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Manuela Guillén remembers life as a young Floridian, when she’d lie on the grass and look up at the sky, which she swears looks different there, to spend hours watching the clouds change colors. Now 31, Guillén is an art teacher at a school in North Philly, and she describes this experience to her students as a reminder to slow down and enjoy the moment.
“Ultimately, what I think it really meant was to be present and enjoy the leisure, guilt free,” she said of the memory.
This may be easier said than done. Guillén is also a freelance artist and small business owner. When she gets home from a day of teaching, her afternoons are filled with painting commissions, connecting with clients, or shipping orders.
It wasn’t until the 2020 shutdown that she started to realize the toll it was taking on her mental and physical health. “I pour into my students, I pour into the artistic work,” Guillén said. “It feels like I’m pouring more into the work I do and less into me.”
The push to work hard is something she was brought up with. Her parents, immigrants from Cuba and El Salvador, worked in the fields in Homestead, a lower-income area near Miami.
They constantly reminded Guillén that the only way to get out was by working. Whenever she rested, she felt guilty. If she was ever bored, she knew her mom would respond with “Pues, ponte a limpiar!” — “Well, go clean!”
It’s common for immigrants to the United States to sacrifice a healthy work-life balance to provide their family a better opportunity, said Emilio Parrando, a sociology professor and director of the population studies center at the University of Pennsylvania. Many times this involves working in jobs they’re overqualified to do, or in what are known as 3D jobs — dirty, difficult, and dangerous — such as agriculture, kitchen work, or construction.
“They sacrifice themselves for the family,” Parrando said. “They really do everything so that the family unit moves up.”
Yazmin Auli came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico in 2001 with her family on her mind. Pregnant with her daughter Camila, caring for her 5-year-old son Gabriel, she got a job at Congreso de Latinos Unidos and worked there for five years. Then she took a chance and decided to pursue her passion of baking.
In 2007, she opened El Coquí, a bakery and cafe in Harrowgate. At first, Auli only had five employees to do jobs now held by 20 to 30 people. This often involved late nights and 11- or 12-hour workdays.
There was a paradox to the long hours: coming to the U.S. with her own student loans, she never wanted her children to face the same issue, but she also felt guilty for the time she wasn’t spending with them.
“A mom’s motor is her kids,” Auli said. “The life that you can give to your kids is one that your parents couldn’t give you, plus so much more.”
Thanks to her effort, she’s been able to pay for her children’s college education, allowed them to travel, and taken them on one too many trips to Disney World. And today, even though she hasn’t stopped working, Auli tries to find a work-life balance that fits her. She’s passed on recipes to trusted coworkers, she takes time to go with her daughter to school at Cabrini University.
Most importantly, Sundays are her days to relax. When she’s home, she sometimes has to beg her partner to not mention anything about El Coquí.
“I feel better because I love to sleep,” she said, laughing. “Sometimes I stay in bed and she” — Auli motions with her mouth to her daughter who’s sitting in the corner — “joins me and we just lay there.”
Feeling fulfilled and managing the chaos
A college degree is one of the best ways the children of immigrants can attain social mobility, said Parrando, the Penn sociology professor. Before the pandemic, Latinos were entering college at a higher rate than other races or ethnicities, but there are real barriers that limit their access to higher education.
Some Latino immigrant parents who don’t have a college education may not understand what their kids need to succeed, Parrando said, and the process can be difficult because of intimidation, lack of English comprehension, or immigration status.
Other immigrant parents press hard for college.
That was the ethos of Fabiola Lara’s life for as long as she can remember. Coming from Chile, she saw her parents work tirelessly at different jobs cleaning houses or delivering pizzas. They reminded her that if she worked hard at getting an education, she could someday escape that life and score an office 9-to-5.
For five years, Lara followed that path, and had that stability. After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in advertising, she worked at Tumblr, then became a senior social editor for Popsugar, posting pop culture news.
Three years ago, she got a big promotion — and then she left.
Lara had enough money saved up to support herself for a year, and she decided to attend an illustration program in Barcelona. Once she came back, she realized freelance illustration was the life she wanted to live.
Two years later, Lara still feels this was the best decision for herself. “I feel so much more fulfilled now that I’m pursuing something that I genuinely can’t stop thinking about and love to do,” she said.
This experience has made Lara learn to trust herself through unstable situations — and that it’s okay to say no. She’s still trying to find that perfect work-life balance. Her job is so flexible that it creates its own level of chaos. She loves illustration projects so much that she can let it take over her life. A good rule of thumb? She works based on mood.
If she works for three days in a row, then she’ll give herself a full day of Netflix. “I’m the boss, the CEO said it was fine,” she joked.
Guillén, the art teacher, is also still working on finding the balance.
For her, self care is simple: going on a walk with her dog, meditating, reading a book, or making sure her fridge is stocked with healthy food. Self care is fueling herself back up so that she can continue the work she’s doing.
“It’s okay to have ups and downs at your job,” Guillén said. “There is no perfect job, but I think when you have the downs they’re easier to manage when you feel full.”
Some days are definitely easier than others, especially since the U.S. has normalized overworking, she said. But she believes this generation will change how we prioritize self care and work.
“That’s an opportunity my mom didn’t have, but I now have as her daughter,” Guillén said. “I have this chance to take care of myself and to create this work-life balance that I want, something that she couldn’t do at all.”