July 30, 2012, was a monumental day for Hillsborough High junior Giannina Leon. Going through the mail that day, Leon came across a big envelope stamped with "Center of Immigration." After 11 years, Leon and her mother had finally received their Green Cards, proof from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that they were legal U.S. residents.
Eleven years earlier, 3-year-old Leon stepped off the plane from Peru onto American soil and saw her first glimpse of a new life.
Her family came to the United States, hoping for the typical American dream: a better life and future. "The economy was down in Peru," Leon said. "My mom was a travel agent while my dad was a guard to the mayor, (whose) term was almost up when we came."
Life was different here, where Leon's family settled in with an uncle. While living in Peru, Leon lived with her parents, grandparents, and aunt and uncle and a cousin. They would go visit extended family every weekend, only a 30-minute drive away, to have "lonche," which was basically tea or coffee or hot chocolate with bread and butter or little sandwiches," Leon said. "It was very social, very happy."
Leon described her experience in the United States. "You come here and spend your weekends indoors, alone, or working. Everything is about money. There's not much room for family," she said. "You don't see those couples like my grandparents who've been together for 45 years, and when you do, everyone treats it like it's a miracle and they're so lucky."
When Leon's uncle left town, the family budget grew tighter as they had to find another place to live in Tampa. But the tight budget was not her only problem. "The language barrier was definitely big," she said. "I picked up English pretty quickly after I started going to day care and preschool later, but my parents, being older, found (and still find) it very difficult."
Her parents would both pick up some English while working at McDonald's, and her mother would use Ingles Sin Barreras books, a self study course for learning English. "My mother enrolled at Erwin Technical Center for their ESOL program," Leon said. "The instructor there, Irene Acosta, was amazing and encouraged her all along the way. She even persuaded her to take an exam to test her levels in each category, and she did better than she ever dreamed in English." Her mother was hired to work at Erwin as a secretary, and is still there today.
Leon remembers her own struggles. "For me it was little stuff. Bullying, having an accent, everyone thinking I'm Mexican (which really bothered me)," she said. "The school district not letting me skip a grade even though I started school when I was 2 and I had a high reading level."
When Leon received her Green Card, it was sweet relief. "It was a first step that we'd been working for a long time. I could finally have at least the possibility of a job and go to college.
"And, h---, I was legal."