By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 5, 2005
Fifty years ago Leovigilda Ramírez Mansour was a 28-year-old in Bogota, Colombia. She told her father that she was going on a vacation on the coast, but, in a day and age when women and even men lived at home until they married, she actually boarded a plane to the United States, seeking a better life.
When she arrived in Atlanta on Jan. 31, 1955, speaking “not one word of English,” she wasn’t even sure if she was actually in Georgia, until her close friend’s sister, with whom she would live for a year, picked her up at the airport.
“I didn’t know where I was … I got out and there was nobody there. I panicked. I said ‘Where am I?’ What was I going to do? Then my friend showed up,” said Leovigilda. “When (my father) found out I was there, he phoned my friend. He was furious.”
Today, while she doesn’t advocate lying to parents, the 79-year-old, a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta for all these years, believes she found her destiny in Atlanta.
Her daughter, Juliette, sees in her mother’s life story an indestructible thread of faith and fidelity to her family and husband worth recalling and worth imitating.
In 1955 the Latina learned how to live frugally in Atlanta as she made $35 a week baby-sitting or hemming and budgeted enough to pay for gas, food, emergencies and the boarding house room she got in Midtown after her first year staying with a friend. She even bought an English Ford. “I was very careful with my money … I never starved and I never owed anybody.”
She began attending IHM Church, where she’s still a member. She associated with English speakers to learn English; as far as she knew there were only three other Hispanic families living in Atlanta. She experienced people trying to convert her, but that was unfathomable. Seeking a trade, she began attending night school to become a hairdresser. She never took any English classes, but studied an instruction book.
After her second year she planned to return to Colombia, until she found a good reason to stay: a handsome Catholic man from Nazareth, who was to become her husband. “I met him and that was it.”
She first met Jules Mansour, who fled Palestine in 1948 because of the Israeli occupation, in a grocery store, but then he “dropped me like a hot potato” and started talking to another female shopper, she recalled with a smile. But she ran into him again at the same grocery store where he asked her where she’d been. She asked him if he was single, and if he was Catholic, and only then agreed to their first date for a movie at the Fox Theatre. She wasn’t yet sure he was the real thing, and held the Coke he bought her during the whole film so he couldn’t hold her hand. But she did fall in love, although said they could only be friends after learning he was going through a divorce. When he received an annulment, they were married in the church. When apart, she wrote to him weekly, and “he kept every single letter.”
It was a poignant 43-year love story as they found each other and struggled to put their two children through Catholic schools and make themselves understood as immigrants in the South. And Jules began suffering from various health problems that led Leovigilda in his final years to take on a new role as caretaker, remaining faithful to her commitment to him, her God and herself. Jules passed away last August at 87 after spending 10 years in a wheelchair, suffering from repeated strokes and dementia.
A picture of Jules and Leovigilda in the nursing home sits by the window in her quiet, tree-shaded, split-level home just down the road from St. Pius X High School, softly decorated in cream and pastel colors and flower pictures. She picked up the photograph and spoke in her Spanish accent of how handsome her husband was as a young man. She also pulled out a large sheet of paper with his family tree written in Arabic, pointing to her husband’s circled name and to that of his father, who served as the French consul in Palestine. Downstairs is Leovigilda’s hair studio, where she still sees clients, some of whom she’s had for 40 years. She calls it hair therapy, as while she cuts and styles clients’ hair they talk about their lives and enjoy each other’s company.
She recalled on this cloudy early March afternoon how her husband always had a longing to return to the Middle East. He did return for a few months, and she agreed that she and the children would join him if he felt he wanted to remain there. But he ended up eagerly coming home saying, “God bless America.”
The family visited Lebanon on a six-week trip in 1970, where she was amazed by the mountains and natural beauty. Anger and frustration over having been driven from his homeland and having his parents’ home and all his property confiscated took a toll on Jules through the years, she believes.
