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From Factory To Classroom: A Worker, A Student — And A Mother

Noramay Cadena (right), with her daughter, Chassitty Saldana, on a visit with StoryCorps in Los Angeles.
Noramay Cadena (right), with her daughter, Chassitty Saldana, on a visit with StoryCorps in Los Angeles.

Today, Noramay Cadena is a mechanical engineer, fitted with multiple degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But she came by her motivation in a place much different from the MIT classrooms: a factory in Los Angeles where her mother brought her one summer as a teenager.

Every day that summer, a bell rang out the signal to begin work in the morning. Then, Cadena would spend the next eight hours putting hooks onto bungee cords. It was work familiar to her family, if not to Cadena herself at that point; her parents are factory workers who came to the U.S. from Mexico.

"I remember just thinking, I don't like this place, and I don't want to work here," says Cadena, 34, during a visit with StoryCorps in Los Angeles, with her own teenage daughter, Chassitty Saldana. "But it was my mom's way of showing me what my life would be like if I didn't do anything different."

But Saldana was born Cadena's senior year in high school. That made the decision to leave those factories for something different, to move cross-country to go to school at MIT — and with her daughter with her — all the more difficult.

"No other time in my life have I been as brave as that day," Cadena says.

At school, it didn't get much easier. She would wake up in the morning, take the baby to day care and then go to class. It was only when Saldana went to sleep in the evenings that Cadena got to work on her homework.

"Sometimes I slept, and sometimes I didn't," she says.

This put naps at a premium.

"I remember this one time at my day care, I was playing in the playground," Saldana tells her mom, "and I saw you come home but you didn't come pick me up."

"Yeah, I remember that," Cadena says. "There were times that I really needed a nap in between classes — and so I would come home and I would actually hide. I would get off the shuttle bus, and I would run upstairs. It was just about my only quiet time."

Her mom's occasional naps notwithstanding, Saldana says she's always known the answer to a question she's been asked repeatedly in her own classes: Who's your role model?

"I would always put my mom," she says. "Because a lot of people said that you wouldn't graduate, but you did — you graduated MIT twice."

"We did — you were there, too," Cadena tells her daughter.

"I know the last 17 years haven't been easy, but I wanted to set a great example for you," she continues. "I remember during graduation, seeing how happy my parents were and feeling like I was Superwoman. It felt like the beginning of a new life for all of us and gave me this huge sense of hope for what you would do."

Since graduating, Cadena has worked to improve conditions at factories like the ones where her parents still work.

And she has no doubt her daughter will do well in her own endeavors, too.

"I hope so," Saldana answers. "I've definitely learned it all from you."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff