Sandra Rybachek's life story has a lot to do with her work as an activist for immigrants.
"I came to Madison from Guatemala 16 years ago," says Rybachek, addressing a group of Edgewood College freshmen at Centro Hispano on Madison's south side. "I am proud to be from Guatemala. I came here for the same reason every immigrant comes. For freedom, justice, and work. By coming here I could help my family in Guatemala survive."
A petite woman with a mass of black hair, Rybachek is dressed in traditional Mayan garb. The striped indigo skirt is long, hand-loomed and elegant. The silk blouse is startlingly beautiful, an embroidered tapestry of birds, flowers and human figures in bright, bold colors.
Rybachek, 49, often wears indigenous dress when advocating for Latino immigrants. It's her way of saying, Look at this beautiful, ancient culture, this proud people.
She tells the students she is going to sing for them. But first she wants to talk about her volunteer work with Latino immigrant women and children in Postville, Iowa.
An Edgewood faculty member notes that most of the students attending the program, part of an orientation on social-justice issues, don't know anything about Postville. Rybachek recounts the large immigration raid there last May at Agriprocessors, a kosher slaughterhouse and meat-packing company. More than 300 workers, most from Guatemala, were arrested and imprisoned as felons, with deportation pending. Others fled in fear.
Overnight a community of about 2,200 people lost about a third of its population.
Rybachek, who has spent most of her adult life helping fellow Guatemalans, jumped in feet first. She's made trip after trip to Postville with vanloads of food and other supplies secured through donations and purchases from Madison's Second Harvest Food Bank. She's befriended women who lost their husbands in the raid, or who are themselves now wearing electronic bracelets. She's listened to their stories, and helped them organize a fair-trade co-op.
In late August Rybachek traveled to Guatemala, where she met with some of the former Postville workers who have already been deported.
"The poverty is so terrible in Guatemala," she relates. "I don't think they can survive. There are no jobs and they have no money. They are living in houses with dirt floors, no bathrooms or refrigerators. Some of them are sick. You can't imagine how much I cried on the plane ride home."
Rybachek is now bringing 11 immigrants from Postville to Madison. This Saturday, Sept. 20, they will demonstrate weaving at the Farmers' Market. Later that day, at the Madison Labor Temple, from 4 to 7 p.m., they will again demonstrate weaving, present a program of Mayan dance, and one of the women will share her story. On Sept. 21, they will sell their handmade clothing and crafts at the Willy Street Fair.
Rybachek, who was adopted at age two by Guatemalan parents of French and Spanish descent, has no clues as to her own ancestry other than what she sees in the mirror.
"I hope I am indigenous," Rybachek says at the dining room table in her east-side home. "But I don't think so." She smiles, patting rosy, cherubic cheeks.
For 17 years before coming to the United States, Rybachek did volunteer work with indigenous people, mentoring women and girls "so they could have a better life." Her own family "was not poor, but we were not middle class either." Eventually, their situation grew precarious.
Rybachek came to the U.S. legally, before the 1996 Immigration Law made it nearly impossible for foreigners to obtain permanent residence status here. She obtained a "green card" in 1991, and eight years later became a citizen. Along the way, she studied English, met her American-born husband, had a daughter, now a student at O'Keeffe Middle School, and started a small child-care business in her home, which she still runs today.
From the beginning she also dealt with racism and discrimination. "I had a job at a second-hand store and no one spoke Spanish there. The other workers would talk about me and make fun of me. I understood everything they said, but I had to be quiet and not complain.
"That's when I started worrying about other people. It's why I try to help anybody."
Rybachek's efforts extend to Guatemala, where, with a small group of people, she recently founded a Mayan school. She has garnered support from members of Grace Episcopal Church, where she is actively involved with its Spanish-speaking congregation.
In Madison she helps immigrants independently and through organizations. In the past year she has spoken to congregations through the "Immigrant Worker in the Pulpit" program of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin and Workers' Rights Center.
"One of my favorite things to do is presentations," she says. "Anywhere people invite me to speak - it can be small or large, a church group or a women's group - I will be there."
Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers' Rights Center in Madison, says Rybachek "feels compelled to speak out about injustice, and the hardship and suffering she has observed. When the raid happened in Postville, I think it hit very close to home for her. She is the kind of person who cannot just sit back. She needs to take action for what she believes is right."
Rybachek has also helped undocumented immigrants in Madison, sometimes traveling to their workplaces to give advice: "Anywhere they are, if they need me, I'll be there."
A few years ago, Rybachek began helping a newly arrived immigrant she'd known as a baby in Guatemala.
"Sandra is really dedicated," says the woman, now 21, who spoke on condition that her name not be used. "When I came to Madison, I stayed with Sandra for ten months. She helped me find a job, and got me into high school. She's like my second mother. She calls me every day to see if I'm okay."
But things are not exactly okay for this woman. Her undocumented status keeps her uncertain about the future and unable to get much work beyond cleaning houses.
"The people who are already here deserve the opportunity to work and live in peace like everyone else," says Rybachek. "Our government needs to help develop jobs for people still in Guatemala. People are suffering there after 36 years of civil war."
As promised, Rybachek wraps up her Edgewood appearance with a song. With her friend Mary Ray Worley backing her up on vocals and guitar, she launches into Todo Cambia, a popular Latin song about the nature of change. As one verse translates: "What changed yesterday has to change tomorrow, as I change in this faraway land. But no matter how far away I am, my love for my home and my people doesn't change. Neither does the memory of their pain."
Rybachek has a beautiful, powerful voice that fills the room with emotion. Even for non-Spanish-speakers, little is lost in translation.