Leovigilda had insisted that her two children attend Catholic school, as her faith was always central to her and she was unable to finish her own education. She was one of five children, and after her mother died when she was 8 she and other siblings had to help with the family bakery and other businesses. “I wanted them to do what I was not able to do.”
Their struggle to put their children through school became increasingly difficult as Jules had open-heart surgery in 1976, which forced him to give up his business as an exporter.
The children attended IHM School and then got part-time jobs while attending St. Pius X High School. Juliette went on to earn a master’s degree in linguistics, and their son, Monzer, got a law degree, inspired by their parents’ perseverance, hard work and strong Catholic example, and fully supported by them with their encouragement and love.
Jules had a mild stroke in 1993 and in 1994 had a severe one. He was in a nursing home for a year and then went home, where his wife cared for him. But in 1996 he had another stroke and the family had to put him in the nursing home.
Her faith and busy work schedule sustained her as she made the 30-mile round trip every day to visit him, leaving home at 5 p.m. to arrive there around 6 p.m. and feed him purified food, care for him and make sure he was tucked in properly, before returning home by 8 p.m. While he was unable to talk and couldn’t think clearly, she knew their marriage bond was unbreakable and for life, as she was destined to come here and build a life with this man from Palestine.
One day she was pushing him in a wheelchair along a lake by the nursing home grounds, where she was affirmed in her calling. “I wanted to have peace of mind. My conscience would bother me if I knew he needed me and I wasn’t there … I took it very, very seriously, and I think it was my duty to take care of him ‘til his last moment,” she recalled. That day by the lake “all of a sudden the weather was so beautiful, and I saw the presence of the Lord and a voice that told me this is your mission, and I took it seriously and that’s how my faith helps me to carry on.”
She believes that one always has to struggle in marriage and “if you want to keep the marriage the girl has to give a lot and try to keep the family.”
She also believes her mother has guided her. “My mother died when I was 8, but I thought she never abandoned me. I believe she’ll be always with me.”
Juliette, who lives down the street, recalled how she had to convince her mother to stop visiting her father on Fridays, when traffic was heavier, and on very rainy days, after she got in two car accidents.
“She’d do that day after day, keeping house and go out every single day all those years and never took a vacation,” said Juliette, who works at Bell South and teaches English to immigrants two nights a week at the Latin American Association. “She did that up until the day he died.”
She recalled how her mother seemed to be at peace when her father died, and how she taught her about strength and dedication to a commitment.
“She wasn’t going out of guilt, but she was doing what God wanted her to do,” she said. “You have to love yourself to be able to be that strong on a daily basis, to be able to commit to something and be able to look back on it and feel good about it.”
Leovigilda was saddened to see some people totally abandon their spouses in nursing homes and never visit them, even divorcing them. As the months pass the widow still misses Jules deeply but senses his presence and knows he will always be with her.
“It’s very sad, of course. You think you have prepared for it, but you never do,” she said. “It’s a feeling you can never get rid of. You picture him, what if he’s here. It’s hard after a marriage of 43 years.”
The dark-haired mother, who has a large picture of the Last Supper in her dining room, thanks God for the good health she’s been blessed with throughout her life. She spends an hour every Monday morning in the adoration chapel at IHM, after which she attends the morning Mass. And, interviewed on her birthday, she proudly stated her age. “I am 79, that’s my real age, but I feel 25, I feel strong. I am blessed with my health.”
She marvels at the explosion of the Hispanic community in North Georgia, and how Spanish is now seen on every ATM and heard on every street corner. Her advice to newcomer Latinos is simple.
“They are struggling to better themselves because this is a country of opportunities. Anybody who wants to work, you can. It’s something you just have to put it in your head that you want to better yourself. There is the opportunity to do it as long as you do it honestly. Myself, I didn’t have any problem. I met a lot of people who loved me and I loved them.”
She carries on, trusting in God’s steadfast love. While her husband was ill, “I prayed a lot, and I thank (God) for what he did for me. I am in his hands.”