Juanita

Juanita (back row, 4th form RHS) with english class in Madrid, 1962.
Juanita (back row, 4th from RHS) with english class in Madrid, 1962.
    I was born in Villafranca del Penedés, half an hour from Barcelona. I did not live there and only returned after I separated from my husband, 20 years ago. My family lived in Calella on the coast and later moved to Barcelona.

    I will never forget my arrival to Australia. It was the 12th of October 1962, Spanish National Day. I had been traveling by plane for four days, as it ran out of petrol half way across the ocean. In those days the aeroplanes were very big but only carried one hundred passengers. I was one of sixty single women and the other passengers were families with small children. After I boarded the plane I wanted to run back to Spain. During the flight there was an incredible storm that made me want to get off the plane as soon as I could.

    I was a seamstress in Spain, it was difficult to get this work in Australia due to my poor English language skills. Before leaving for Sydney I attended obligatory English lessons at a convent, learning how to say simple words such as water, thirsty, bed, sleep and tired. It was the only way that they tried to teach us to speak naturally.

    I came to Australia on a contract during the period of the White Australia Policy, the Australian government paid for everything. Us single girls had two year contracts as domestic help. This was not an easy period in my life, because I didn’t know the language. Nobody stayed on as maids in the one house for too long. The food was so different to what I was used to, so I hardly ate. I worked for an English family surviving on coffee and bread. I would vomit everything that I ate, until I discovered that if I ate my toast with olive oil and salt I felt much better.

    The family had many parties, so I had little time to rest. I was paid £6, working almost 24 hours a day. I was not allowed to leave the house, not even to post letters to my family back in Spain. They kept my pay and did not let me attend school, as I was supposed to. Fortunately, some of the nuns that had traveled with us supported me during those difficult times. One of those nuns spoke to the family on my behalf and asked them to allow me to leave the house. I said to them, “I would die if I was not able to leave the house!” The nuns explained that they needed to give me a bit more freedom. Three or four months later I found a new job through a girl I knew at the Spanish Club. She told me that she worked as a cleaner from 5am to 9.30am and that she earned the same amount as a maid! I told the nun and I left my job as a housemaid. The man that rented the rooms, put another bed in my new friend´s room. My life had changed. I was no longer alone and we worked together. After work we would go the Spanish Club, but never too late, as we always had to wake up early to go to work.

    The Spanish Club began as a place where all of us young ones could meet. In the beginning we sat on milk crates. Later we obtained the second floor that we divided with curtains. It wasn’t long until we had a dance floor, a restaurant, a library and later a café. A band played there and we all had such a great time speaking Spanish and listening to music. The Club continued to prosper and the work was organized amongst the members, so here I stayed.

    My body went through a strange change after my arrival in Sydney. I found out that I had cysts in my breasts. The Spanish doctor who worked with the local Spanish community sent me to the hospital because I needed to have an operation. I did not speak a word of English and there was no one to help me, I was very scared. I only understood the word ‘cancer’, but I was lucky and the cysts were not cancerous in the end. Everything was different and more primitive compared to how things are today. I was bandaged and I carried a catheter. As I sat on the sofa, the specialist explained (with body language and by speaking slowly) that the catheter would be taken out the day after the operation. Then a registrar came over to me and ripped off my dressing gown, without saying a word! I thought that Australians did not like us because when we spoke with them they said, “Speak English!”

    Later, I met another Spanish girl from Madrid. We became great friends and years later she became my bridesmaid and God Mother to my son. After cleaning offices, we would sew suit alterations for a Jewish lady. I continued to work for her after I was married, she was very good to me. When my son was born she sent me flowers and bought his pram. I had a difficult pregnancy and was sick all of the time. I had my daughter soon after. She was not well as a baby, so I had to take her to St. Margarets Hospital. There, I met a lady who ran a childcare centre. I was very happy when she offered me work as I could take my babies with me.

    The Spanish Club President asked me if I would run their newly established childcare centre. Most members had children, they were young and newly married. It was a great idea as it gave us somewhere to leave our children while we went to work. We opened on the third floor to take care for five children, this number expanded to two hundred by Christmas. The childcare centre became very popular and we later formed a “youth club” as the children grew up. The Spanish Club was an amazing place to go. We managed our funds wisely to eventually buy the whole building. However, little by little the Club started drowning. I stayed working at the Club until 1975, I became sick again and I had to have an operation.

    My first years in Australia were perhaps the hardest. I was much happier after the birth of my children, they meant everything to me. They kept me fulfilled. I slowly became accustomed to life in Australia as it became a home for my family. I am not completely happy today, due to my poor health. I find life very expensive and my health makes things more complicated. I think I would like to return to Spain, but my family is here. There is nothing there for me. My sisters have their own lives, the eldest lives in Hawaii. I am not the happiest person in the world, however I am in charge of my own life. I have my children and a grandchild, they mean the world to me.
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