Tita came to the United States from Cape Verde in 2007, with little English and big dreams in her eyes, seeking a better future, like many of us do, driven by the American dream of happiness and prosperity. She stayed with her sister in Rhode Island who helped her get her first job as a cleaning woman in a doctor’s chamber. It required no English from Tita and also earned her some money to fend for herself. Soon, she started working with her cousin – who had sponsored her visa – at his KFC outlet, but still as a helping hand at the back where she did not have much speaking to do. “That job was not very hard,” Tita says. “I would look at the computer, read the instructions, and pack the food being sent to the counter from the kitchen. I managed to pick up enough English to do that much.” However, it also did nothing to help her hone her skills in a language that was foreign to her. “When you don’t speak a language you forget it,” Tita admits.
Her first job at India Restaurant was simple: she tended to the plants and cleaned tables; until her manager, Ajay, told her one day – to her utter surprise – that he would like her to serve their customers and wait at tables. Afraid, confused, yet thrilled, Tita readied herself for the challenge, despite her limitations in the new language. “To be honest, I was terrified,” Tita recalls today after nine years of working at India Restaurant. “I thought: how am I going to do this with no English? But somehow, my manager saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. If he had so much faith in me, I guess it was my duty to give it a try. On my first day as a server I walked up to a table and told the customers, ‘I am so sorry, my English is not good.’ And I have to say this about American people: they can be very kind to you. They were very kind to me and they helped me when I was struggling.” And since then, there has been no turning back for Tita.
She met the young Cape Verdean man whom she was eventually going to marry at a café across the street from her workplace (and who now works with her at India Restaurant). “I don’t really believe in Destiny but I think I was meant to be with him,” Tita gushes. “When I first came to Providence I was living with my sister and he used to live on that same street. Yet, we never saw each other for three years. I only met him when I went to the café across the street. I love coffee, so I would go to that shop every morning before coming to India Restaurant. He was always kind to me, careful and caring; and one day I ended up asking him if he happened to be from a Cape Verdean.” “I am from Cape Verde,” he told me, “but I speak no Creole.” And that is how it all began. “Of course, I was scared at first,” Tita laughs. “He is so young. I thought he is going to play with my emotions. But he soon helped me realise that age is just a number. You can be young and mature, or you can be old but very immature. The two of us bonded really well and what I thought would be a joke turned out to be a beautiful experience for me. He is honest, humble and sincere.” The two of them have now been married for four years, have a little daughter, and are expecting their second child in the spring of 2019. They bought a house in East Providence and a car.
“If I start talking about India Restaurant, there will be so much to say,” Tita adds. “This place is not just a job for me, this is my second family. I love it here. I bought my house about ten minutes away from the restaurant because this is where I want to keep working for as long as I can. I belong to this place, and I feel that this place belongs to me. After working here for some years, my English improved and people got to know me. I soon had other opportunities knocking at my door but I chose to continue working at India Restaurant. I found home here, away from home.”
“Yours is a success story, Tita,” I tell her. “Are you happy then? Is there anything you miss about home?” Tita’s eyes tear up, even though it has been more than a decade that she left Cape Verde. “I miss my mother very much. I was not married and I did not have kids when I left home. So, it was easy for me to come here and start my life from scratch. I know I made the right choice. But I do miss my mother, and I need her around sometimes. She visits me often. She got a citizenship here. But she goes back to my country every winter because she cannot stand the cold!”
“Looking back at your life, is there anything that you would like to do differently, Tita?”
“Not really. I have a very supportive husband, I cannot complain. But as you know, everyone has problems. You need to know how to adjust and make compromises. Nobody is 100% happy. You need to find your own happiness, one way or another.”
Tita goes back to work with that poignant message. It is 4.00pm on a Sunday evening: that is when her shift starts at India Restaurant. I sit at my table, sipping ginger chai, and smiling at the story that the strong, amiable Cape Verdean woman had just shared with me.
- Somrita Urni Ganguly