church called Casa Americana Libre that could help her emigrate to Canada. She went into hiding with her children while the paperwork was being prepared, borrowed the money for plane tickets from the Canadian government and flew to Winnipeg.

The young mother of three, who never experienced a day in school in her life, did not know where or even what Canada was. She still does not know why Winnipeg was her port of entry.

"All I knew was that it was a safe place," she said. "I am not saying I am being the wise person. But sometimes we question God's will too much. When there is a will from God, everything comes into right place."

Her Canadian angels were a group of kind souls from St. Andrews United Church led by the late Marjorie Spence.

After answering a call to sponsor a single mother of three (Esperanza's husband arrived a couple of years later), the group had a furnished apartment with a fridge full of food and money in the bank waiting for her.

"Like I say, when there is God's will, everything falls into some place," she said with tears in her eyes as she recalled the goodwill of strangers.

As much as Esperanza seems at home now in her Latin American haven in the heart of the winter city, her experience as an uneducated immigrant who knew no English was a challenging one.

She said she probably worked at just about every little garment factory in the city back in the '80s. And when her husband, an experienced construction worker, arrived in Winnipeg, one of his early employers tried to take advantage of him and pay him a lot less than he deserved.

"Some new immigrants suffer so much," she said. "Employers take advantage because of the language barrier and insufficient ways to explain what we want."

Even though she grew up poor in a land-less family, her mother ran a sort of community barter operation so Esperanza thinks she has business in her blood.

While she was being interviewed for this story, a woman came into the back of the store to pay her rent.

With some pride in her voice, Esperanza said it was one of her tenants. A year ago, she bought the two-storey commercial building that houses her store.

"I own it in partnership with the government and the bank," she said, sounding just like the seasoned small-business owner she has become.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J1

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