Maria-Jose Soerens, 35
Born: Santiago, Chile
Lives: Seattle, Washington
Nominated by: Maria Amelia Randall
Maria-Jose Soerens views life’s chance encounters and opportunities as invitations and she has yet to turn one down.
Born in Santiago, Chile, during the peak of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, Maria-Jose grew up feeling slightly disconnected from those around her. She pursued a corporate career that she hated before, at the age of 25, one of these unexpected opportunities presented itself to her, in the form of an offer of a full scholarship to study a masters degree in psychology in the United States. She sold her belongings, closed her bank accounts and departed indefinitely.
After graduating, Maria-Jose worked in Central America and Africa, before starting her own counselling and advocacy non-profit called Puentes (meaning Bridges), in Seattle. She now works alongside a movement of people who tirelessly advocate for undocumented migrants in the court of law and the court of public opinion in the city.
Maria-Jose is a social scientist, a psychologist, a mother, a wife, a fierce and unyielding activist and, interestingly, like us here at Friday Best, she is also a story-teller. Maria-Jose uses stories everyday to give context to the actions of her clients, in her own words she uses stories ‘to make people whole.’
And though Maria-Jose thinks stories can often be misused, she fully appreciates how powerful they can be in effecting change. So here is her own story, please read and enjoy and next time an invitation comes knocking…hold on tight and go for it!
I love this! It is a wonderful thing (Friday Best) because there is this notion of sisterhood, of empowering each other. That has been new in my life these past five years—learning the beauty of empowering each other as women. I find the nomination a really beautiful way of doing that. I will honour this person who doesn’t get the stage or the microphone but does amazing things. We’re not very good at self-promoting so this is perfect to reach out to people.
That’s exactly what we’re trying to do! Why has it only been the last five years that women’s empowerment has been on your radar?
Maturity. [Laughs] I am a very late bloomer.
Well let’s go back to the start then. You were born in Chile, how did you wind up doing a masters degree in America?
It’s kind of a funny story. I ended up in Seattle by complete chance. I was born in Chile, Santiago. At about age 24/25 I had followed the path that most people my age in Chile follow which was to work at a corporation and do business hours. And I hated it, I was so miserable.
I happened to be presenting a paper at a conference in Buenos Aires and out of random I met the dean of the graduate school of Psychology at a local school in Washington State. And he says, and I quote, ‘Every year we like to bring a student from ‘a third world country’ and we haven’t found anybody for this year, would you like to come?’ I was like, No deal! Chile is not a third world country! I live near down town, I ride my bike with my laptop to work. But he persisted. It tells you a little bit of the racial diversity at this particular school.
You don’t say no to a full scholarship for a masters degree, you just don’t. So it ended up happening that five weeks later I got a one way ticket to Seattle. I remember the aeroplane ride between New York and Seattle, there were this 30 seconds that I was in the bathroom, listening to Seu Jorge’s version of Life on Mars and, at that moment, I just started weeping with terror! [Laughs] It was 30 seconds then I’m like, ‘Enough, enough,’ and I did what immigrants do, which is, you just move forward and never look back, otherwise you turn into salt, right!
So I got into Seattle and I quickly realised that the school was not a good fit. This school is Pentecostal, evangelical, and while I am a believer, I am more in the feminist liberation theological camp—I mean Chile is a socialist country! So it was quite a cultural shock for me.
But I ended up meeting a very big and nice crowd of artists and activists and then soon after I met the love of my life, Tim. My husband. He is brilliant. He is just a visionary. Very compassionate and understanding, he is just a prince. He actually looks like prince charming! [Laughs] We got married and he wanted to stay here in Seattle.
And you’ve been in Seattle ten years now? Would you say it is home?
Right now, yes. But it was many years of these ten years that have gone, that I’ve felt the anxiety, the ambivalence of living in a mental space that I would describe as the in-between, thinking, I’m not here or there, I don’t belong anywhere.
But it was actually this particular neighbourhood—South Park—that we moved to not too long ago that has made it feel like home. I love it. I want to die here. A big part of it has been to re-discover (decolonize) my Latino tradition through the beautiful movement of people inside the Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma and the community of Latino migrants and advocates.
