Building a Home Full of Memories: Sandra’s Story

Habitat homeowner Sandra and her family

When Sandra heard she would soon become a Habitat homeowner, she says it was like the stars aligned. Everything in her life had led her to that moment; all the years of perseverance were coming to fruition. Having a home meant she would not have to move every year, trying to find an affordable place to rent. After moving 18 times in her life, she would finally have long-term stability for her family to grow and thrive.

 “I got to build my home like my parents built ours,” Sandra says. “It’s an amazing feeling to see your house go up and be there with all the people who helped.” 

Friends and colleagues throughout the Portland community came out to help build her home from the ground up. They stood by her for many years throughout her times of struggle and rallied for her success. She was no longer the young girl in Tonaya, Jalisco running around, dipping her hands and feet in the cement while her parents built her childhood home with their own hands.  

“As I built my house for my own children, the feeling is hard to describe,” Sandra says, “It’s kind of like standing on top of the roof saying, ‘Oh my God, this is mine, I did this.” 

Everything she has done, Sandra says, she has done for her children.  

“I now know the struggle my mother felt when she was building our home back in Mexico. She never let us feel it,” Sandra remembers. “My goal now is that my kids don’t feel itthat they only see that hard work pays off and, with the right support, all is possible. 

Back before Sandra experienced the weight of life’s turmoil, she remembers a warm childhood filled with memories of helping her mom make tamales and buñuelos in their kitchenette, washing off the summer heat in their outdoor shower, running around her small neighborhood, barefoot. She didn’t know then that her mother had to sell tamales door to door, make one hundred buñuelos to sell at events in the local plaza, and sew neighbors’ clothes all to keep a roof over their heads while her father worked in the U.S. to pay for their work visas.  

When she, her elder sister, and mother joined her father in Pomona, California, work was an everyday fact of life. While she stayed with her aunt and attended school, her parents had to live apart with another family member to work around the clock until they saved enough to move to Merced. Her father got a job overseeing the land on a turkey farm and secured a three-bedroom house on the property as part of the contract. He tended to the farm day and night while her mother woke every morning at 3 am to work in the fields.  

Once Sandra was 12-years-old, she joined her mother; waking most mornings to pick plums, cherries, almonds, whatever the season would bring. Then she would bus to school with remnants of the fields sticking to her clothes and purpling her fingers. Her day’s work helped pay for her family’s attorney fees in the process of gaining their permanent residency.  

 Life in Merced reminded Sandra of life back in Tonaya: so remote and expansive. She remembers climbing trees to play with squirrels and riding a banana-seat bike around the farm.  

“I think that was my first real experience of security,” Sandra recalls. “Those are warm memories.” 

Then, when she was sixteen, she became a permanent resident and her family moved to Oregon. She had been uprooted, that sense of security gone. In this new state, where it was always cold, cloudy, and constantly raining, she hated that her parents brought her to such a place.  

Soon she found refuge within a group of friends at school who became like family. They made sure she had enough resources to get through the day and would fight for her, if she needed them to. Through them, she learned what it meant to take care of one another, to have each other’s back through and through. After class and working her shift at K-Mart, she would meet up with them to go have fun. But soon, fun turned to substance abuse. It wasn’t until she was 17 and pregnant with her first child that she decided to get clean.  

While Sandra never relapsed, her journey was still fraught with struggle. As an independent mother, she knew she had to provide for her children and keep them safe, which sometimes came with large sacrifices. To keep her burdens at bay, she poured herself into work until she was ready to leave an abusive relationship and rebuild her life.  

 She found an apartment next to a high school friend, secured a second job at a local nonprofit, and balanced her work and family life in addition to taking classes. Soon that friend would become her husband and that job, a career as a data analyst for The Pathfinder Network where she partners with families to rebuild their own lives. And while they moved 18 times before purchasing their home with Habitat for Humanity, Sandra and her family have continued to thrive despite their hardships.  

“Now I’m financially stable because of all the things that lined up,” she says. “I have a home that I pay 0% interest on, my mortgage is under a thousand dollars, medical bills are less because we’re all healthy and we have a good environment. My kids are happy and thriving because of everything good that’s happening in our lives. I don’t have to worry about paying rent or putting food on the table. I have a home I can call mine.” 

It’s been seven years since Sandra moved into the 45-home community in Portland’s Centennial neighborhood. She’s formed bonds with her neighbors who helped build each other’s homes and now serve on the Homeowner’s Association together. Their children surpassed language and cultural differences to make lifelong friends with other kids in their community. 

 I take walks with my dog and my neighbors say, Hello.’ We look out for each other in times that emergencies come up or others are traveling. I can walk my quiet block and look around at all the different cultures and traditions each family brings. It is a blessing that not many can say they have. 

Isaac is now 21 and Carmen is 19. They both graduated from Reynolds High School and are learning to navigate their adult lives. Her 15-year-old daughter, Nela, is excelling in school and while her 11-year-old, Emilia, is challenged by remote learning, she is still a burst of energy and lights up a room. Sandra’s husband, Freddie, works as a barber and finds time to help his brother partner with local youth to build life skills. 

Her home serves a central hub for her family. When they come to visit, she has a seat for them at her kitchen table and a pillow for them to rest their heads at night. Her home is also a memory bank. She has kept every school project her children have made throughout the years. She wants her children to know how much she loves and values them, and having a steady place to call home provides a safe place to keep all those memories alive.  

 No matter what challenges life brings my kids they know this is their safe home,” Sandra says. “And here or there, I sometimes get their friends that need safe place and a hot mealwhich I am more than happy to provide. 

As for Sandra, she continues to be a well of generosity. Once she was able to find stability in homeownership, she immediately wanted to give back to the community. She has served on the board of the Oregon Food Bank and Multnomah County Library Committee. She’s volunteered with Rock the Block event and continues to empower women through her stewardship at Soroptimist Portland. Her life experiences serve as a resource guide for people throughout the community. When someone needs a recommendation for local services, she is often the one they call. Sandra says she’s thankful to be in such a position and meet amazing people throughout Portland and beyond. She is also a big advocate for Habitat for Humanity; sharing her story with clients and community members so they can know stability is within reach. 

“The security is like a huge weight lifted off of you,” Sandra says. “I’m thankful for Habitat and everything they’ve provided for me. When my children grow up, they can let me have a room in this home with them. Or maybe I can retire in Mexico, which I would love.”  

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