Two ways home
By Xandr Brown

Andrea Ramirez stands in a field neighborhing her childhood home in Caneyville, a place unique for being in Amish country. Andrea has two families, one in Guatemala and the other in Grayson County because her biological family wanted her to have the education and success they couldn’t have. Today she teaches 5th grade at Clarkson Elementary School.

The din of students in the hallway at Clarkson Elementary subsides as the school day ends, so Andrea Ramirez picks up the phone and dials a number in Guatemala. She and her mother must make up for lost time.

It has been more than a week since they last spoke, so there’s a lot to catch up on: new flowers, a cement walkway and lights for outdoor parties that weren’t there the last time Andrea was in Santa Catarina Pinula, Guatemala. The flowers planted in honor of her late grandmother have kept their full bloom, her mother reports.

“Esta´muy linda!” says Andrea.

“Eres mi estrella especial,” says her mother.

Andrea spends summers in Guatemala, but calls home regularly during the rest of the year. Her mother determined long ago that Andrea was the one among all six of her children who would get an education, even if Guatemala wasn’t capable of giving it to her. So, from the time Andrea was 3 years old, she began to prepare her to move from her native land.

Now 32, Andrea teaches fifth-graders. This is the first year she hasn’t had a foster student in her class. Many of her students still live in flux, traveling between foster homes and grandparents. She can relate, having spent years of her childhood living between Guatemala and the U.S. as her sisters traveled here for medical care that was unavailable at home.
The family found help through a Kentucky-based nonprofit that provided free surgeries and child care assistance to Guatemalan families. Andrea was placed with Brad and Brenda Cooke, who were fostering five other children at the time.

“She asked . . . if they would take me for as long as I could possibly travel to be educated. And they said yes. So I would travel under a medical visa, and I would go and stay with them when school started. And I would stay until the end of the school year. And then I would go back to Guatemala. And we did that for some time.”

Andrea remembers repeating kindergarten twice and finally making it to sixth grade. Then, at age 11, she found herself in Guatemala – slowly accepting that the journey to finish her U.S. education had concluded – when an unexpected opportunity arose, and the Cooke family brought her back. They spent the next five years helping her obtain her citizenship. For those five years, she was completely separated from her biological family.

She is now a living portrait of the American dream, determined to give her students the love and consistency she desired through years of living between two worlds. She has found ways to bring them together while accepting that there will always be parts of her that live in separate rooms.

Lydia Drake, 10, raises her hand to answer a question during reading class as Andrea looks on.

Andrea gets a surprise after school group hug from sisters Emma Butler, 9, and Addy Bagshaw, 7. She has been friends with their mom since middle school.

Andrea Facetimes her mother, Concepcio Carias, 68, at her desk after school. Her mother was the primary breadwinner and was often away from home as a traveling nanny for families around the world. “She traveled everywhere . . . and she would always just send money,” says Andrea. “She did not marry until she was 28, which is very rare for people in Guatemala at that time and being that old. So, that’s something she wanted me to experience. She wanted to give me the opportunity to see the world and not just think that Guatemala was the only thing to see. There was more to life than just our community.”

Andrea sits down with her American parents, Brad and Brenda Cook, for barbecue dinner in the home they have owned for over 40 years. Andrea plans to care for them until they die and considers it her duty to do so. “I guess I still carry that culture, that you always take care of your parents,” says Andrea. “That’s very different from a lot of Americans here, where it’s like, ‘OK. When I’m 18, I’m moving out,’ and you’re on your own. But I always felt like if I’m able to help them, then I do help them. It’s the same way with my family in Guatemala.”

Andrea Rameriz is pictured beside her American nephews (from left) Bradley and Cameron Hicks in 1997.

Brenda Cook, 67, looks on as Andrea thumbs through an album of last year’s summer in Guatemala.

Andrea holds a single Guatemalan worry doll, a keepsake from her home country, in her room. It is said that children tell the dolls their worries and place them under their pillows at night for a peaceful sleep. When they wake up, their worries are gone.

Andrea turns to give her American sister’s husband Kelly Hicks a hug.

Teacher and aunt Sarah Hale looks on as preschooler Rhea Kiper, 4, rushes to Andrea for a hug before the start of the school day. After becoming the best teacher she can be, Andrea hopes to become a foster mom herself one day.