Students call Norma anything but normal
It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday evening and a line is already stretching out the door of Doy’s Place in the basement of Henley Hall. An employee, beginning her five-hour shift, twirls on her toes to grab another steaming pan of pizza. Doy’s Place is a popular spot for freshmen to hang out at night, and it’s not just because of the food.
Maria “Norma” Bolanos, the 52-year-old employee, chatters in Spanish to students. For many new freshman students, interacting with Bolanos is a way to stave off homesickness.
“She’s like everybody’s grandmother,” said freshman undecided major Eric Sirvinskas. “I think it helps people when they start to miss their families.”
Bolanos, a Mexico City native, works five days a week at Doy’s Place and is a favorite employee among students like Sirvinskas for her motherly attitude and cheerfulness toward students. Bolanos works two other jobs, at Arby’s and housekeeping at a home in Huntington Beach, and said she stays positive because she’s always had high expectations for her future.
Within five years, Bolanos said she hopes to own her own restaurant where she would cook her favorite Mexican foods including chile rellenos, pupusas and other traditional cuisine. She would name it Cielito Lindo – beautiful little heaven.
“I’ve always had hope for my future,” she said. “I love to cook when I have time. I want to have my own business because I don’t want to work for people anymore.”
The second oldest of seven children, Bolanos said her life as a child was simple. Although she said she loved to play “futbol” as a goalie and study math and history, her childhood and education were cut short when she married at 15 and had her first child, named Norma. Within two years she gave birth to two more children, Maria and Carlos.
Bolanos said she has always been talkative and energetic, and tried to maintain that attitude even when she was forced to follow her husband to Huntington Beach in 1989 to search for a much-needed job to help support her children, who remained in Mexico.
“It was very difficult because they were left behind and I could only visit them twice a year,” she said. “But I stayed positive because I knew my children would eventually be with me if I kept working and sending money.”
Five years ago, Bolanos’ close friend, whose cousin was a manager at Chapman, suggested she find work at the university.
“The people here are very good to me,” she said. “Out of 100 students, 90 are good. The other 10 sometimes come drunk and want me to open when I can’t. But most of them are good.”
Bolanos said she has her own advice for students.
“Study, because you’ll have more opportunities for much better jobs,” she said. “And don’t drink, because you can cause harm to other people.”
Today, all three of Bolanos’ children live in Orange County and she lives alone after being separated from her husband for 11 years. She said her favorite movies are romances like “Titanic,” and her dreams of being a restaurant owner are still vivid.
Sophomore business major Dillon Knight said her positivity is what many people notice about Bolanos upon meeting her.
“When you’re stressed and need a break that’s who you think of,” Knight said. “She’s the escape.”
Knight said this is especially true for Chapman newcomers.
“Norma is like the freshman gatekeeper,” Knight said. “She seems to love what she does and is always so nice to everybody.”
At 11 p.m., Bolanos still has two hours to work until closing time. At 1 a.m. she rushes home and sleeps for a few hours before waking up early for the morning shift at Arby’s. After that, she cleans the same house in Huntington where in 1989 she cared for American children, who now speak fluent Spanish and take trips to Mexico with her.
“I’m too busy to be tired,” she said, laughing.
In that moment she waves at a group of students, who smile and wave back. They are free on a late Tuesday night, and want to spend it with Norma.