Some were born here, tracing their roots all the way back to relatives who fought for freedom in the American Revolution. Others, although born here, endured years of racism and oppression, living in the margins of the American dream, but holding steadfast to the country’s ideals.
Some moved here, fleeing political persecution or brutal wars in their native lands or were beckoned by the promise of opportunity in a country where they feel welcome and embraced.
Each person Coast Monthly interviewed for this issue has a singular American experience. But they all share in common some distinctly American traits — optimism, strong work ethic, generosity and a willingness to help others achieve what they have found or won through struggle.
And they all, in their own ways, contribute to the wonderful, vibrant place we all call home.
Living the dream ‘one day at a time’
Keyla Pinto, 28, was born to Guatemalan-American parents in Los Angeles. In 1995, her mother decided to move her, and her younger brother, to Galveston in hopes of gaining support from family already living on the island.
“I was about to start kindergarten and my mother was able to work without worrying about me and my brother,” Pinto said. “Just like my mother back then, when I think of America, automatically the word ‘opportunity’ comes to mind. I think of diversity, freedom and the famous notion of the ‘American dream.’”
In January, Pinto learned she had a brain tumor, which had been developing in her body since she was 19 years old, she said.
Doctors have removed 90 percent of the tumor. Pinto will undergo surgery in the coming months so the doctors can remove the remaining 10 percent.
“Dealing with this situation has put me in a state of mind that every day is a blessing,” Pinto said. “Moments like this make you grateful for where you’re at and the help you can receive in moments of need. And although the racial climate in America makes me sad sometimes, I’m just thankful to still be here.”
Pinto, who is a proud Latin American, is a yoga instructor at Ambassadors Preparatory Academy in Galveston, a dance instructor, and also a student majoring in criminal justice online at Stephen F. Austin University.
“Although I have had experiences in which the way I look has brought discrimination toward me in workplaces and in society, I’m still glad to be an American,” Pinto said. “I know deeply that I can help make a difference in this country — one day at a time.”
– Story by Angela Wilson
‘Proud to serve God, home and country’
Cheryl Tucker credits her maternal grandmother with sparking her interest in her family history. Her grandmother would tell her stories about her grandfather, who arrived in New Orleans in 1846 from Le Havre, France, and his passion for playing the violin. Her grandmother shared with Tucker stories of growing up in rural Louisiana and about her most exciting memory — voting for the first time after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.
“I’ve always loved history and hearing the stories” Tucker said. “It was not hard for me at all to feel the connection. I always treasured the stories my grandparents told me.”
Tucker, who lives in Galveston but was born in Fort Worth, is the regent of the George Washington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which is based in Galveston and is the first chapter of the organization in Texas, organized in 1895. In 2005, while living in Lufkin, she joined the organization, a lineage society for women who can prove they are the direct descendant of a person who aided the cause of achieving independence during the American Revolution. She has served the organization as recording secretary/reporter, historian, chaplain and registrar. A regent is the equivalent of chapter president. Tucker has proven six patriots, which means she has documents that link her to six direct ancestors who provided a service during the American Revolution.
Knowing her family’s connection to U.S. history affects her differently on the Fourth of July, Tucker said. She believes in the government and The American’s Creed, a statement written by William Tyler Page in 1917.
“I’m proud to be an American and to serve God, home and country,” Tucker said.
“People today don’t honor the Constitution, laws or the flag. People have lost sight of them; they have become accustomed to the bad things and forget what we’re all about. You can say you don’t approve and vote (politicians) out, but you do it in a proper way. That freedom is what’s so important, but people center on the negative instead of voting on a positive change. I’ve always been a positive person.”
Tucker’s daughters also are DAR members: Kelley Summers is the corresponding secretary of the Nacogdoches chapter and Ali Manis is a member of the George Washington Chapter in Galveston.
– Story by Erin Graham
‘We’re a pretty patriotic family’
Sue Lenes of League City comes from a patriotic family. Her first husband was in the U.S. Air Force, as was her second husband. Her father was born on Independence Day.
