Interview with Ms. Lenuța (Venus)
The interview was recorded in Turnu Măgurele town, in August 2015, in the frame of the project Maskar. It was recorded in front of Lenuţa and her husband’s house, at the time they were expecting their children and grandchildren to visit them from abroad.
What’s your name and age?
I’m 48 years old and my name is Lenuța. My nickname is Venus – the goddess of beauty.
Where did you work abroad?
I went to work in Spain and it was not easy at all – but what am I saying, it was actually really hard. I stayed for five years alone with my children. I left for the first time in 1999. I left together with my children carrying their schoolbags and books. It was that really difficult period, when we knew we wouldn’t get a place to stay, but we had some hope. I improvised a “home” out of two mattresses. I would lay a mattress down on the ground, and another one leaning against a wall, as a roof. That’s how we slept.
How long did you sleep like that?
For months on end. Winter included. Mark my words, we slept like that for a long period of time and winter was really harsh! Sometimes, when I remember the things we went through, I feel like crying. You hope for something good to happen – but the situation you find yourself in is so bad that you don’t know how to go through it!
Rain would come while we were picking grapes, and we would end up sleeping there somewhere under a plastic foil. It was like my soul was growing old! I didn’t feel like a complete human being anymore! Rain, wind, we would hold on to each other and sleep. The worst is when you stop feeling the harshness because you get used to it, it becomes part of you! Rain was pouring down on us. We would work and sleep in the same clothes! […]
Why didn’t you return to Romania?
I couldn’t. I had huge debts, I borrowed money to go to Spain, and I couldn’t pay back. My mom was old, I had two more children at home, I lacked basic resources. Before leaving for Spain, I would sell out things from the house in order to buy food. We had no means to survive, that’s what determined me to leave. At least like that, working abroad, I was hoping to raise money and cover our debts. I worked for almost 18 years in Spain and at the beginning, for about five years, I’ve been through hell; until my husband came and the situation improved. I sometimes went to sleep thinking maybe it would be better never to wake up again. What to wake up for? Only the children kept me alive. After five years, when my husband came, I felt resurrected. Then we were able to rent our own place with a real roof! When they entered the house, my children were so happy to have electric light and running water. I don’t know if you understand what it’s like to cry with joy because you can turn the lights on and off, because you have running water to wash up. “Mom, we have a bathroom and we have electricity!” We gathered all the other children still living in the fields, we brought them to our place and fed them.
Why couldn’t your husband join you from the beginning?
In ’98 he tried to cross the border illegally and was caught in Spain; he was told it was forbidden for him to return to Spain for four years.
Did the kids go to school in Spain?
Three of them went to school, while the oldest one came to work with me. I could I do?! He was my main support! All that time working in Spain, I raised money to come back to Romania and build a small house here. Maybe it seems… weird what I’m saying… but when a plastic foil and a mattress are your ‘house’, owning a bed seems an impossible dream! And that was my dream: to have a house. When I went abroad, we didn’t have a house; we were staying at my mom’s place with the five children, and it wasn’t easy. We were crowded, we couldn’t call it home.
In Spain you went with three of the children?
My husband went with one of the children; he then had to return and left the child there; then I went with two more children and, after a couple of years, when I managed to get contracted work, I returned for the last two. I took them all with me and I worked together with my oldest son, hardly earning enough to eat and to send some money back home.
The child stayed alone in Spain?
Our son stayed with some relatives. My husband had to leave quickly, so the relatives said they will take care of the boy; they said it’s better for the boy to stay in Spain. He was 13 years old, he was able to work in the greenhouses and send us money back home. […] No child should go through the kind of childhood my son went through. He was already an adult since he was a child. In Spain, he had a caring cousin who begged her boss: “Take him to work because otherwise I’m afraid I’ll lose him! He will live on the streets and who knows what will happen to him!” And her boss gave him work, not without apprehension – as it was illegal for him to hire the boy with 13 […].
What other jobs did you do besides picking grapes?
