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Brainerd area immigrants express frustration, hope during cultural panel

BRAINERD, Minn. — A group of immigrants opened their minds and their hearts to discuss life in America.

Central Lakes College Spanish instructor Tracey Kloeckl-Jiménez and her husband, Francisco, joined a group of panelists Thursday, Dec. 1, to share their stories during the college's monthly Cultural Thursday event.

The two met as college students in Spain, and after two years of marriage, the Spaniard boy and the American girl moved to the U.S.

"I didn't come over here to take anybody's job, or anybody's wife—I was already married," Francisco joked.

When he met Kloeckl he didn't speak English, but he learned it in six months. Now he's surprised when people ask him how to spell words.

Maria Theresa DeJose, a Filipino-American, gave an emotional plea for tolerance and empathy that drew spirited applause after she was finished.

Her path to becoming an American had been relatively free of red tape, because she had married an American. But in a less tangible sense, her immigrant experience was difficult because of the cultural barriers she didn't expect.

"You call it 'American Dream,'" she said. "But sometimes when you say 'dream,' you're all sleeping."

The people of America must share their stories and their pain to achieve understanding among each other, DeJose said. When she came to America, her marriage was difficult (she later divorced), but to keep on going, she told herself it wasn't about the quality of her marriage—it was about the quality of her life. The American people share the same resources as well as the same emotions, she said—we're all human.

"We are here, we are wide awake," she said of immigrants in the U.S. "Wake up and share our history."

Alda Anthony from Brazil met her American husband online, and when he flew down to visit her small town, it garnered local television news coverage. She moved to the U.S. without speaking English, and told her story during the panel talk in Brazilian Portuguese as a friend translated for her. Before she came she was afraid of America's reputation for bigoted citizens, but her experience with Americans has been free of prejudice, she said. It only took her five months to achieve permanent resident or "green card" status. She now studies English as a second language at CLC, she proudly noted.

Ingrid Andersen came to Minnesota from Sweden as a young woman, first touring America by way of a glamorous Greyhound Bus. She started out living in Minneapolis and working at the Mount Sinai hospital, and eventually settled down to marry after three years. She found that she actually learned more about old Swedish culture living in Minnesota than she did in Sweden, as the immigrants that had come many years before her had preserved traditions that had since faded away in the old country. She became a citizen in 1999, as that was the year the federal government allowed immigrants to retain dual citizenship in both America and their country of origin.

After Kloeckl-Jiménez opened the event up to audience questions, the panelists were asked what it was like moving from one culture to another.

Claribel Severson described teetering between two worlds: her parents are Puerto Rican but she was born in the United States. Her parents and other Puerto Ricans expect her to behave one way, but American culture expects her to assimilate and behave another way.

"I think that's part of the reason why I wanted to come today—is so that people ... understood that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. but we still have our own identity and our own culture," she said. "I think that for the most part, Puerto Ricans feel that way. That we're Americans, but we're also Puerto Rican. So adapting to the culture, for me ... I don't know if that really ever happened fully because we're constantly in these two worlds."

The immigrants were also asked about how they felt in response to the ascendancy of Donald Trump.

Anthony was worried not for herself because she was in the U.S. legally, but for the other immigrants and refugees who were in the U.S.

Jiménez said while he opposed Trump's policies, he would give him a chance.

"I'm concerned, yes, but afraid, no," he said.