Appreciating the virtue of gratitude and giving for the greater good

May 12, 2021

This is the second article in a special series from the staff at the Community Foundation honoring Mother-figures in their lives by Contributing Editor: Luis Guzman
Director of the Immigrant Success Fund, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation

My mother told me, “Wealth isn’t something you own, it’s something to manage for the greater good.”  She has lived these words in her own quiet way.  She volunteers through her church, joined a group of women philanthropists raising money for charity, and donates to nonprofits focusing on children.

As an immigrant from El Salvador, she has lived the experience and violence of poverty, fascism, and war.  In her youth, my mother and her siblings would sometimes go without food.  Clothing was scarce.  And yes, she walked to school every day; 3 hours round trip.  As a student she was encouraged to pursue a career appropriate to her gender: an administrative assistant. But she insisted on studying dentistry and became a doctor.  It was challenging to immigrate to America with my father, my siblings in tow, no money, no English skills, and no family or friends.  But my mother realized what others sometimes missed – we were the lucky ones.

The virtue of gratitude was often lost on me and my siblings. America meant growing up in a land of peace and plenty.  War and hunger were as foreign to us as my mother’s homeland.  The stories I sometimes overheard of the war in El Salvador sounded less like true accounts and more like something out of a twisted fairy tale.  That all changed when I was 7 years old and my family visited El Salvador for three weeks.  During this trip, I met relatives I never knew existed and saw the one-room shack my parents had lived in. It was hard to forget meeting a particular relative who killed one of his family’s few chickens to provide us with a feast.  I’ll also never forget hearing distant automatic gunfire in the deep dark of night; a reminder of a fading civil war.  We’d make the trip back to El Salvador every four years.  These trips have perpetually benefited my perspective as well as my outlook on life in America.

Momma Guzman enjoying Connecticut’s coast

My mother loved America but missed El Salvador and returned to her home in 2001.  Since then, she has formed strong friendships with women and mothers in her community.  My mother made a new best friend.  They bonded over stories of their children and their shared pain.  In fact, my mother’s best friend had been abused and trafficked as a child.  So they joined forces and in their old age identify and help homeless, abused, and trafficked women and children.

During this time I finished school and became a banking attorney.  Something felt amiss from the very start.  My mother was always supportive.  And she would often tell me how proud she was of me.  But as time passed the obvious was too much to ignore: I wanted to be more like Mom and help in any small way I could.  I quit my job and backpacked for a year throughout the developing world.  The poverty and suffering I had seen in El Salvador was reflected in the developing countries I visited in Asia and Africa.  I eventually left the law and worked on humanitarian projects in Latin America and Asia that focused on improving the lives of women and children.  Later still, I managed child welfare and domestic violence prevention programs in Colorado.  More recently, I joined Fairfield County’s Community Foundation where the Immigrant Success Fund supports traumatized immigrant families escaping violence, poverty, and war in their countries of origin.

Mom is getting old. She has trouble negotiating stairs and has given up on understanding cell phones and computers.  Her memory is starting to fail and her stories sometimes confuse various events and times.  But she has these strong moments of clarity and focus. And in those moments the message is clear: love deeply no matter how much it hurts and give of yourself endlessly.  She has lived by these words.  So when Mom says, “Wealth isn’t something you own, it’s something to manage for the greater good” you better believe I listen.

Your support of our work with immigrants recognizes their value in making Fairfield County a vibrant, diverse region. Click here to learn more.