Long Journey Home

José Gil of Huntingburg prayed with his wife, Lorena, and their daughters, Monica, 18, and Maddie, 14, during Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntingburg on April 6. The family, originally from El Salvador, spent years apart while immigrating to the United States before being reunited to start a new life as part of the Huntingburg community.

Story by Alexandra Sondeen
Photos by Rachel Mummey

With his native country in turmoil, Huntingburg resident José Gil made the gut-wrenching decision to leave his home in April 1988 and search for a better life in the United States.

“In El Salvador, they were in the middle of a civil war,” the now 58-year-old said, his speech accented.
“It was difficult for everybody. At that time, the guerrillas or the soldiers, they attack everybody. It wasn’t safe.”

Above: While working a food table at the inaugural Hispanic Cultural Festival in Huntingburg on Sept. 14, Maddie instructed former mayor Connie Nass how to eat an El Salvadoran cookie that Lorena made.

José is a member of the Huntingburg Parks Board and is the city’s first Hispanic governmental appointee. Before immigrating to the United States, he had lived in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second-largest city. While city residents were generally safer than others from attacks by guerrillas or government soldiers, they faced other problems.

“In the cities, the big problem was the light,” he said. “The guerrillas destroyed the electric system.
Some nights or some days, we don’t have electricity for three, four, five days.”

José went to Los Angeles, meeting up with a brother who had already moved there. He worked in general construction, sometimes traveling out of state to Colorado, Kansas and Texas for the work.

Lorena gestured with her hands while playing a body-parts guessing game with help from her teacher Mary Balbach of Dale, right, during an English class at the Guadalupe Center in Huntingburg on March 12.

His gold 1985 Toyota Tercel carried him the distance. With 265,000 miles on it, it still does.

On a visit back to El Salvador, José met Lorena Calmo. The two married in November 1994, but José still split his time between the United States and El Salvador; his bride remained behind with her family.

“It was hard,” José said.

Their first daughter, Monica, was born the next year. Madeline, or Maddie for short, followed in 1999. Leaving his two young children behind made the distance even harder. It wasn’t easy on the girls, either.

“I remember when I was 4 or 6 years old on Father’s Day and I didn’t have my dad,” Monica, now 18 and a 2013 graduate of Southridge High School, said. “It was hard. My ex-friends were saying I didn’t have a dad because he was here (in the United States).”

In 2005, José moved to Huntingburg to work on his cousin José Calderon’s house.

“He called me every week,” José recalled. “He said he needed me to come here and help redo his house. I finally came in November and worked at his house in December and January. I finished in the middle of February.”

He decided to stay in Huntingburg and landed a job with MasterBrand Cabinets in February 2006. He kept the job for a year and a half and earned his U.S. citizenship in January 2007 before returning to El Salvador for a few months to visit his family. He bounced between factory jobs for a while, visiting El Salvador in between.

He began trying to arrange the necessary paperwork to bring his family to the United states. Lorena arrived in May 2009, leaving the girls behind with her parents in El Salvador.

“It was complicated,” José recalled. “The immigration office, they changed the documents. That was the problem. The girls were supposed to come together.”

Monica traveled to the United States with her father in October 2009. Maddie’s immigration was delayed a month because of confusion at the immigration authority.

“They thought my mom was me,” Maddie, now 14, said.

During an Association of Latin Americans of Southern Indiana meeting to organize for the Hispanic festival, José gave Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner a proposal for festival plans at Huntingburg City Hall on March 2.

In November 2009, the family was finally together, all in one place.

“I was very happy because we were going to be together again,” 46-year-old Lorena, who is still learning English, said with the help of her daughters. “I was so happy, but sad because my family is still in El Salvador.”

The girls enrolled in school, Monica as a freshman at Southridge High School and Maddie as a fifth-grader at Huntingburg Elementary School. Previously, they had both been enrolled in an all-girls Catholic school and neither of them knew much English.

“It was scary,” Maddie said. “We just knew how to say ”˜Hello,’ ”˜How are you?’ and ”˜Bye.’ That’s it.”
With the help of teachers and new friends, the girls rapidly picked up the language.

“It’s hard to understand all the words sometimes,” Monica said. “Like sometimes there’s a word in a test and you don’t know what it means.”

José returned to work at Styline, now OFS Brands, and Lorena found a position as a custodian at Southridge High School.

The family also had a support group with the Association of Latin Americans of Southern Indiana, commonly called ALASI. José helped get the group started in 2006.

“I realized we didn’t have an organization here like we did in Los Angeles,” he said. “I got to know some (leaders) and other people and we thought it was a good idea.”

In Huntingburg, 18.5 percent of the city’s 6,057 residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Of Dubois County’s total population of 41,889, about 6 percent are Hispanic or Latino, according to that census.

Maddie, left, gave a smile of approval to her sister, Monica, as she got dressed for her senior prom April 20.

