San Francisco — When Rosa Isabel Via arrived here two years ago from Peru, she came with 12 years of experience as a secretary-bookkeeper for an exporting firm. She knew starting over in a new country wouldn't be easy, but she was unprepared for the employment hurdles she ultimately faced. Because Mrs. Via spoke little English, the only work she could find was baby-sitting. ``I washed and ironed,'' she recalls. ``I took care of the two kids. I cooked. I cleaned all the house. I made the lunch for the husband.'' Although she worked from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. five days a week, her employers -- a Hispanic man and his American wife -- paid her only $50 a week.
Mrs. Via knew the arrangement was unjust, she says, but she continued for nine months por la necesidad -- for necessity. She now sells cosmetics from her home and studies English at a local community college.
Her experience illustrates a situation common to growing numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants: exploitation on the job, often by members of their own community.
``They work with their own people and they work for nothing,'' says Danelia Romig, director of Latina community outreach for a resource center here called Options for Women Over 40. ``Employers figure, `Well, this one can't get a job anyway, so I'll pay her less.' ''
It is a story repeated by other Latinas who have gathered for Sunday brunch at Options' modest headquarters in the city's predominantly Hispanic Mission District. Seated amid a friendly jumble of mismatched desks and files that have been donated by corporations, the women speak in halting English of their efforts to overcome limitations and discrimination.
``I have 30 years' experience,'' says Lidia Hernandez, a former government personnel worker in her native El Salvador. ``I thought I would find a good job.'' Instead, she earns her modest keep by caring for an infant while she struggles to improve her language skills.
To help women like Mrs. Via and Mrs. Hernandez make the transition to a new culture, Ms. Romig organizes informal conversation classes in ``survival English.'' She and other Options staff members also work with schools, churches, and employment agencies in the area to develop job opportunities.
``I know it's possible to do something,'' says Ms. Romig. ``There's absolutely nothing else being done to address the needs of these mid-life Latina women. They're just floating. Many are mothers -- they should be a good role model for their children. If a parent can become more assertive and take care of herself, it helps the children.''
Not all are newcomers to this country, she notes. More than one-third of the Hispanic women who seek the group's services have been here 10 years or more. But because of a cultural background that keeps women subservient, many have been isolated within their own homes and tightly knit neighborhoods.
``Some have husbands who don't even want them to answer the phone or go out alone,'' says Ms. Romig. ``And they are family-oriented, so belonging to a group is different for them.''
Once a Latina discovers Options -- a process that depends largely on word of mouth -- she finds both practical help and the comfort of meeting others in similar circumstances. During workshops and these monthly brunches, she also mingles with the American women who form the largest part of the group's membership.
``A lot of these are women who did what they were supposed to do -- got married, raised families,'' says Pat Durham, coordinator of the eight-year-old nonprofit organization since 1979. ``They did what the Phyllis Schlaflys wanted them to do -- stay in the home.'' Now, in mid-life, they find themselves suddenly divorced or widowed, forced for perhaps the first time to seek employment. ``People call and say, `Well, I'm over 40,' '' Ms. Durham explains. ``We say, `Congratulations -- it's a won derful age.' ''
After the congratulations are over, the process of bolstering self-esteem and building skills begins. ``There's still a lot of discrimination against older women,'' Ms. Durham admits. ``If you don't want to be discriminated against, you've got to come with skills and a competitive spirit.''
Through seminars, career counseling, and job referrals, Options staff members help clients learn to prepare a r'esum'e, handle job interviews, and feel more confident about their new status.
``Mid-life women were reared in a nonassertive way,'' says Rita Salinas, program coordinator. ``We were raised to be `good girls' and not to ask for things for ourselves.''
For Hispanic women, learning to be assertive can be even more difficult. ``Of all the cultural messages Latinas receive [from men], one of the most powerful is `Don't rock the boat,' '' Mrs. Salinas notes. ``Much of their passivity is a myth. But at best they are never able to be direct about their needs.'' Still, she adds, ``they have reported back to us that they're being more successful.''
Despite the challenges these women face, Options has helped 207 clients -- 122 Anglos and 85 Hispanics -- to find employment this year. Jobs range from professional and clerical positions to domestic and factory work.
Looking ahead, Ms. Durham sees reason for cautious optimism. ``As the population ages, corporations will have to have more older employees,'' she says. ``And some companies have had it with younger people in the office. They can't write a sentence, they can't spell. There is a demand.''
Mrs. Salinas concurs. ``There's so much more women have to share as we get older,'' she says. ``All we have to do is convince the world of that.''