by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Photography by Christian Lee
Beaufort seemed a desolate place to Ines Figueroa when she first arrived from Puerto Rico in 1995. Fleeing the grip of a bad marriage, yet leaving also the warm embrace of her family and tropical home, this woman of faith embarked on a journey that was to bring great trials and equally great rewards.
Puerto Rico is called the Isle of Enchantment. Days are warm all year round. People grow bananas and mangos in their backyards. There are over a hundred beaches strung around the coast of this U.S. territory, measuring just 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, and everything thrills with life and warmth. Her tight-knit family consisted of 17 siblings born to a carpenter father and seamstress mother, so there was no such thing as loneliness…she left a part of her heart there when she came to sleepy Beaufort.
“Oh my Lord, it was the worst thing in my life!” Ines remembers with a smile. “Puerto Rico is like New York; everything is fast. But, when I came here, this was what I would call virgin territory—nothing but highway and trees. I can’t deny that I prayed to God, ‘This is the land forgotten by you.’”
Yet it wasn’t long before her outlook profoundly shifted. She had come because of her son, who was stationed here as a marine. She quickly found a life of her own, managing to integrate into the local culture with a good deal of finesse—a place where so many immigrants stay within their own communities. She found work cleaning rooms at the Holiday Inn, then took a job with Elite Bridal in alterations. Back in Puerto Rico, she and all her sisters had learned handicrafts from their mother—sewing, crochet, embroidery, even painting—and Ines dreamed of being a fashion designer. Now at Elite Bridal she was given the opportunity to sew wedding gowns, once even designing with her coworker and sewing a rush order of 13 bridesmaids’ dresses literally overnight!
“Everyone there listened to gospel music,” she recalls, “and at first I didn’t understand. But when I realized what it was, and when I saw them giving blessings, I began to think ‘this is not the land forgotten by God after all, because wherever one goes one meets such good people.’”
Time and experience only strengthened that conviction. A friend introduced her to Mrs. Cecilia Stokes (of Stokes Honda), who started giving her clothing to alter and yarn to crochet. “I know it was just to help me,” said Ines. Later she joined Mrs. Cecilia’s church, which ultimately landed her a job with BJH Comprehensive Health Services, where she has worked for the last 15 years. In 2007 the trailer she rented burned to the ground and Ines lost everything—everything except her faith. Friends and coworkers brought gifts of food, money, clothing and support; the Red Cross put her up in a hotel, and later Beaufort Housing Authority gave her the keys to a new home. No, this was not the land God had forgotten.
“I am forever grateful to this community,” she said. “I can’t say anything negative about anyone because they have never let me fall.”
Ines left a husband who tried to kill her seven times, finally thinking, “If I don’t go now, I’m going to remain as a cadaver.” She has faced the stigma of poverty and ethnicity, though technically she’s one of the United States’ own. “People say, ‘Go back to your country!’ and I say, ‘I am in my country,’” she asserts. She has experienced the loss of both parents and four siblings, and unwanted separation from the others. Life has certainly not been easy. Yet throughout it all her hope for the future has only grown.
“I have faith that God will give me blessings, is giving me blessings,” she said. “The love we have in our hearts is what matters. Our spirits shine, and perhaps by looking in our eyes, people will see the sweetness of our hearts.”
Hometown: Yauco, Puerto Rico
Mother of: Jose A. Ruiz, who lives in Taiwan with his wife and two children; and Ines Ruiz, who graduated Battery Creek High, works at the Air Station and is mother of three.
Works with: Beaufort Jasper Women Infants and Children (BJWIC)
Dearly misses: Her beloved “comida criolla” (Puerto Rican cuisine) such as red beans and rice, fried egg, fried plantains, hamburger meat, fresh pastries, fruit juices, and whole roast pig on Christmas.
Request: Please do not lump together all Hispanics as “Mexicans.”
Future dream: To own a home
Recent break: Was invited to a fashion show with Candice Glover where she met the American Idol’s mom, Carol, who expressed interest in Ines’s fashion designs!