“It’s always been a special holiday for me,” Lenes said of Fourth of July.
Her husband, John P. “Pete” Lenes, is the registrar of the Bernardo de Galvez Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. He began tracing Sue Lenes’ ancestry a few years ago.
Sue Lenes had no idea how far back her family’s history in the United States went. When she was a child, people didn’t talk about things like that, she said.
Sue Lenes always wanted to trace her family history. It was something she was always interested in, and her brother also tried to track down the family tree. Finally, on Dec. 18, 2012, Lenes was sworn into the George Washington Chapter as a Daughter of the American Revolution. She is the first person in her family to join the organization, as far as she knows, she said.
Sue Lenes’ daughters, Alice Watkins and Jennifer Juel, also are in the George Washington chapter. Her son, Russell Minor, is a member of the Galveston chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, as are her four grandsons. The family has even started the paperwork on one who is only a few months old, and they also are at work on her great-grandson.
Her lineage makes Fourth of July more special. But because it also was her father’s birthday, the day has always been special to her, she said.
Being an American is a privilege, and Americans are privileged to live in such a country, Lenes said.
“We always celebrate Memorial Day and Fourth of July,” she said. “It was a big, meaningful holiday. My dad was too old for World War II, but he was in the Home Guard in the Baytown area. I guess you could say we’re a pretty patriotic family,” she said.
– Story by Erin Graham
AHMED E. AHMED
‘I can find what I’m looking for’
For Ahmed E. Ahmed, being an American is about a person’s character and soul.
“Without the fertile American soil and pure souls of American people, the American dream wouldn’t exist and would have never been realized by any immigrant,” he said.
Ahmed, 76, was born in the city of Qena, Egypt. His family migrated to Cairo for education and employment but decided to move to the United States in 1969 for greater career opportunities, he said. He now resides in the Clear Lake area and is a professor emeritus at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“Although I had a comfortable living in Egypt with a good job, I was restless and missing the challenge I was looking for after graduation from pharmacy school,” he said. “I knew through my readings and some colleagues that America is the place where I can find what I am looking for.”
America isn’t about a person’s ethnicity; it’s about empathy and character, Ahmed said.
“I love Americans and their compassionate hearts,” he said. “The warmth of the hearts of people all around me and my wife, as well as the warmth of the weather, glued us here for the past 40-plus years.”
– Story by Connor Behrens
‘Every generation can reach higher goals’
For bilingual education teacher Lori Elzner, being an American is about the opportunities people make for themselves.
“Every generation can reach higher goals,” she said. “Now, being a minority is the norm. Our country is much more diverse than when my grandparents immigrated.”
Born in Galveston, Elzner, 50, has taught bilingual education in Galveston Independent School District for 28 years, feeling a need to teach future generations, she said.
“One of my greatest achievements has been having a student in my class who arrived from Mexico in the fourth grade speaking no English at all come back to me at his high school graduation to thank me for making a difference in his life.”
And Elzner is no stranger to the story of immigration. Her grandparents moved to Texas legally in the early 1900s with a work permit. They met in Texas and were married in Bastrop in 1911.
Her grandfather, Clemente Gongora, was from Santa Catarina, Nuevo Leòn, Mèxico and her grandmother, Severiana Romo, was from El Rincòn de Romos, Aguascalientes, Mexico.
She has always valued her family lineage, she said.
Elzner’s father, Dionicio Gongora, was born in Bastrop, Texas. Her mother, Guillerma Gongora, was born in Galveston.
Witnessing how hard both her parents worked to assimilate into America inspired her to become a teacher, Elzner said.
“I love that America is a land of opportunity and advancement,” she said. “My dad had no access to education, but was able to secure jobs that enabled him to send all three of his daughters to college.”
Being American isn’t about your ethnicity and every generation deserves equal freedom and learning opportunities, Elzner said.
“I want to make a difference for immigrant children and give them opportunities that my parents and grandparents did not have.”
