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Six voices share stories of immigration

Locations: News Published

By Dyana Z. Furmansky

They left, to escape poverty, corruption or oppression, as immigrants still do. They took few things with them, aside from their great desire to make a better life for themselves in the United States. Six who found their home in the Roaring Fork Valley made their adopted country better, too. At the sixth annual “Immigrant Voices” event, sponsored by English in Action, each took a turn at telling their story to the fully-masked, packed hall of The Art Center of Willits last Thursday night.

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In an opening medley, violinist MinTze Wu captured the storytellers’ notes of desperation and triumph. She performed in bare feet, to convey the meaning of what she called “BenFeng,” or “running with free spirit.” When Wu later told her story, she recalled saying goodbye to her family in Taiwan at the age of 14, to study music in New York City. 

Wu told of her bond with her mother. “She was always there,” from the moment Wu was born a disappointment to her parents, for not being a boy. “She was there,” even when mother and daughter were thousands of miles apart, and the daughter “had romances and smoked cigarettes,” knowing her mother disapproved. “I abandoned her church, but I was in her prayers,” Wu said. “She was there with her heart opened wide.” 

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As master of ceremonies, Samuel Bernal, who runs Radio La Tricolor, introduced “the most beautiful woman in the world,” his wife Iliana Rentería Bernal. Rentería Bernal worked in the medical profession in Mexico before emigrating. At the nonprofit Raising a Reader in the Roaring Fork Valley, she promoted early literacy and parental engagement. She later became a digital marketing strategist for Latino outreach during the pandemic shutdown, when her husband was very sick with COVID. “I was afraid I would lose him,” Renteria Bernal said, fighting back tears. 

Believing that social media could be compassionate, she created an online Spanish support group and translated much-needed information. Through the group, people gave money for rent, shared food and bought diapers. “It was the power of an amazing nonprofit organization,” she said. “Messages increased exponentially. I was so exhausted.” 

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Jorge Montiel grew up poor in Nogales, Sonora, on the Arizona border. He went north when he was 17 to get a better education. Montiel graduated from community college, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA. He landed a corporate job, married, had kids, bought a house and a set of golf clubs. “I was a poor kid from Nogales with stock options.” He said he was living the American dream. 

Montiel discovered that the American dream’s safety net was badly torn when his father, who had emigrated to Arizona for work, was diagnosed with colon cancer and had no health insurance. Jorge Montiel-Jaramillo died a year later. Montiel was devastated. In the U.S. “we have the resources to help some and not others,” he said. “I had three degrees but they couldn’t help me save my dad.” His sense of guilt drove him to quit his corporate job and work for 17 years at the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national, faith-based community organization for marginalized populations. In 2019 Montiel became a founder of the local affiliate called Mountain Voices Project. 

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Laura Segura came to the U.S. from Mexico City, pregnant with her first child. She role-played her mistreatment. “I didn’t have the words to describe the independent, powerful woman I am,” she said. Segura now works for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

For Veronica Sacur of Mendoza, Argentina, opportunity knocked on her door when a staff member of Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork came to ask her to teach Spanish. Making enough to live on had been hard in the Andes, Sacur said. The struggle continued in this mountain valley. When Sacur opened the door that morning, she discovered that “all the sacrifices were worth it, if just one person can benefit from my skills.” 

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Born Eeda Rosenberg in Poland, Alexandra Yajko spoke emotionally about her family becoming political refugees in 1970. At university, someone scratched “Dirty Jew” into her desk. Jews were blamed for Poland’s poor economy. Her older sister was stalked by the secret police. Her parents, traumatized from seeing their families perish in the Holocaust, relived that terror and feared its return. “Their screams at night punctuated my childhood, ” said Yajko. “Anti-semitism, we thought, died with Hitler’s death.”

Polish Jews had three months to leave the country. Yajko recalled the grim night her family boarded the train in Poland, rode through Czechoslovakia and arrived in Vienna. “You have crossed the Iron Curtain,” announced a soldier who, unlike the Soviet soldiers, smiled. When they arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport four months later, a man from a Jewish relief organization gave them green cards.

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Yajko was Colorado Mountain College’s (CMC) first woman dean and CEO of CMC’s foundation. She raised more than $40 million for CMC and, after retiring, helped fund the Calaway-Young Cancer Center in Glenwood Springs. She ended Immigrant Voices with another recollection of the man with the green cards. He walked away, then turned around. “Oh, I forgot,” he said. “Welcome to America.”

Tags: #Dyana Z. Furmansky #English in Action #Klaus Kocher
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