Zulema Heading Home, Will Serve Final Sandwich at April’s End

Amid the hustle and bustle of Uncommons, Zulema Fernandez quietly stands behind her station as a throng of hungry students lines up for her handcrafted sandwiches. In her time at Andover, Zulema has become iconic in the school community, but on April 27, Zulema will leave Andover and the United States and return to her home in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, to care for her blind mother. “[My mother] is 85 years old, and she’s blind now. She keeps falling down so I want to stay with her for a while,” she said in Spanish. Zulema was born in 1952 in the Dominican Republic and has two siblings. “Like all children, my mom did not let me go out and play,” said Zulema. “At first, when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a doctor. But then I realized I didn’t like blood. After that, all I wanted was to own a house.” Zulema married her first husband at the age of 16 and one year later had two sons, both of whom each have a daughter now. When describing the most memorable moments in her life, she said, “Oh, there are too many. Maybe when you have your first child. That is something very special.” After marrying her second husband, now for 21 years, Zulema studied to be an executive secretary at the Universidad Dominicana O&M. “For me, life wasn’t too difficult. I worked — usually women don’t work, it’s just the men who work,” she said. “But I got divorced, and I looked for work. I studied at a university to be an executive secretary, but I didn’t get the job. So I worked at a clothing shop, and I worked at that shop for 21 years.” She continued, “When I return, I can go back to work at the same store. Just like if I come back here [to PA], I can work here again.” In 2002, Zulema traveled to the United States, in search of the American dream. “I left my family behind,” said Zulema. “I was looking for the American dream, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. . . The dream for me was to own a house.” “It’s really tiring to have to work. I’ve been working for 27 years,” she said. Before coming to Andover, Zulema worked in a factory for Häns Kissle, a food manufacturing company, where she packaged food. She returned to the Dominican Republic shortly thereafter. Zulema said, “Afterwards, for eight months, I worked for an agency in the Dominican Republic, but I didn’t like working for them. I came back [to the U.S.] two months later.” Despite quickly returning to the U.S., Zulema is not in love with everything about this country, especially the weather. Her objection to the snowy New England weather can be attributed to a foot injury Zulema sustained two winters ago from falling in the snow. The scar from the wound is still visible, and the bone in the back of her heel now sticks out. “My husband fell first, while we were looking for apartments. He fell, and of course I fell right after him. I didn’t go to a hospital after the injury,” said Zulema. Zulema said another contrast to living in the Dominican Republic was that it was easier to earn money in America, due to the strength of the dollar relative to the Dominican peso. “When I send money back home, it’s worth even more. One dollar is worth 33 pesos in the Dominican Republic. Ten dollars is 330 pesos, and you can buy a lot with that,” she said. Zulema has been working at Andover for four years, and among all her jobs, this has been her favorite. When asked what she will miss most about Andover, Zulema became watery-eyed and momentarily turned away to wipe her tears. “Here I’ve had good things. The only thing I don’t like is the cold. I’ve fallen down in the snow twice. I don’t like to say goodbye either,” she said. “I’m taking with me all of my good memories, including the time I fell in the snow and hurt my foot. It still hurts and it will remind me of the school every time it does,” she continued. On a typical schedule, Zulema arrives at around 11 a.m. before students begin filing in for lunch. “I come a half an hour early and I just sit and drink coffee until 11:30, and that’s when I go to work,” she said. At 7:30 p.m., Zulema goes back to Lawrence, where she lives with her husband and sister-in-law. Two words, machine-stitched to the black cap of her uniform, seem to capture her presence here at Phillips Academy: “Cool Chef.” Her work at Phillips Academy does not go unappreciated; Zulema still receives letters from Andover alumni. “[Andover graduates] send me a lot of cards. They sent me 12 cards this year. They send me a lot every year. I save them and I bring them all back home,” said Zulema. Zulema has recently faced some tragedies in her life that may have also prompted her return home. “About eight months ago, one of my husband’s children died. He left his work to go to New York to take care of him because he had cancer. He hasn’t worked since,” she said. “I went to the Dominican Republic twice because my brother had cancer. He also died. He died one month ago.” She continued, “One always misses their country. The climate is tropical, and even if things aren’t that great right now, one survives.” When she arrives in the Dominican Republic, Zulema plans to see her family—her two sons, two granddaughters, two nieces and her mother. “I’m going for a while, but I don’t know when I’ll be back. Maybe in about three years I will be able to come back,” said Zulema. “I’m leaving the school on good terms,” she said. “The students, a group of about five girls, made me a farewell card that said they loved me very much and had a drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Carlos Calcaño, Location Manager for dining services, was among the employers who first hired Zulema. “When I interviewed her, she didn’t speak much English, but with the way that she is—you know, so happy—she did so good,” said Calcaño. “She started in the dish room when we hired her first, but when we saw the way that she is, we moved her to the sandwich station and she did pretty great.” “I’m going to remember that [Zulema] is a beautiful person, a very friendly person,” said Niuto Marmolejos, a Commons staff worker. “She has a sweet heart and divine hands for making sandwiches.” So what is Zulema’s secret to making her renowned sandwiches? “Para me es hacerlos con amor. Hacerlos con cariño: For me, it’s just to make them with love. To make them with care,” she said. Christine Choi contributed reporting. Translation by Maria Ferris