I also worked in harvesting garlic. There were huge piles of garlic and the workers had to load the garlic into containers. My boy would bring me the garlic from the pile and I would cut it and load it into containers. My cheeks were all sunburnt – I didn’t have money for sunscreen… so imagine standing so many hours at 40 degrees Celsius…
How many hours were you working each day?
Sometimes I would work for ten hours in a row, standing in the sun. My face would shrivel. I would ask the boss to allow my kids to help me, so we’d fill up more containers and earn some more. I really wished I could send them to school everyday, to be educated, but I couldn’t. When the other workers were taking breaks to eat, I wouldn’t. I’d keep working, to earn some more. I didn’t leave the country because we were doing well, and we weren’t working like crazy because we wanted to build a palace! We were working to survive, so that we’d get to live another day! […] Sometimes I look at myself and wonder: woman, you, how did you find the strength to endure such hardships?!
Then little by little, after managing to get contracted work and to pay social insurance, I was able to get a bank loan for a little house – so that my kids could have proper living conditions!
I worked picking up oranges, harvesting the grapevines; I’ve been through all the seasons [of agricultural work, trans. note]. It’s so hard when you go abroad for the first time and there’s no one there to help you. Sometimes I wish “abroad” didn’t even exist for my family. “Abroad” dehumanizes you. All the humiliation you endure! And for the money you earn, you work until there’s nothing left of you. It’s good when you manage to save some money, but your heart is broken! […]
Here in Romania you cannot earn enough to survive. […] The lack of jobs is the biggest problem. I told my children: “save the money that you earn there and do something here, so that you can get by and we can all live together”. It’s easy to say “that person doesn’t want to work”, but it’s misleading. I know people here who worked hard and did many jobs, until everything was privatized and they became unemployed. And then, who would be crazy to leave if things were all right?! […]
The other workers in the fields, where were they from?
They were from Bulgaria, Portugal, Morocco… from many countries. We all got along well because we all wanted to work and survive. People going through hardships seem to be more caring. We would live all in one house. In the first house where we managed to stay, approximately 40 people were sheltered in four rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a hallway. I would share a small bed with my niece, on the hallway. There were four army beds crammed on that hallway. Some people would sleep in the house, others outside in the yard. We lived there for one year. […]
What gave you strength during those times?
A woman in Cordoba once told me: “Keep fighting, my girl, don’t give up! Hang in there and it will get better!” And indeed little by little it got better. Now my children have a home, they don’t struggle the way I struggled, they have some savings, it’s a bit better for them.
Did you go to school?
I finished four grades. When I was a child, we were poor as well, but somehow we had our basic needs covered. My mom was working at the cooperative, my dad at the factory, it was decent. We could manage. I don’t remember being stressed out and worried as a child the way my kids were stressed. When we were in Spain, my third child would wait for us at home doing the laundry and cooking – stuffed peppers, because we all liked that. Today’s children – I’m not talking about the rich kids, although they have their own troubles, being neglected by their parents working all the time – are very stressed out!
When did the situation in Turnu-Măgurele worsened?
After the ‘89s Revolution. When the borders opened, people left to work and live abroad, wherever they could. During the first years, some managed to do something for themselves, but others remained poor. The factory was ruined, the textile factory was sold, all the state-owned companies in Turnu-Măgurele were sold and the people were left on their own. It was like we were all sold at the fair. People and places were sold piece by piece. When you leave, it’s because there’s nothing there anymore – or it will soon turn into nothing. That’s why I left. There was nothing there for me anymore. But I can’t say it enough: being abroad leaves deep scars. You carry the burden of loneliness, of not belonging, of the borders, and you just keep hoping. When your hope wears down, you’re finished!
What do you wish for the most?
To see my children and grandchildren with my own eyes, not in the photos! To cook for them, to gather them around the table, to have them close. We’ve been away for so long.
Interview by MIHAELA MICHAILOV and ILEANA GABRIELA SZASZ, with the help of Ana Maria Pălăduș