“El Dia de San Esteban (St. Steven’s Day)”

As long as I can remember, I have woken up with the sun – early and reliably every morning.  And I can’t wait to get started on the day.  It may seem odd to you that part of my job is to wake my clients up in the morning, when I have never used an alarm clock myself.  Or that I help them drive their cars when I don’t actually know how to drive a car.  Or that I greet visitors to their homes when I have never been to their homes myself.  But that is my job.

So, I do like to get up early, even on weekends.  There is really only one day of the year, which happens to be today – the Day of San Esteban – that I have a hard time to get out of my bed.  The truth is, today is actually not a good day for me to tell you my story.  But I will do my best.

I was born here in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador, twenty-six years ago.  My father, who is a construction foreman, was born in a village near Otavalo and my mother – who like me was born in Quito – is a secretary in a bank in the center of town.  I have two brothers and two sisters, and a fiancé who is studying to be an engineer.  My sisters are both married – one is a teacher and the other one works sometimes in a factory.  My brother is studying to be an architect.   I completed secondary school, then studied for two years to be a bilingual secretary. 

Probably you have never been to Ecuador.  Our country is very beautiful but very poor.  I myself have been very lucky, because I was born in the city, and because my parents insisted that I go to school and study hard every day.  I was lucky to get a job as a bilingual secretary – even though the pay was terrible – because that’s how I learned how to use the Internet and how I learned to improve my English.  And finally, I have been lucky because they opened the Center where I now work just down the street from the home of my parents and I was one of the first people hired to be a Personal Assistant for three customers in the United States.

We were not always so lucky.  Many times when there was no work, or when there was no food, or when the crime was terrible, you could not say we were lucky.  When I was ten it was one of those times.  The economy had collapsed because of the price of oil and because of the earthquake.  There were no jobs.  There wasn’t enough food to eat, and we had no fuel to warm the house.  People got sick.  My little brother got sick.  I’d rather not talk about that, though.

I love my job.  I have three customers, plus I am the backup assistant for two of my co-workers.  You’ve already met one of my customers, Diane Blakely.  She’s my favorite.  My job is to make life easier for my customers.  I scan and summarize their e-mail for them, keep track of appointments, and answer their front door.  I even wake them up in the morning.  We talk or send each other messages throughout the day and night: live on the phone, on voice-mail, on e-mail, or in Internet sessions. 

When I get a new customer, it takes a little while for us to get to know one another, and to build the trust.  Then, I usually know almost every detail of their lives – where they are, where their kids are, how much vacation time they have, when the oil in their car needs to be changed.  One of my customers actually has four personal assistants, to get 24/7 coverage.  So I get to know these other assistants also. The more I know, the less the customers have to worry about.

Linda, my customer who lives in Denver, Colorado, likes to call me her “wife”.  At first I was not sure what she meant by that, but then she explained to me that all during her career her male co-workers were able to pass off a lot of routine or household tasks to their wives, while she was not.  Now I can help fill that need. 

This morning I updated the family calendar for Linda.  Every month we pull together all the important dates and events for the next three months and I organize them and create a planning calendar.  This one has the entire summer on it – summer school, piano lessons and recitals, Little League, summer camp, the family vacation (they’re going to San Diego), and the trip of her parents to Denver in August.  It helps all of us to keep things straight.  This is an example of my main responsibility – to help make the life of the customer run more smoothly.

My second responsibility is to help my customers communicate more effectively.  Probably the best example of this is my customer in Atlanta, Georgia, whose name is Jeff.  He is a very nice man, but very disorganized.  He says he had not sent out a birthday card in over ten years.  Now I send out two or three every month for him, to his family, old friends, work associates, etc.  He says everyone thinks he is a new person – so thoughtful and considerate.  But it’s just me!  But I feel great because my little contribution seems to be making a difference in his life.  I actually send out a lot of e-mails, on-line birthday and holiday cards, thank-you notes, and even gifts on behalf of my customers.  They all say it makes a  difference in their relationships.

These are my two main objectives.  But I also have a personal goal to help my customers save money.  This is kind of a selfish thing for me, because I think that if I can save them as much as they are paying for my service, they won’t ever want to cancel my service!  My customers are very busy people, and they don’t have a lot of time to do comparison shopping, even on expensive items like cars or insurance, or cell phone plans.  So whenever I have a few moments, I go online and shop for them.  Last winter I found an online tax return preparation service in India.  For about the cost of do-it-yourself tax software, they have a licensed tax accountant prepare your return for you.  Ms. Blakely and her sister both used the service and they loved it.  Ms. Blakely says I earned six months worth of my service fee with what they saved her.

I like Ms. Blakely so much because she is doing everything I want to do myself.  She has a career that she loves.  She has a family, and they take care of each other and do things together every day.  She treats other people – people like me for example – with honesty and respect.  She takes time to say thank you, and when she asks you how you are, she actually listens to your answer.  I want to be like that too.

I think that Americans don’t realize how fortunate they are.  In my country, and in most of Latin America, life is not as easy as it is in the North.  A few people are very rich, but most of us are poor.  We do not own cars; we do not eat dinner at McDonalds.  We are never sure how long the current government will last, or what kind of government will replace it.  When you lose your job, your family may not eat, because you have no savings account and no unemployment insurance.  When people get sick, they often die, because they have no money for a doctor or for medicine.

I told you I do not like to remember the bad times.  I would rather remember the times when we had enough to eat, the times when the house was warm even when the wind outside was cold, the times when no one lay helpless in the cot by the wall, first shivering and then sweating, and calling out for mama but not knowing that she was right there the whole time.  I’d rather remember the times when there was a doctor to call and he would come and there was medicine you could buy and people got better.

But on this day – on the Day of San Esteban – at the end of this day, I do remember that night of fifteen years ago.  I remember the chill of the wind blowing up from the canyon.  I remember the feeble cries of Esteban, lying there in the cot.  I remember a cold gust of wind rushing through the crack in the wall and blowing out the flame on the candle on the table, and blowing out the light in the eyes of the little brother we loved so much. 

Only on this day will I permit myself to remember this.  I told you this was not a good day to tell you my story.  But this is my story; this is part of who I am.  Today I will remember this and I will feel once again the pain and the loss and the anger and the helplessness of what it means to be poor.   And then tomorrow I will wake up early, with the sun.

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