Ligia Galvao Vaz is an optimist right down to her toes. You just can’t help but feel good when talking to her … she’s contagious. Maybe it’s that indomitable Brazilian spirit, or maybe it’s just the way she’s wired, working hard to get where she is today but so positive about life and the opportunities she has been given.
“I’ve always had dreams. When I reach one, I move on to the next. That’s what I teach my daughter, if you have a goal, nothing is impossible if you want it enough.”
Born in Salvador, Bahia, on the east coast of Brazil, Vaz began her working life at 18 years as a secretary at a bus company. Straight out of high school, she decided to forego university so she could gain independence and buy her own place. She moved up the ranks to a supervisory role but left after six years to join a concert producer as an office manager.
With her then 4-year-old daughter, Lara, to raise on her own, the 35-year-old Vaz was focused on her career and making ends meet. But not so focused that she eluded the romantic attentions of the visiting son of a local who had moved to America some years before. The pair hit it off and when Gilmar returned to Maryland, they continued the relationship for another six months over email and phone. A turning point came when she received a plane ticket through the post one day. “We had talked about being together in America a lot, but I never really imagined it would happen and then there it was in my hands, an open-ended ticket to National airport. It was terrifying but wonderful at the same time.”
After much discussion and anguish, Vaz agreed to go and see what life up north had to offer. As a member of very close-knit family, it was not an easy decision to make. She left Lara with her mother and headed to Maryland for what ended up being six months.
“It was a long time to be without her, but I had to make sure I was making the right decision. I enrolled in school to learn English, took my driver’s license and started to think, ‘Hey, I like this place.’ I knew coming to America would offer an amazing opportunity for Lara and it didn’t hurt that I was in love with Gilmar. But, yes, it was difficult to do. Especially as I was so close to my mom, but she understood and gave me her blessing.” she recalls.
Vaz returned to Brazil and collected her daughter, said a tearful goodbye to her family and, in 2001, immigrated permanently to the U.S. Within two months, she was married and had put in her application for a green card. “In the beginning it was so hard. I spoke only a little English. I didn’t really know anyone except my husband. I cried a lot because I missed my mom, my family, but after two years I went back to visit. In the meantime, I was building a new life, making friends and working.”
Attending English classes at night, Vaz slowly built up a house-cleaning service in Maryland and Washington D.C. She worked solo and her days soon became full with jobs referred by word-of-mouth.
For her daughter’s 6th birthday, she organized a big party. She did everything herself, looking up how to create balloon designs online and decorating the room from ceiling to floor with balloons and streamers. “Everyone was telling me, ‘wow, you are so creative, you should do this for a living.’ And so I started to think, why not? When I came home, I took some online courses on balloons and floral design and decoration with a Brazilian company based in New Jersey. I threw a few parties for friends to spread the word and then registered my business, Lara’s Party, in Baltimore. I named it after my daughter because she’s the biggest present in my life.”
A friend designed her website and Vaz was away. The 49-year-old upgraded her flower-designing skills at Howard Community College and today does all kind of events from kids’ birthday parties to weddings. Most of her supplies come directly from Brazil, which keeps her costs down and enables her to offer reasonable prices.
Nevertheless, the events management business is still only a weekend gig, and the daily grind is spent cleaning houses. But ever the optimist, Vaz has plans to change all that. After work, she attends classes twice per week from 6–10pm at Ana G Méndez University System, a Puerto Rico associate’s college with campuses across the globe that teaches technical but also practical skills. In Vaz’s case, she is taking English and Spanish classes and writing in addition to cooking. Business classes will come in the second year.
“My cleaning jobs have helped pay for my daughter to go to college this Fall and now they are paying for me too. I’ve always felt something was missing. My whole family went to university. I am the only one who didn’t attend. I put my independence first and then could never afford it. And now I regret it a little. I think about my situation. I’ve had knee surgery, cleaning isn’t so easy anymore and I feel the need to do more with my life. Getting a culinary associates degree makes good business sense but it’s also something I want to do for myself.”
In two years, the newly crowned US citizen will finish her culinary degree and then hopes to relaunch Lara’s Party as a fully fledged catering and event-planning business so she can step away from her cleaning service.
After a long day of cleaning houses, it’s not easy – that’s for sure – to continue on to night school. But Vaz’s voice changes when she talks about the college, the enthusiasm pours out of her.
“On the last cleaning job of the day, I say ‘okay Ligia, hurry, let’s go, let’s go!’ I look forward to it so much. My husband and Lara are so proud of me, but more importantly, I am proud of me. This has always been my dream and now I am making it happen.”