José said most of the Hispanic families in the area have stories similar to the Gils’ tale of being separated for years while trying to immigrate to find a better life.

“We can help each other,” he said.

ALASI aims to unite the Hispanic community in southern Indiana and help its members integrate into American society while retaining their own native cultures. Its approximately 20 members represent a variety of nations, including Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Because of the variety, members sometimes have trouble understanding each other; the varying dialects use different words for the same meaning.

Then-Southridge High School senior Grace Maxey, seated on the floor, Grace’s sister Olivia, a junior, seated above her, and freshman Casey Lamb, right, congratulated Monica April 16 on a job well done at the previous night’s track meet. During Monica’s senior year, she was the only Latina to play varsity basketball and track.

José said he’s always had a passion for getting involved in the community. As president of ALASI, he has become a go-to resource for both the Hispanic and Anglo communities in Huntingburg and Dubois County. Lorena, Monica and Maddie all participate in ALASI activities like cleaning the street the group adopted in Huntingburg, Van Buren Street between Sixth and 22nd streets. The girls help their father translate meeting minutes from Spanish into English.

“Everybody knows I’m José’s daughter,” Monica said. “Sometimes that’s awkward because I don’t know them, but it makes me proud of my dad.”

José also serves on the board for the Guadalupe Center in Huntingburg and was appointed to the city park board in January.

“I like to serve the community,” José said. “The best way (to integrate) is to participate in things, but not everybody thinks that way. We want to get the Hispanics to see there’s more than work and home or school and home.”

Lorena, a permanent U.S. resident, is working to obtain citizenship. She is taking English classes twice a week through ACE Academy at the Guadalupe Center and, with the encouragement of her husband and daughters, is slowly gaining confidence in speaking in English.

“I know words,” she said carefully. “But to put them together is hard. I have to think and translate.”

Lorena is known in her family for always gesturing when she talks. That has helped her convey her meaning to people who don’t understand Spanish or have trouble understanding her broken English.

The Gil family worked together April 27 to pick up litter along North Jackson Street, the street that the Association of Latin Americans of Southern Indiana adopted for cleanup.

“She talks a lot with her hands,” José said, adding good-naturedly that his wife’s gesturing has gotten even bigger and more prevalent since she’s been learning English.

Monica hugged her dad after her graduation ceremony at Huntingburg Memorial Gym on May 17. She graduated from Southridge High School and now is studying physical therapy at Vincennes University in Vincennes.

Monica and Maddie, who officially became U.S. citizens in 2011, got involved in school sports. Both participated in the shot put and discus in track and field. Monica, now a freshman at Vincennes University, played on the Southridge girls basketball team throughout high school and was the only Hispanic on the varsity team last season. She lives on campus at VU and is studying physical therapy.

Maddie just started her freshman year at Southridge High School and hasn’t decided if she’ll continue in track this year.

Though they squabble occasionally, the girls are very close because of their experiences together both in El Salvador and through adjusting to life in Huntingburg. They help each other pick out outfits and do each other’s hair and makeup for special occasions. They cheered for each other at track meets and pair up at community events they attend with their parents.

The family does face prejudice from time to time, some of which is very bothersome for Monica and Maddie.

“The (Anglos), they think that everybody’s an illegal (immigrant),” Monica said.

“And that everybody’s Mexican,” Maddie interjected. “And that when we talk in Spanish that we’re talking about them, and we’re not. We have better things to talk about.”

The family has worked hard to educate their friends, neighbors and community that “Mexican” is not a generalized term for someone who is Hispanic or Latino.

The family has a number of Anglo friends. José and Lorena visit with them as well as neighbors at local events, and Monica and Maddie cheered for their friends at sporting events and gab with them during breaks at school. Before Monica’s senior prom April 20, Maddie helped take pictures of Monica with a large group of teens, both Anglo and Hispanic, dressed in colorful, sparkly gowns and tuxedos.

Expanding cultural understanding is one reason ALASI put on the inaugural Hispanic Cultural Festival in Huntingburg last month.

José and Lorena walked home after attending the Garden Gate Jazz, Wine & Craft Beer Festival in Huntingburg on April 20. The couple makes an effort to participate in community events.

Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner, past mayor Connie Nass, U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon and El Salvadoran consulate Patricia Maza-Pittsford from Chicago flanked José as he welcomed his fellow community members to the fest. Lorena and the girls watched from the crowd as what took months of tireless planning unfolded in front of them.

It was a moment the entire family took great satisfaction in. The feeling of achievement could be felt in the air as various Hispanic groups yelled out, honoring their heritage: El Salvadoran, Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Colombian, Costa Rican.

As festivalgoers came and went, José darted back and forth, grabbing his family members and proudly, eagerly introducing them to people he knew from the community. The Gils soaked in the accomplishment — but only for a minute before they were speaking about how to improve on the festival for next year.

Herald photographer Rachel Mummey contributed to this report.

Contact The Herald at news@dcherald.com.

More on DuboisCountyHerald.com