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Ingrid Sánchez Eger
Ingrid Sánchez Eger

Costa Rican Immigrant Puts Out Many Fires In Poughkeepsie

Por Antonio Flores-Lobos
June 2017
They call her “La Fantasma” – “The Ghost” – but she appears everywhere across Poughkeepsie putting out fires, cooking and delivering food, translating and interpreting in schools, doing landscaping, taking her kids to their activities, restoring sculptures, kicking the ball at a soccer match once in a while, and talking on the radio every week.
Such is the dynamic and interesting life of Costa Rican native Ingrid Sánchez-Eger, who not only is the president of the Dutchess County Volunteer Firemen’s Association, but also the only woman and Latina in the Arlington Fire District in the town of Poughkeepsie.

She has chosen to laugh, enjoy and live her life in this manner while doing her part to make her community a better place for all residents. “Why suffer? Pain hurts,” is something this tica – a nickname for Costa Ricans – likes to say. In her country, a common slogan is “pura vida,” or “pure life.”

Ingrid arrived in the United States – on a plane, with a visa and everything else – at 19 to learn English. She had studied tourism back home, but she needed to learn a language that would allow her to interact with the large numbers of tourists who visit her paradise-like nation.

As fate would have it, her plans changed. Before she knew it, she found love and had two children, who are now teenagers. Her marriage, as sometimes happens, ended in divorce.

Still, this did not dampen her desire to improve her and her loved ones’ situation. Ingrid enrolled in Dutchess Community College to study art and design, and also to play soccer. She later transferred to major in psychology at Marist College.

Currently, Sánchez-Eger dedicates her time to her children Eduardo and Carolina, and she has to find odd jobs “doing whatever pops up,” whether it is working as an interpreter for the Poughkeepsie school district, cooking and delivering food for Alex’s Restaurant, doing landscaping, or restoring religious figures, among other activities.

Sánchez-Eger has always loved helping others, and is also the director, producer and host of her own radio show, named “Cada loco con su tema”  – “To Each Their Own” – broadcast live on Revolución Radio every Tuesday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. In it, as she did for years at the UHVW 950 AM show “La hora hispana” – “The Hispanic Hour” – she offers information, entertainment and a way for the community to connect.
One of Sánchez-Eger’s greatest passions, however, is the volunteer work she performs along the Croft Corners Fire Company in Arlington. She stops to take a breath before describing in detail what the job entails.

She then speaks about the training, which includes learning to jump between buildings Spiderman-style, taking rigorous tests and understanding the physics and mathematics behind measuring water pressure, smoke color and the weight of liquids, among other calculations. “Yes,” she said, “people think that it’s only a matter of opening a water hose, but no. Putting out a fire is much more than that.”

In fact, firefighters are required to take several types of training, covering topics such as safety, toxic gases, best tactics to deal with flames, engaging with the people they are saving, crime, first aid, and many others.

There are some 300,000 firefighters in the United States, and they save thousands of lives and millions of dollars in property. Every year, approximately 70 of them perish in the line of duty. Women make barely 7 percent of the force, and they are often among the volunteer workers.

A decade ago, it took a lawsuit for discrimination against the city of New York to diversify the force. Ninety percent of firefighters there were white men back them, while the Black and Latino population was surpassing 50 percent. Latino children who said: “I want to be a firefighter when I grow up” would have to be told by their parents that it was an impossible dream.

The lack of diversity among Hudson Valley firefighters resembles that of New York City in those days. Sánchez-Eger said that every fire station in the area has four paid employees and around 100 active volunteers. In Poughkeepsie, at least, only one person speaks Spanish and she is not among those on payroll.
The reality is that, in a community where large numbers of Latinos live, Spanish-speaking firefighters, police officers and first responders are needed. In an emergency, receiving instructions in their language could save the life of a Hispanic person who does not speak English if they are trapped in a fire or in the twisted metal of a car after a crash.

Sánchez-Eger, who was an interpreter for the police for a while, has been there at critical moments when she has been tasked with calming Hispanic people who are concerned not just about their health but also about not having health insurance or a driver’s license, or who are afraid of being deported and separated from their families. For a person in those situations, her words of comfort sound like the voice of an angel.
(…) She has been a pioneer of Spanish radio, as one of the founders of the A.H.O.R.A community organization and also as the first Latina to serve as president of the Dutchess County Volunteer Firemen’s Association in Poughkeepsie.

Still, not everything was rosy for Sánchez-Eger. A few years ago, she went through one of the worst things that can happen to a firefighter: Her own house burned down and she was not there to combat the flames that destroyed the home she shared with her children, or to save her memories or her investment.
Now, the structure is abandoned and sits in limbo, as the insurance company paid the bank instead of her and she is being forced to continue making her monthly payments. Meanwhile, the city is threatening to demolish the home and the bank wants to take her to court over the mortgage, which would effectively kill part of Sánchez-Eger’s American dream.

Could life be this cruel to someone who has given so much for her city and her community? Sánchez-Eger takes a deep breath, lets it out and smiles faintly, as if saying: “I’ve seen worse, and I’ll come out of this one too.”

This tica – who one day decided to leave her beloved Costa Rica, whose parents are artists, and who came to the Hudson Valley to break new ground as a bilingual Latina firefighter, among other things – says that it will not be long until she opens her own restaurant.

Translated in English by K. Casiano from Voices of New York, to top

La Voz, Cultura y noticias hispanas del Valle de Hudson



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