– Story by Connor Behrens
‘I remember the ‘colored only’ signs’
Verdia Lee Green Harper of La Marque grew up at a time when African-Americans took pride in “doing what they had to do” to survive and make it as citizens of America.
Born on a farm in Evergreen, Texas, in August of 1930, Harper endured trying and good times with her family through the Great Depression, segregation, Jim Crow laws — all the way to the Civil Rights era — and even the election of the first black president.
“I remember the ‘colored only’ signs as a young girl, and now, look how far we’ve come,” Harper said. “The opportunity for African-Americans to now be whatever they put their minds to, including becoming president, is something I’m so proud to have seen in my lifetime.”
Although her father only had a first-grade education, and her mother completed seventh grade, education was very important in the Green household, as was working the farm and going to church every Sunday, she said. Harper was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and college.
Harper graduated from Prairie View A&M University and began her teaching career in 1952 in Athens, Texas. She retired in 1991 from the La Marque Independent School District, and still lives in the same home she moved into in 1960 with her husband of 63 years, Herman. They raised their three children in the home.
“I feel blessed and grateful to be an American,” Harper said. “We are all the same, no matter the color of our skin. And, even though I went through some hardships, I never gave up on life. My dad always said that God is ‘the doctor.’ So, that’s who I always depend on through my faith, no matter how rough it gets.”
– Story by Angela Wilson
‘I value the diversity and freedom’
Samina Masood was born in Pakistan but left for America at the peak of her academic career just as she was about to get a promotion to the rank of professor. Losing that professional recognition in Pakistan was a disappointment, she said. But she gained other valuable things in the United States, she said.
Masood, 59, became an American citizen in 2005 in Syracuse, N.Y., after she had moved to the United States with her husband and three children.
“My husband had been sponsored before I got married, and I became aware of it after marriage as the application process started around eight years after the marriage, so it was almost a forgotten thing,” she said.
Masood, who lives in the Clear Lake area, is an associate professor of physics at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
Becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen marked a time of meaningful personal growth for her, she said.
“I have become a new person who is not afraid of challenges and have more self-reliance, and my kids are more open-minded and value human values more than anything else,” Masood said.
“At the same time, I have sacrificed my pleasures of a strong family network and feel isolated. My childhood friends have no replacement either.”
She does not regret her choices, however, she said.
“I believe that I made the best decisions that I could at the time and nothing can be achieved without giving up something,” Masood said.
She is writing a memoir about her experiences and the complicated feelings of balancing family, career and identity as an American citizen.
“Now it means a lot as I value the diversity and freedom, though I feel that I have to pay a big price of losing my academic recognition,” she said.
– Story by Valerie Wells
‘I just like the country’
When he was a child, Magdy Akladios often visited his many cousins who lived in the United States.
“They were born here,” he said. “I was coming since I was a little kid.”
Akladios, who was born and raised in Egypt, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cairo University.
On his next visit to family in the United States, he decided to stay. He became a U.S. naturalized citizen in 1990.
His reasons are simple and straightforward.
“I wanted to live here,” he said. “I just like the country.”
He first arrived in Pittsburgh, Pa., then lived in New York and West Virginia before moving to Texas. He earned three master’s degrees, then completed a doctorate in industrial engineering.
Akladios, 49, heads the School of Science and Computer Engineering at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. He has taught at the school since 2005.
He lives in Friendswood with his wife, who also grew up in Cairo, Egypt, and is now a bank manager, and their three children. They love Texas and Friendswood.
“I love the neighborhood,” Akladios said. “It’s quiet.”
– Story by Valerie Wells
ANTONIO CORRALES + REBECCA TROCONIS
‘We feel at home here now’
Antonio Corrales and Rebecca Troconis of Tiki Island moved to the United States nearly 16 years ago, fleeing political persecution in their home country of Venezuela.
While the couple had to rebuild their careers and live in a new country, the process was easier than they expected, Antonio Corrales said.
“We are really fortunate,” he said. “We feel at home here now. We’ve been here so many years, and we love it, and don’t see us living anywhere else. Texas welcomed us with open arms.”