When you spend so much time with stories, you start finding themes, and what really struck me was how the poor’s understanding of suffering is in such contrast with the way privileged people understand suffering.
My encounters with the detainees through my work have been really transformative for me and they truly feel like brothers and sisters in a way.
That’s fantastic. But how did you go from doing a Masters in Psychology to founding your own non-profit—Puentes—which does amazing work for undocumented migrants?
After I graduated I worked at this organisation called Agros. Agros work with poor farmers in Central America and, as part of my job, I got to go there and interview, transcribe and translate their stories. I spent so much time with their stories and, of course, when you spend so much time with stories, you start finding themes, and what really struck me was how the poor’s understanding of suffering is in such contrast with the way privileged people understand suffering. Privileged people understand suffering as a nuisance, something to be avoided. The poor can’t get around suffering, it’s part of their life, it’s a crucial part of their life and I never heard anyone complaining, they never victimised themselves in their stories.
Here’s where their stories started threading very carefully into the world of religion of the poor. I am social scientist so I was formed to be very wary of anything religious, even though I am a believer. But hearing their stories immediately brought to mind stories from the Old Testament. They would talk about running away during the war, the way they all walked long distances with their families and had babies in the road and they didn’t have any clothes to wrap them so would use plastic bags or leaves. Immediately these farmers would say to me, ‘It was just like Jesus, he wasn’t born in a comfortable place, he was born amongst cows and pigs.’
When you’re privileged and read the scripture there is a lot of place for metaphor but when you’re poor and read the scripture there is no metaphor whatsoever. That’s your life! I mean there are horrible passages in the bible where poor women have been prostituted, tortured, murdered and left on the ground and they are usually migrant women. That is the story of migrant women crossing the border. So that was the first like mind-change or mind-switch that I got.
I ended up going to East Africa soon after with another organisation and, while I was there, I ran into this group of clinicians from the east coast of the United States who were coming to teach the children how to treat post-traumatic stress. But, man, the contrast between the pulse of the community, the way the people understood suffering and the way they wanted to deal with suffering and the complete unawareness of this group of experts, who were very well intentioned, was whacko!
At that moment I said, ‘Okay screw it, I gotta say something about this. I gotta do something.’
So I came back to Seattle, I quit the job and I opened my private practice. The first call I ever got was this guy who needed a psych evaluation for an immigration case. I had no idea that existed, right? And because it was my first client and I needed the money, I said sure!
Then quickly enough another call came and another call came in. I quickly became the go to person in Seattle for this and, of course, I run this as a Latino woman runs a business: I got as much business as I could without taking care of myself and I quickly burnt out. I had to rethink things and that’s when I decided to build community around the work; I started training my colleagues and started Puentes.
Wow. Quite an adventure! How have you found the work?
At a spiritual level, I have been so blessed by each one of my clients. Some can be a pain in the ass because people are people, but I have learnt from them how to forgive, how to look forward, how to have perspective in life, how not to whine about stuff. They are present in their suffering, they still say, ‘Yeah this sucks,’ but they are always able to find an upside.
At the professional level I found this job to be a treasure chest that other researchers don’t have. Undocumented people tend live in the shadows and the only reason they come to my office is because they have to, they wouldn’t have paid to come—I volunteer a lot of my hours—it’s not useful to them. Our psychological discourse is irrelevant to them, it’s not the way they deal with stuff. So this has been a great opportunity and my work now in a way is to bring these stories to the privileged folk to give them a little bit of perspective.
As far as seeing a sense to things in my life, I do feel a sense of calling and I do try to see the invitations.
You’ve brought up this idea of stories a number of times, what do you think the importance of stories is?
That’s an interesting question I normally get annoyed at how much we use ‘stories.’
I think stories have the power to make a person whole again, especially in the court of public opinion. A story gives you ample space to bring about the context and that’s basically what I do in the immigration court. We have people whose actions make them look pretty bad. But when you do a psychological report these actions take on a different significance because they are actions of a survivor of violence, right? They were protecting themselves, they were protecting their family.
I love the idea of a story making someone whole.
Yes, so that’s what we do, we give context. People, privileged people, for whom the system works, believe that if you are in prison, you must have done something to deserve it. You really have to be from an oppressed community to understand that that’s not always the case.
