Normita: The Ecuadorian Who Never Stopped Believing In Her Children’s Tomorrow
When Madeleine Hanley arrives at Yale in the fall of 2020, her lineage will celebrate its first to the Ivy League school. Away from the revelry, beaming upon the 18-year-old will be Norma Yolanda Mosquera Jaramillo, the Ecuadorian who borrowed money to buy a plane ticket to New York and slept hungry on many nights to provide better lives for her kids and — ultimately — a path to one of the world’s most elite colleges for her granddaughter.
The tales of America’s immigrants are usually the stuff of legends. The story of Norma Yolanda, or Normita, wasn’t as much the American Dream as it was the dream that her children attain what she couldn’t. She loved her adopted country, but she loved her family more.
“Mami used to say: ‘I didn’t come to this country and leave my family and my home in Ecuador, to go through what I went through, for you kids not to make a better life. I refuse to believe that,’” recalls Norma Hanley, mother to Yale scholar Madeleine as well as the namesake daughter to Normita.
By “refuse”, it meant Normita wouldn’t accept her children going hungry even for a day — despite the fact that she herself survived eating scraps after paying her rent and remitting all her money back to Ecuador.
By “refuse”, it meant she wouldn’t put her children in below-average public schools after bringing them over to the U.S., opting instead for private schools that only added to her burden.
CONSTANTLY REINVENTED HERSELF
Raised by her mother to be just a seamstress, Normita paid for her own secretarial education in Ecuador. Not content to be a salaried person all her life, she constantly reinvented herself later in life. She ran her own garment company; joined Mary Kay, soaring to the rank of national director at the iconic cosmetics franchise; and even became a realty broker and a mortgage loans officer at one point.
With these many achievements under her wings, she was determined that her kids do better.
They did. Elder son Alan runs a successful IT consultancy, daughter Norma was for years vice-president of HR at a leading U.S. multimedia group and younger son Jerry is an enterprise resource planning expert.
Now, Madeleine, the eldest of her three grandchildren, has been accepted to Yale to study Public Health.
“She was always very warm and loving, but also feisty,” says Madeleine of her “abuelita”, who made sure she finished her homework whenever she was left in her care. While the budding Ivy Leaguer doesn’t recall having conversations about college with her grandmother, she is sure that Normita “would’ve been pretty excited about Yale.”
AN ONLY CHILD THAT NEVER GREW AS ONE
Born on March 16, 1936 in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, Normita grew up as an only child to Doña Cruzita and Don Panchito. Her half-sister Enma, who came from her father’s previous marriage, was married and away from home by the age of 13, as strange as that may be in today’s world.
Despite being an only child, Normita hardly felt like one. While she had no other blood sibling, she had numerous cousins whom she counted on as virtual brothers and sisters. This closely-knit larger family became the foundation of her values. Through the years, she became a devoted child who cared for her parents until their passing, a tradition later carried through by her own daughter Norma.
Growing up, Norma remembers being in a multi-generational household where everyone looked out for each other. “We didn’t have much but we never lacked love,” she says.
She also remembers her home being a shelter in the United States for any Ecuadorian needing a transit to the American Dream.
“Mami was a very generous person,” says Norma, who recalls her mother paving the way to the U.S. for so many other Ecuadorians in search of a slice of that “American pie”, or dream. “There was always a newly-arrived relative living with us. We were the Ecuadorian ‘underground railroad’! Our home was always full of people and my Mom loved hosting parties. This experience taught us the value of family and of helping others. Mami was a very loving and giving mother.”
Normita never had trouble loving, though love itself was always complicated for her.
LOVE ON THE JOB
By the time she was 21, the Guayaquil girl blessed with a dimple, her mother’s high cheekbones and father’s strong, chiseled features had blossomed into a beautiful woman. After briefly training as a seamstress, Normita obtained her secretarial certificate to join the port city’s newspaper Diario El Telegrafo, where she met the man who would forever change her life — Egon Kelley Cepeda Pesantes.
Mark Twain once said: “I have never let schooling interfere with my education”. Egon Cepeda had the same philosophy. Unable to afford college, he became a voracious reader and self-taught journalist. Suave and knowledgeable, he held the attention of any room he walked into. But he could also be eccentric and rather difficult to work for, as his new help Normita found out.
“Mami was an outgoing and gregarious woman who loved life to the fullest. She had a welcoming personality and easily made friends – and she had many friends indeed,” says Norma.
Egon Cepeda, in contrast, was picky to a fault. Normita stayed on the job only because she needed the money. But her resolve eventually won him over. He mellowed and began taking a keener interest in the younger girl, developing respect for her tolerance — a respect that turned to love. Just over a year after she joined the Telegrafo, they were married, and by the time she was 24, elder son Alan was born. The subsequent year, daughter Norma arrived.
HEARTBREAK THAT LED TO THE AMERICAN DREAM
Along the way, Normita discovered that fidelity wasn’t one of her husband’s strong suits either. Enraged and heart-broken, she walked out on the marriage, something he never expected. But it wasn’t merely an impulsive or emotion-wracked decision for her. She actually had a plan: Move to New York and raise her children there.
