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Speaker talks of breaking the cycle of poverty

Mirtha Workman spoke to a diverse audience about her hardships as a youth growing up in Mexico.

MARSHALL — It’s possible to come from extreme privation, and with determination, break the cycle of poverty, said one of the speakers at a recent multi-cultural event.

Mirtha Workman, an English Language Learner/seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher for the Round Lake-Brewster School District, brought her eighth graders to the Cultures on the Prairie of Southwest Minnesota event Feb. 11 at Southwest Minnesota State University.

She spoke to the audience about her life in Mexico before her family was able to immigrate to the United States.

“I was born in Mexico,” she said. “I was born into poverty. We lived in an adobe house. The floor was dirt. My mother would burn wood outside and bring the coals inside to heat the home.”

Workman said she was one of eight children with no father in the home. Her mother had to work many jobs and Workman hardly saw her.

“It was extreme poverty,” she said. “Many times I went to school with an empty stomach.”

The other students didn’t want to play with her because of her ragged clothes and shoes. She didn’t want to complain to her mother that her shoes were too small so she cut the shoes in front to make room for her toes.

One time in second grade she fainted from hunger at school at noon and older children brought her home on their bikes later that day. Her aunt hunted for wild spinach for the family to eat.

“She made wild spinach and corn tortilla,” Workman said. “It was the best meal I had eaten in a long time.”

An uncle worked in a grocery store and would bring home spoiled produce in white buckets for the hogs. The cousins would eat the best fruit and Workman and her siblings had to eat the leftover rotten bananas, mangos and produce meant for the hogs.

After awhile Workman found refuge at school.

“I quickly found that I was good at academics and there were caring teachers. I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “Thank goodness for school uniforms.”

She would take her school uniform off when she got home and put on a rag to cover herself and go barefoot to save her shoes.

She and her brothers would work. They would clean cow stomachs for 5 cents apiece for menudo. They would cut little pieces of cow gut and fry it.

Her mother worked in factories or illegally in the United States as a maid where she was paid $10 a week or given bread. They lived next to the border near Laredo, Texas. Money sent to the children’s caregiver didn’t make it to the children. Any extra money her mother had she would save to pay for immigration.

“She would try and things would go wrong and then that money would be wasted,” Workman said.

It took eight years to finally be able to immigrate to the United States.

“In 1978 we were able to immigrate thank God, but I didn’t speak a word of English,” she said. “I thought ‘how in the world am I going to be a teacher now?'”

Living in Arizona and Texas, her mother took her to the cotton fields, to the chili pepper and onion fields to work. Her mother told her, “If you don’t get an education, this is your future,” Workman said.

“I declared in my heart and I spoke it out loud — I’m going to college and graduate with highest honors. I’m going to have children and my children will graduate college with the highest honors.”

Workman said all three of her daughters have college educations with highest honors.

“My youngest is just about to graduate from Augustana,” she said. “So I was able to break the cycle of poverty.”

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