Girna’s parents were born in the Dominican Republic and found themselves at a pivotal moment in the history of their country. During the tumultuous ruling of President Joaquín Antonio Balaguer Ricardo, a time coined “the twelve years” that spanned from 1966-1978, political opponents were jailed and sometimes killed. Girna’s father’s active opposition of the Balaguer regime forced him and his wife to emigrate in 1971. Fleeing under duress, they had to leave their two-year-old daughter behind with the girl’s maternal grandmother.
Girna’s parents were granted temporary asylum by the United States and later visas. They lived in New York City, where Girna was born. “I could be considered an ‘anchor child,’” Girna shared. “I don’t like that term.”
Girna’s parents split up and her mother, Gladys, found work at a suitcase factory. Gladys remarried and Girna’s stepfather helped raise her. In Girna’s household growing up, they only spoke Spanish. She did not learn English until she entered preschool at age four. Girna recalled when she first learned the word “the”—a pivotal moment in her American journey. She felt pride when quizzing her mother on the word’s spelling (who guessed it was spelled d-a). Girna felt like she was officially American.
At age seven, Girna traveled with an aunt to the Dominican Republic for the first time. Gladys was unable to leave the United States for if she did, she could not return.
On this trip Girna met for the first time her grandmother and her sister, Daira, then 12, as well as many extended family members. Girna spoke about how she stayed in the house that her mother grew up in, which still had no running water. She spent the summer collecting water from the river for cooking and cleaning. The house sat amid a mango grove. Girna and her cousins waited to hear the sound of a mango drop from a tree and got a thrill collecting the fallen mangos before the animals could steal a bite. Her grandmother was the first in the community to have electricity, so friends and neighbors gathered at the house to watch television, bringing coffee and desserts to share. “Spending this time in the Dominican Republic at my grandmother’s house connected me to how my mother grew up, to my family, to my heritage,” she said.
Finally, Gladys received a green card, and that same day she booked a flight to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with her first-born daughter. Daira, who was then 14, had not spent a moment with her mother since she was two. After that visit to the Dominican Republic, Gladys was determined to have both of her girls living with her in New York. She petitioned to get Daira a green card, and seven years later Daira became a US citizen.
Today, Girna is married to her college sweetheart, Tim, and they have two sons, Darius and Mateo, both students at TPS. Because Tim is not a Spanish speaker, it has been challenging to integrate Spanish into their daily lives. This can be a point of contention within Girna’s family. “To some of my family, I’m not Dominican enough. But often when people meet me for the first time and see what I look like, they can’t imagine that I was born in the United States,” Girna shared. “I’ve embraced this unique identity, but it can be difficult.”
Girna’s grandmother’s house is now unoccupied, but it remains in the family. Girna, Tim and their sons make sure to visit the house and reflect on the memories when they travel to the Dominican Republic.
At this present time in the United States, when the topic of immigration is so prevalent, Girna voiced how her daily routine is impacted by fear of being “other.” She showed the class her passport card that she carries with her every day, explaining that if citizenship were revoked for people who have been referred to as “anchor children,” she would fall into that category.
Girna’s compelling storytelling inspired students to reflect on their own identities as they navigate their middle school world. Girna touched on how many middle schoolers want to be as similar to their friends as possible—but that one day, they will value what makes them different, what makes them individuals. The students nodded their heads in agreement.
Thank you, Girna, for sharing your immigration story with our students. If you have a TPS 8th grader in your life, talk to them about this presentation.
Spanish middle school teachers Marco Velis and Cecilia Genzlinger are passionate about the launch of this series. “I was excited for this speaker series, but never imagined that the stories shared would be as powerful as this,” Cecilia said. (Photos by M. Velis)