Normita had never stepped foot in the United States before. But she had heard stories about the Land of the Free from other Ecuadorians and dreamt of such a life for her children. She even had a friend from Guayaquil who had moved there and they regularly wrote to each other. The crisis in her marriage — and eventual divorce — provided the perfect catalyst for Normita’s own emigration to the United States, though her story with Egon Cepeda itself wasn’t over.
“Mami’s friend told her: ‘You can get a job, you can get whatever you want here’” Norma says, recalling her mother’s words. “Mami was pretty upset with my father and she decided to take up the offer. She wrote back to her friend: ‘I have your invitation, I’m coming there’. All she had was an address. She borrowed money to buy the ticket. She would go first, then bring us, the kids, and her parents later.”
On the flight, Normita befriended an Ecuadorian family that was returning to New York. At Kennedy airport, she collected her luggage and waited for her friend, who was nowhere to be seen. Luckily, the Ecuadorian family she met on board decided to wait with her. As time passed, they offered to bring her back to their home. That weekend, they drove to the address Normita gave them. The woman they were looking for had moved and left no forwarding address. It was the 60s, there was no telephone in most homes, and certainly no Facebook to build a network of support. Normita was starting life alone in a city, with no home or money.
A TERRIFYING START
As terrifying as her American experience initially seemed, Normita managed to land a job at a textiles factory by using her early training as a seamstress. Here, she learned the skill of invisible mending or the act of repairing tears in fabric manufactured at knitting mills.
The Ecuadorian family she befriended did her another favor by finding her lodging at a place they knew. Rent for her room was due every week. If she wanted a meal from her landlord, it would cost a few dollars more.
The trouble is she did not have the extra dollars. After rent and the money sent home, there was usually nothing left. The landlord was grouchy and all business: No money, no food, he told his tenants. But his wife was nice. She squirrelled away food to give to Normita, without his knowledge.
“Mami says there are angels in this world,” Norma recalls her mother saying. “Instead of throwing out the leftover food she cooked, the landlady would put it in a little aluminium foil and leave it on top of the trash. My mother would come at night, pick up the little aluminium foil and that would be her dinner on most nights.”
ARRESTED FOR OVERSTAYING
Life in America was difficult and lonely for Normita without her family. She missed her children terribly, and worked double shifts to raise money quickly to pay for their passage to the U.S. But before she could do that, fate intervened: She was arrested for overstaying her visitor’s visa, and brought before an immigrant officer for pre-deportation inquiry. The officer who listened to her story developed an admiration for the brave, hardworking, young Latina mother, and asked her if she wanted to stay. Normita couldn’t believe her luck.
“That’s why Mami loved this country. She said, ‘This country gave me an opportunity that my own country didn’t’,” Norma says, recalling her mother’s words.
Becoming a legal resident, Normita managed to bring her two children and mother to the United States with proper papers in March 1968. Her father would come later, along with someone else: Egon Cepeda.
A NEW BEGINNING
As aforementioned, Normita’s divorce didn’t end everything she had with Egon Cepeda. As fairytales go, there’s always a “Living Happily Ever After” toward the end. That was somewhat the case with this marriage too, though the phrase itself did not quite live out to its full meaning for Normita. Communicating through letters — she writing about her travails in New York and he promising to make up for his indiscretion — helped rekindle their love.
Within a year of their divorce, they remarried in New York. Then in 1969, Egon Cepeda and Normita’s father arrived in the United States with resident status. The dream of the Guayaquil natives was finally coming true: The entire family was now in America.
The subsequent days, weeks and months passed in a blur as the family settled in. As a boon, Jerry, the reunion child, was born. He would be the third after Alan and Norma, and the first Cepeda to be born on U.S. soil.
Normita’s joy was brief though. Fifty days after Jerry’s birth, Egon Cepeda died of a massive heart attack.
Left alone again to feed her children — this time with an infant — Normita soldiered on for one reason: There was no one else to do it.
Along the way, someone did come, offering a shoulder: Eduardo Tello, an Argentinian immigrant to the U.S., whom she met while working at Jasco Knitting Mills in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
To Normita, it was simple: More than a companion for herself, her kids needed a father. They were married on May 24, 1975 in St Agustin’s Roman Catholic Church in Union City, New Jersey. Leading the wedding party was her three children – Alan the usher, Norma, the bridesmaid, and Jerry, the ring bearer.
As the kids grew, so did their needs. Normita soon realized that her joint salary with Eduardo would never be enough, especially if she wanted to keep the children in private school.
In 1977, she launched Nortell Sportswear Corp in Union City, NJ. While essentially making sports apparels, it also specialized in women’s garments.
”She was running 37 sewing machines at a time,” Norma says, remembering her mother’s business. “Given how she had kept reinventing the wheel throughout her life, if she were still running that factory, she’d probably be making Covid face coverings today. Then, she made blouses and dresses. The entire family worked there, even 7-year-old Jerry, whose job was to put the final plastic on the garment.”
