Mercedes Quevedo de Walkham

Guatemala

Mercedes Quevedo de Walkham's portrait
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“Sometimes I feel like there is no place for me here. Sometimes I feel completely alien…But some days are really nice and I feel like there is still hope; like I can still fit in.”

There is so much more than meets the eye with Mercedes. At first glance, she is not exotic, but beautiful in a different way. She appears quiet, feminine and a bit delicate. Yet the more you get you know her, the more her power and her strong sense of self reveal themselves. More importantly, she has a very strong sense of who she is and what she wants to say…Before posing for her portrait, Mercedes took off her glasses and pointing at them, she said; “This is not me!”. Indeed, there is so much of “her” that is hidden; so much of her that she has put away to fit into and be accepted by this community.

Mercedes came here for love. Her husband Thomas, is from Ashburton. She left Guatemala, one of the warmest countries in the world in 2014, and arrived in New Zealand 19 hours later, on the 8th of August; which was recorded as the coldest day in New Zealand that year. It was her first time in New Zealand. In fact, she had never even been to this side of the world.

Everything about New Zealand and everything about Ashburton was incredibly foreign to her. At 29, she recalls seeing the snow for the first time. She remembers how she couldn’t believe how many sheep farmers kept and also how difficult it was initially to understand the local English because of the accent. Two years later, the majority of her social experience here in Ashburton is still characterized by this same cultural shock; this same sense of estrangement and isolation in the middle of which Mercedes seeks to find herself and find a place for herself. She talks about this interesting theory that people who speak two languages have two different personalities. She says that the English speaking Mercedes is a lot shyer than the Spanish speaking Mercedes. Here, in this unfamiliar environment, she cares a lot about what people think about her.

Fast forward to 2016; Mercedes still feels like she doesn’t completely fit here. She still feels disconnected. She is often judged for being a foreigner, for having an accent and for looking different, but she doesn’t understand why. For a local, especially laid-back kiwis; these feelings are difficult to fathom. It is a strange reality to understand unless you have been in these shoes.

Migration, estrangement and distress go hand in hand and the further away one goes from the familiar, the more intense these feelings often become. Moving away from home is a double sided coin and a rollercoaster of emotions. On one hand, moving away is an opportunity to experience a new community, learn from it and grow from it; but on the other, it also means experiencing first hand dislocation, isolation and alienation. Mercedes articulates a reality that carries deep meaning for all of us migrants. For us, not being able to fit in and create bonds and connections, with our other members of our new local communities, means that we have failed. We carry this failure and take it personally. Migrants don’t often ask why the community that we live in is failing us; rather, we project these failures on ourselves and wonder why we are not enough, or not good enough.

Mercedes appreciates that maybe the colour of her skin is different, but she is a human being and it is to this sense of shared humanity that she wants to appeal to. She is beautiful, strong, she has a voice and wants to bring her contribution to Ashburton. Yet she remains in many ways invisible. Some of her colleagues don’t see her for everything that she is, some of the potential employees she approached didn’t see her for everything that she can become and sadly, the people closest to her do not see her loneliness.

Back in Central America, Mercedes worked as a bar and restaurant manager and as a hotel manager. She is qualified, she presents well, she is articulate, bilingual and can connect with people organically. She turned down her dream job for love and then left everything behind…for love.  Ashburton, Mercedes is a receptionist. It is hard because she knows that she can achieve so much more, but like many migrants, she understands that she needs to prove herself… But she doesn’t understand why it is so hard for her to find that opportunity.

In spite of her challenges, Mercedes has hope. She feels that things are starting to change for her here, and that Ashburton as a whole is beginning to open up a lot more to the world, and to migrants. A few days before her interview, she went to the Ashburton Domain with her friend. They were playing on the flying fox and speaking in Spanish when a little kiwi girl heard them and greeted them with an “Hola!”. Later that day, an elderly woman also stopped them and asked her where they were from and took genuine interest in the stories they had to share about themselves and their culture. This is all she asks for. This is all migrants ask for: a smile, a friendly hello and to feel like we too can belong here.

Mercedes says that she came here because of her husband but it is obvious that what brought her to New Zealand and kept her in Ashburton is her strength of character and her determination. It is Mercedes herself that was the catalyst to give herself the courage to leave everything behind to give her husband and herself a second chance and an opportunity to be together and grow together. She believes that this project will give her and other migrants a voice, but in reality it is her, and it is them, that have given a voice to this project…and a powerful one at that.