Mirtha Lugo spent every coveted spare minute of the past six months studying for her American citizenship test.

During 10-minute breaks from her job as a hotel spa attendant, she’d watch YouTube test tutorials. When she’d get home late at night after her second job as a hotel janitor, she’d review the 100 questions about the nation’s history and government.

Her daughters, Andrea, 15, and Giselle Arias Zarate, 14, constantly drilled her on questions and corrected her pronunciation for the English speaking portion of the exam.

Two nights before her October test, Lugo couldn’t sleep. “I was scared,” she says.

After years of not being able to afford the $800 American citizenship application, she had finally saved enough money to apply. Lugo imagined all the doors that could open for her family if she only passed.

On test day, Lugo’s nerves grew. Once she started the test, though, she began feeling more at ease. Although she had only $5 to get her family through the rest of that week, Lugo says she was still overcome with joy when she heard the news. “I passed!” she says.

Lugo, 53, has come a long way. As a young woman in Paraguay, Lugo fell in love and got married. When the couple divorced, she became estranged from her family. Their traditional views, she says, prevented them from supporting her divorce.

Without her family’s support and lack of resources, Lugo decided to come to the U.S., where she cleaned houses for years before meeting her children’s father. That relationship did not work out.

Now Lugo works at least 50 hours a week, but she can’t afford many of the family’s expenses. Her long hours at work prevent her from spending much time with her daughters. They miss each other.

“In the beginning it was really tough because we weren’t really used to her not being here, but we understand that she has to work a lot,” Andrea says. “It does get in the way of us actually doing things together. I feel really sad about that, but I get it.”

Last month, after a particularly demanding workweek coupled with Giselle’s wisdom teeth surgery, Lugo was so overwhelmed she felt as if she couldn’t breathe.

“I don’t like feeling defeated,” Lugo says. “On those days, after it's over, I sit and reflect on what I can do better.”

She dreams of a better future for herself as well as her daughters, but she feels terrified that she’ll remain stagnant.

“I don’t want a conformist life,” she says in Spanish.

She’d love to be a social worker one day and help survivors of domestic violence. She’d like to uplift her family by obtaining an education and job skills to help them not only become financially stable but fulfill their goals.

She encourages her daughters to pursue their interests in writing, languages, photography and baking. Andrea hopes to become an investigative journalist, while Giselle wants to explore a career in forensic science.

While they all dream big, the daily struggles keep weighing on Lugo. “She’s been through a lot,” Giselle says. “She wants to make sure that everything is OK by being strong (for us).”

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