A familiar face, an unknown story

Before she became the bold, outgoing and light-hearted woman that is Katia Varo, she was Roberto, a small Mexican boy running every day in his home village and not knowing why.

At 14, Varo jumped over two of the tallest fences she’d ever seen. She waded through streams fully clothed and hid in silence while the thorns of bushes poked her skin. That’s when she knew why she was running.

She was building up her stamina to cross the border to the United States with her family and not get caught by border patrol.

Katia Varo has had a long journey to get to UO (Phillip Quinn/Emerald)

That was over 20 years ago. Now, Varo works at Carson Dining Hall doing everything from preparing food to scrubbing tables. Six classes of UO students have seen her behind the hall’s food counter with her perfectly tweezed eyebrows, strong build and ombre brown hair slicked back against her head. But few of them know her story.

She recalled her experience immigrating to the United States, comparing it to an action movie.

“When you’re that young, you don’t realize the magnitude of the danger or the trouble you can get into because you don’t understand you’re doing something dangerous,” Varo said.

After weeks of traveling in cars packed like sardines, Varo finally reached what her family described as having all the luxuries those in poverty would dream of.

But reality set in. She ended up in the rainy, coastal town of Newport, Oregon. Her six family members all cramped together in a two bedroom apartment eating foods like sausage McMuffins for breakfast.

“It was depressing,” she said. “It was so depressing – and we’re talking about everything.”

She missed the sunshine, fresh food and the giving culture from back home so much that at times she’d feel physical pain in her chest.

And I couldn’t explain it,” she said. “And the reason I understand it is that I looked outside and I tear up so bad because I haven’t seen the sun in three weeks.”

But Varo said she knew going through each shock while living as an illegal immigrant, with no government benefits, was still better than living in her home village.

“If you were to live, or if you were to be in that situation, you would understand,” she said. “There’s nothing for people there. And unfortunately, we have to leave home and go to another culture for us to really try to get a better life.”

When Varo came to the United States, she was able to attend middle and high school instead of starting work as a preteen.

She could also transition to Katia, an identity that she said would limit her opportunities in Mexico.

“You have to be a prostitute or you have to be a hairdresser or you have to come from money and have your own business because they won’t hire you,” she said. “But I promised myself I was going to be Katia. No matter what. No matter how hard.”

While in the United States, Varo also discovered her passion: dancing. She learned modern ballet at age 16 and at one point her dance teacher said she’d be good enough for Juilliard.

“This is where it gets hard because you come here for a better life,” Varo said, teary eyed. “And then you taste it. And then you don’t have the documents to do it.”

Although Varo now has a work permit to stay in the United States, her green card is still pending. Her status doesn’t offer her many benefits.

“I had to give up my dream,” she said. “I choose work over it. I choose surviving.”

Varo hopes to one day achieve some of her goals, including becoming a professional dancer.

But in the meantime, she incorporates her passion into her hobbies. She cooks, crochets, and also takes dance classes whenever she can, especially salsa or Zumba.

“I haven’t accomplished a lot that I need to accomplish,” Varo said. “But I feel like I’m still breathing. We always say that in my country. If you have health, you can do whatever you set your mind to.”


Anna Lieberman

Anna Lieberman

Anna is currently a news reporter for the Emerald.