PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — This is America.
Straight-A, Blackstone Academy senior America Ordonez enjoys the tranquility of drawing moments from the faces of residents of Oak Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
“Who wouldn’t want a portrait,” she says with a smile. “I enjoy thinking about their lives while I paint.”
The portraits – brought to life with watercolors and acrylics – complete a requirement for her junior year, but she says it’s also therapy for what she endured for most of her life.
Ordonez was separated from her mother at the age of 2, and for the next 15 years, raised in Guatemala by her father.
It did not go well.
“He was a violent man. Almost every day,” she said. “There were a couple of times when I couldn’t get up from bed because it would hurt.”
At 15, when most of her current classmates would’ve been dreaming about drivers licenses and posting selfies on Facebook, Ordonez made a dangerous decision to change her life.
She escaped, crossing the border into Mexico, hoping she could make it to the country she was named after.
Eight days and about 1,300 miles later – using cars, trucks and even a motorcycle – and the expertise of, “a man who knew the way,” Ordonez arrived at an immigration center in Brownsville, Texas.
“I don’t see it like something incredible because I lived it,” she said. “It was hard, don’t get me wrong. ]But] what I had in my head was a better life, to finally live with my mom.”
That didn’t happen right away – with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) process including a home visit to her mother’s Rhode Island home.
“I turned 16 [in the immigration center],” Ordonez said.
But her hope eventually came to life.
She remembers having a dream about her mom wearing a particular dress the night before they were reunited.
“When she finally came,” Ordonez said. “She was wearing that dress. I cried. She cried too.”
And the hug seemed to last forever.
“I didn’t think how dangerous it would be,” Ordonez said. “I was just thinking, the end. What would I get if I do it?”
Neither Ordonez nor her mother spends a lot of energy thinking about the red-hot immigration debate, even though a straight-A student named America – who went toe-to-toe with the danger of racing through Mexico to an immigration center to hopefully become a U.S. Citizen – would be political gold to almost anyone debating the issue.
For now, she is satisfied that living with her mother, and using art to bring smiles to the faces of nursing home residents is a dream come true.
“Maybe it helps them too, as they miss their family,” Ordonez said. “It’s nice here [at Oak Hill.] and they might think, oh wow, this is me. This is me on paper with colors.”
Her next goal is college, although she is not sure how her quest for citizenship will impact that.
What she does not like to talk about is she had no way of taking her four, younger half-siblings with here.
“I used to take care of them,” Ordonez said. “I don’t like to think about it.”
She is not giving up on reuniting with them someday.