“No one talked about child labor then,” she adds, laughing.
CONSTANTLY ON THE MOVE
But for all the family’s best efforts, Nortell was in the red, with orders simply not coming in quick enough to keep more than 30 people on the payroll. In 1983, Normita closed the business down, and went to work as supervisor at Sassco Fashions in Secaucus, NJ.
Over the years, she constantly kept the family on the move for another reason: She wanted the children to grow up in good neighborhoods.
“My mother had this saying in Spanish: ‘Tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell you who you are’,” says Norma. “Of course, when you’re young, you wouldn’t understand that. I detested having to move each time after making friends in a new town and school. Today, as a mother myself, I know what she was trying to do.”
Normita finally settled in Secaucus, where she bought a home — the same house her daughter majestically rebuilt years later and continues to live in, as part of her mother’s legacy.
NO REST — NOT FOR HER
Even as her children’s careers blossomed in the 1990s, Normita wouldn’t call it a day. She was already running a booming Mary Kay business by then, and went on to take various real estate roles at Peterson Realty, Century 21 and Weichert.
“I used to come home and find three or four Mary Kay ladies there for meetings. They used to bring Madi candy, treats and toys,” says Doug Hanley — Norma husband — who remembers his mother-in-law affectionately referring to him as her “gringo alto” (tall American).
To Normita, her three grandchildren – Madeleine, Diego and Mia — were the epitome of her American dream. She often referred to them as “Mi Vida” (My Life!) and enjoyed to the fullest every moment she spent with them. She used to turn into a playful ‘kid’ herself in their company, getting down on the floor to play ‘Dora’, dinosaurs, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ or whatever their young imaginations conjured up.
She was a patient, loving grandmother who relived her second childhood vicariously through them and who, at a moments notice, would drop whatever she was doing to attend to their needs.
Daughter-in-law Nancy Cepeda — wife to Jerry and mother to Diego and Mia — says Normita “really, really loved being a grandma.”
“She’d ask: ‘When you guys gonna go out, so that I can have the kids to myself?’ ” says Nancy with a laugh.
She also recalls Normita looking upon her as a “hija” (daughter), rather than “nuera” (daughter-in-law), and says she’ll never forget the vacation she took in Puerto Rico with the matriarch of the Cepeda family. “We were all there, the Hanleys, Cepedas, grandkids and her. She had a great time with all of us. I just didn’t want to come home.”
Aside from rolling on the rug with her grandchildren, Normita also enjoyed the finer things in life such as traveling, dancing and the occasional delectable glass of Baileys — introduced to her by “gringo alto” Doug.
She was a fashion maven too, a talent that naturally came from her dress-making skills and ability to blend cosmetics with finesse. She loved dressing up and finding just the right pair of high-heeled shoes, a passion she passed on to her daughter.
After retiring, Normita traveled to many places: Las Vegas, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, England, Belgium, Germany, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and even Ecuador as a tourist.
Long before that, she and Eduardo Tello had grown apart too, leading to her second divorce.
“Mami always told me: ‘You don’t need a man. You just need yourself. That’s why you need to go to school,’” says Norma, who counts herself luckier in love than her mother. “Mom always said: ‘Family comes first. Romantic love is not the same as familial love. You met him in the corner. You’ll meet someone else in the corner and he’ll be gone.’ ”
Jerry says he could not think of too many individuals who had inspired him as much as his mother.
“Her ability to pick up the pieces and move on was unbelievable,” he said. “A normal person would’ve just given up. She just continued going on and on. Her whole life could be summed up in one word: perseverance. It has taught me the same: ‘I can fix this,’ I tell myself. ‘It’s not time to give up. I have no choice but to move on.’ I saw that in my Mom. It was a trait of hers. It was a trait I learnt.”
INSPIRING TILL THE END
But as the years rolled on, Normita’s health began suffered. She had two heart attacks, a quadruple bypass, breast cancer and then a stroke. “Despite all that, she was like, indestructible, for a while,” said son-in-law Doug.
It was just about this time that, one day, she apologized to Jerry.
Her younger son recalls that moment vividly, saying: “We were having a deep conversation about something, and suddenly she said, ‘Jerry, I want to apologize.’
“I said, ‘Mami, why are you apologizing?’. She said, ‘I want to apologize because you were the one who suffered the most.’ And I asked ‘What do you mean suffered?’ She said, ‘Because Al and your sister had a good life in Ecuador where your father was a journalist. They never had to struggle the way you did.’ I told her, ‘Mami, those struggles you talk about are those I value the most because they taught me perseverance, because without that, I would not be the person I am today.’
Norma concurs with that. “My mother was my biggest fan. When I was offered a big promotion at my previous job and I was thinking about it, she asked me: ‘What’s the worst that’s going to happen? If you failed, you tried.’ ”
The life lessons taught by her mother prepared her more than any bootcamp for management, she says. “Whatever I have today — everything I am today — is because of my mother. And I celebrate her for that.”
* Norma Yolanda Mosquera Jaramillo was born on March 16, 1936 and returned home to be with the Lord on April 6, 2014.
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