I’ve never thought about it that way before. Your story is interesting because it is so unplanned but it seems as though you’ve found yourself exactly where you need to be. Are you a believer in everything happening for a reason?
Well, I’m totally narrating my story in that way. But are you asking me a philosophical question?
I think so. I mean looking back you can see that all the random things are connected. You wound up in Seattle by chance, and stumbled across your career path. Is there a belief underneath that says that everything was leading you here?
That’s a very vulnerable question, it puts me in a very vulnerable space. So I wanna be clear first because when we talk about tragedy, in that realm, I believe that there are things that are just nonsense, just evil! Some things you can’t redeem through a story, right. But as far as seeing a sense to things in my life, I do feel a sense of calling and I do try to see the invitations. So for example when I was in Chile, and I ended up in this dead end job with no imagination, I was focussed on making money so that I could get out of my parent’s house because of the situations back then. That was my concern, so whatever helped me get there, I would do, even if it was bad for me.
When I moved to Seattle and this opportunity presented itself, I started listening differently. That’s what I put energy into, trying to work out, ‘What’s the invitation now?’
You can choose to be humanistic about it. I choose to be Christian about it, I choose to believe there is a god, right, and you can take that invitation and then you find yourself in some really beautiful places that you never expected to be. I think that’s how I would define the sense of calling.
You mentioned your job in Chile and your focus while you lived there, what was it like growing up there? Do you miss it?
Not as much as people would assume. [Laughs]
Do you know what’s hard on me? I’ve had to kind of reconcile with Chile. I was born in 1980 which was in the midst of the dictatorship. I know you’re supposed to honour your family and all that but I am embarrassed to say that my parents were on the wrong side of history, they were right-wingers, they saw Augusto Pinochet as someone who was going to save the country from the communists. But in fact there was a systematic attempt to destroy the country psychologically, economically and politically, which is something I came to learn here.
I always felt odd in Chile because I’m super sensitive and every time you wanted to talk seriously about something, people would go, ‘Ohh you’re getting serious now.’ There wasn’t much space for talking. Within the right wingers, and many of my friends were right wingers, they would say, ‘Yeah we know military rule was terrible but at least now we can buy cars.’
So I feel that I’m just now connecting with the tradition of resistance in Chile. I grew up guarded, we were not wealthy but because of ideological differences and the lack of dialogue, I didn’t have access to this beautiful tradition of resistance. So Chile to me is a fascinating source of really great stories but I think that we are just recently seeing ourselves as worth exploring.
I want to ask just two more questions, I want to ask about how or if motherhood changed you?
Oh yes, it has changed me. It’s beautiful. Motherhood is a beautiful gift. I think it helped me mature and settle, otherwise I’d be way too curious and jumping from one thing to the other. But the most impactful part for me, the change, was to give birth naturally without any medication at home, without a midwife. I didn’t know how badass I was! [laughs]
You can do it, and you can do it without an epidural, if things are going well. There’s no judgement to people who have the epidural, no judgement intended at all.
But I felt very empowered. I felt very accomplished. The most beautiful thing was to believe that I could trust my life to my husband, what’s more intimate than that? I was very comfortable because Tim was there. So I have this sense that the three of us did it together: Tim, Lukas and I.
And what do you think we should be talking more about?
Poverty. We should be talking about the double dimension of poverty because usually when we talk about poverty, we talk about, ‘I wanna go save you.’ Like Bono and Jeffrey Sachs. It’s very self-serving. Particularly in the Pacific Northwest where people use social causes as accessories, you know, people say, ‘I’m into human trafficking’. You ask any twenty year old and they say they want to go work with victims of human trafficking in Thailand. But do they know the woman who is cleaning the food court tables at the airport right now could use some help as well?
We talk about poverty in the wrong way, and I don’t want to make poor people into angels because that would objectify them, people know how to solve their own problems they just need the resources. So if you have the resources, offer them!
Any final words of wisdom for our audience of young women trying to find their way?
Trust your gut. Stop asking for permission. Stop apologising. Trust the process and whatever you do…it’s gonna be great! [Laughs]
Things I Love
Sunlight or moonlight
Hot, dry nights