Luana Williams (+Video)
As a poor teenager in Brazil, Luana Williams earns money embroidering rubber flip-flops called “Havaianas.” When her dreams of going to university are dashed, she comes to Toronto. Discouraged by the few job prospects, she is about to return to Brazil when love intervenes. Now a mother and wife in Canmore, and she still has her Havaianas – and her dreams of university.
My name is Luana Williams. My maiden name is Luana Najai da Silva. I was born in São Paulo, Brazil. My mother was seventeen when she had me. I never knew my father. I was raised by my grandparents. And like most Brazilians, I was poor.
As a teenager, to make extra cash, I embroidered rubber flip-flops called “Havaianas.” In Portuguese, the word means “Hawaiians.” The embroidery tools were very basic: a needle, fishing line to use as thread, and a pair of pliers to push the needle through the thick rubber. And, of course, whatever bead or button type known to women.
Sales were always brisk before New Year’s Eve. I only took custom orders, and some ladies would come up with the most intricate designs—microscopic pearl beads transformed into flowers that took hours to make. When it came to personalizing their Havaianas, there were no limits. The more bling, the better!
But I didn’t want to spend my life revamping flip-flops. My dream was to go to university, which no one in my family had ever done. I wanted to study art history. There was one small problem: I had failed my entrance exams. At that time, university was reserved mostly for private schooled kids.
I remember the day I found out. I was standing in a throng of students, all of us searching for our names. Many were whooping it up in celebration. I saw my name and realized that I had failed. I was sick with disappointment. For me, a university education was the key to a better life. But I didn’t give up—and that’s where Canada comes in.
I started working at a grocery store. I worked eleven hours a day, six days a week. Within one year, I had enough saved to pay for my way in Canada for one month. So, in 2002, I packed a small suitcase, including my flip-flops, and left for Toronto. I was twenty years old.
My so-called better life began with me cleaning houses for the affluent families of Lawrence Park. Due to my naively low rate of ten dollars an hour, business was good. When I got to work, I always changed from my Sorels into my Havaianas and white socks. “What’s with the socks and flip-flops?” one woman asked. Another woman said, “Why don’t you buy Japanese socks? They make way for the toes.”
To deal with my boredom, I would listen to music on my portable CD player, which I attached to the waistband of my jeans. The rock station, 102.1 The Edge, helped me to learn English.
I cleaned houses six days a week for three years and hated every minute of it. I felt my brain was turning to mush. I wasn’t getting anywhere. I couldn’t go to university because I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t have the proper documents, so I decided to return to Brazil.
But then meeting the man who would become my husband made me change my mind. I cleaned his house. And I noticed a strange thing. Every time I returned, I would notice things that belonged to him slowly disappearing—his clothes, his motorcycle, etc. Eventually, he explained that he was going through a divorce. He asked me out, and within two weeks of intense dating, he invited me to join him in Canmore. Our first summer together was wonderful. We hiked and went on motorcycle trips. I no longer wished to leave Canada. My Havaianas and I would stay.
I have now been in this country for twelve years. I am a wife, a mother and a photographer. Just the other day, I said to my husband, “Honey, writing this story makes me want to go to university.” We’ll see…