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Everybody knows her name -- and she knows yours too
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Maria Fonseca is an employee at the Augustana College Center and immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico during her college years.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Maria Fonseca is an employee at the Augustana College Center and immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico during her college years.
ROCK ISLAND — On a brisk evening earlier this school year, Maria Fonseca's fingers pressed down the familiar keys of the cash register. It was dinnertime in the dining hall at Augustana College, and a steady stream of students filtered through the checkout line.

"Hello, Joseph," she said to a student wearing a track-and-field jersey. "Run another 10 miles again today?" The wiry runner grinned, and while his brimming plate was rung up, he talked of the rigorous workouts he had endured getting ready for the new season.

Mrs. Fonseca playfully greeted the next student, a small woman with a large ice cream sundae.

"Melinda! That's bigger than you!" Mrs. Fonseca said with a laugh as the young woman sheepishly grinned.

The line proceeded forward with Mrs. Fonseca greeting each of the students by name — asking about upcoming exams, recalling previous conversations they had shared and occasionally releasing a stream of Spanish words into her vocabulary.

"Everyone is unique, and they come and tell me their stories. They come and tell me their worries or ask me questions," Mrs. Fonseca said of the thousands of students she has welcomed through her line in her eight years working at Augustana. "I like to remember their names because they are special for me."

For Mrs. Fonseca, who immigrated to Moline more than two decades ago, recollection always plays a vital role in keeping her own story alive.

Growing up in San Nicolás, a small city in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, Mrs. Fonseca spent afternoons running through the neighborhood streets with friends, playing endless games of hide and seek, jumping rope and doing arts and crafts.

"These days, you don't let your kids be by themselves or go out by themselves to the store," she said. "But in the past, your neighbors knew your neighbors' kids. Everybody knew each other, and everybody kind of protected each other; it was like a family."

The sixth of 12 children, Mrs. Fonseca never was short a playmate, and celebrations and family gatherings always were brimming with people, food and dancing, she recalled.Despite the close-knit relationships, growing up in a family of a dozen children proved challenging.

As the family's sole provider, Mrs. Fonseca's father worked each day in the fields, growing corn, beans, soy and wheat on a small plot of land outside town. Oftentimes, the family scraped by on little, buying what school supplies and clothing they could afford and eating basic meals of beans, rice and tortillas.

As a young girl, Mrs. Fonseca found joy playing on an all-girl basketball team.

"I was always rushing to do my chores, do homework and go back and play basketball again," she said.

But the older men in her family, who didn't believe it was suitable for a young lady to play sports, met her passion with resistance. At times, when her father refused to let her go, Mrs. Fonseca would sneak off to compete in traveling tournaments with her team.

"I was in trouble so many times for that," she said. Her brashness prompted her family to nickname her "rebelde" — the rebel.

"My passion was just to play and have fun. I respected them, but when it came to defending my rights, I guess I was rebellious," she said.

Upon reaching her senior year of high school, Mrs. Fonseca struggled when her very traditional family didn't allow her to apply for college.

"I said, 'What am I going to do? Get married, have kids and stay home, and that's it?'" she said.

By the next year, she had convinced her father to allow her to attend the Chapingo Autonomous University in the State of Mexico — the first woman in her family to attend college.While at the seven-year-long school, Mrs. Fonseca began dating an older student named Jose, and the two were married in summer 1985.

After Jose completed his schooling, his family requested he join them in California. With nearly two years left of her own education, Mrs. Fonseca made the decision to quit school in order to follow her husband to the United States. In 1988, the couple went to California, where their son, Eder, was born. They moved that year to the Quad-Cities so Jose could pursue work.

"It was extremely hard. We were really, really poor," Mrs. Fonseca said. Their only possessions were several pieces of clothing, a blanket and the vehicle they drove in. "We started from zero — nothing."

Life was especially difficult for Mrs. Fonseca, who was unable to work outside the home because she could not drive or speak English.

"Here, I always say, if you don't have car, you don't have feet; if you don't know English, it's like you don't have a tongue," she said.

Still struggling with homesickness, Mrs. Fonseca began taking English classes and driving lessons from her husband.

"It was like coming from another planet — you have to learn everything new," she said. She attended several years of English classes before obtaining a teacher's aid certificate in 1996.

As the couple integrated into U.S. culture, they honored their culture by speaking Spanish with their three sons and visiting Mexico to reconnect with family. "For me, not only am I giving them the opportunity to learn another language, but I'm giving them part of my roots and giving them who I am," she said.

Growing up, the three brothers resisted speaking Spanish, ashamed of being "the one kid that spoke another language," said her son, Alvin Fonseca, 20.

When the boys grew older, Mrs. Fonseca accepted her position at Augustana, which would allow her children to attend college at a discounted rate.

"Everything that she's done is basically for us," said Alvin, now a junior at Augustana, who said he and his brothers, both college graduates, are now proud to be bilingual. Their mother ensured opportunities for the boys to play sports and attend college — privileges they know she worked hard to earn, he said.

"She always told us, 'Whatever you want to do, keep doing it,'" he said. "I can't thank her enough."

Her hardships, Mrs. Fonseca said, have taught her strength can come from suffering — a lesson she has taught to her boys and students on campus.

"It's OK; don't worry," she tells them. "Right now, you are suffering, but soon, you will have happiness, and you're going to enjoy more because of your pain."

Students said they have been affected by Mrs. Fonseca's messages and words of encouragement throughout the years.

"I feel like she may be the most popular person on campus — everybody knows Maria," said Augustana junior Faye Marek. As a first-year student, she recalled feeling reassured by Mrs. Fonseca's helping nature.

"She gets to know students' names right off the bat and remembers them because she takes the time to really talk and get to know them," she said.

As dinnertime continued in the crowded cafeteria that brisk evening, Mrs. Fonseca waved and shouted a greeting to a group of young men wandering into the dining hall. They paused for a moment and all yelled, "Hey, Mrs. Fonseca!" before collecting their dinner trays.

After nearly a decade in her job at Augustana, Mrs. Fonseca said she feels honored by the connections she has forged with so many of the students.

"For me, everyone is unique, and I like to treat them like they are my own kids," she said. "Calling them by their names is giving them respect, giving them a special place here."


 -- Location: North America, bordering the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, between Belize and the United States and bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between Guatemala and the United States.

-- Population: 114,975,406 (July 2012 estimate). No. 11 in the world.

-- Languages: Spanish only, 92.7 percent; Spanish and indigenous languages, 5.7 percent; indigenous only, 0.8 percent; unspecified, 0.8 percent. Indigenous languages include various Mayan, Nahuatl, and other regional languages.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, Oct. 1, the 274th day of 2014. There are 91 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: It is rumored in the streets that the 13 negroes sent to Quincy on the Moline quota were refused. We think this must be a mistake.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Harvey McKenna, of Detroit, billiard player matched to play Wizard Schafer in New York in January for the world championship, was a professional friend and manager, Billy Catton in Rock Island.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Levi Cralle, former Rock Island county sheriff, had come from his farm near Mitchell, S.D. to visit friends in the city.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Work is being rushed on the new high school building in Orion to replace the one destroyed by fire last winter. Classes are being held in churches.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Rehearsals for the 84th season of the Handel Oratorio Society chorus will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the stage of Centennial Hall, Augustana College.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Rock Island City Council's plan announced this week to have the federal government vacate Valley Homes public housing and move residents to Arsenal Courts to reduce density may not be feasible.

(More History)