Before coming to America, Antonio Corrales, 43, worked as a civil engineer and later ran for governor, when he started receiving threats.
Rebecca Troconis, 41, meanwhile, had been an architect.
“Just the way Chavez played politics, my wife said she couldn’t handle it anymore,” Antonio Corrales said. “We decided to get out of the country.”
Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, a position he maintained until he died in March 2013.
The couple debated whether to move to Europe or the United States, but regular vacations to America tipped the scales in favor of the states.
Both Rebecca Troconis and Antonio Corrales initially maintained their original careers as architect and civil engineer, respectively. But a troubled real estate market combined with a passion for education, led to a change in careers, they said.
All these years since moving to the United States, Antonio Corrales is now a professor of education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Rebecca Troconis works for Texas City Independent School District.
“America means a lot to us,” Antonio Corrales said. “Immigrants, a lot of times, appreciate things here even more than if you’re born here naturally. We know a lot about the history and love the way America opens its arms to immigrants. It’s given us an opportunity not only to find shelter, but to create wealth and opportunity.”
– Story by Matt deGrood
‘My country was devastated by war’
Dawit Woldu, 42, an anthropology professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, arrived in the United States in 2003 to begin graduate work at the University of Florida.
But his voyage to a new life was about more than going to graduate school, he said.
Woldu, who lives in League City, was born in Eritrea, an African country on the Red Sea that borders Sudan and Ethiopia.
“My country was devastated by war and violence since the First World War,” Woldu said. “For us, peace is something we always miss.”
After World War II, Eritrea was under British administration until the United Nations established it as an autonomous region in 1952. Then, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea as a province in 1961, sparking a violent 30-year struggle for independence that ended in 1991 with Eritrean rebels defeating government forces. A border war with Ethiopia erupted in 1998 and ended in 2000. A United Nations peacekeeping operation monitored the border. Ethiopia still disputes the border, according to the CIA.
Growing up, he heard about the United States.
“You hear about this American story that embodies freedom,” Woldu said. “Everyone aspires to it.”
Being an American citizen boils down to some essential truths for him, Woldu said.
“It means the freedom to do what you want and what is important to you,” he said.
Woldu earned his doctorate in medical anthropology, specializing in how social culture influences health. He also teaches paleoarchaeology and courses in African studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, where he has worked for four years.
– Story by Valerie Wells
DR. JOSÉ BARRAL
‘Sense of responsibility’
Dr. José Barral, who was born in Mexico, remembers what it was like to travel to the United States when he wasn’t a citizen.
“You have to carry your green card at all times,” he said. “It’s kind of stressful. As an immigrant, it’s fine. But, as you’re arriving at the airport, you always have this kind of pit in your stomach.”
There was always a chance he could be stopped and prevented, for one reason or another, from being allowed back into the country, Barral, 50, said.
Barral, a professor of neuroscience and biochemistry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, moved to Galveston, and the United States, permanently in 2005. It took 11 years for him to earn full citizenship.
“I felt that I was contributing,” he said. “I am very grateful to be in the United States and I wanted to feel like a full member of society.”
Barral is unmarried, so to get his green card — the first step to citizenship — he had to prove he had extraordinary abilities. For him, that meant documenting the extensive research work during his post-doctoral years at Baylor College in Waco, abroad in Germany and in Galveston.
Now, because of his experiences, Barral urges students and post-doctoral fellows at the medical branch to pursue every paper and research opportunity they can, so their names and their résumés appear more valuable to immigration authorities.
“I tell them that they need to work very hard,” he said. “You have to demonstrate that you are the best in your field. That’s how the United States is going to give you a green card.”
Being American means he has the same privileges and responsibilities as his colleagues born here, he said.
“It’s a sense of responsibility, of pride, of contributing,” he said.
– Story by John Wayne Ferguson
‘Work hard and do the right thing’
Lamson Nguyen, a successful Galveston builder and developer, arrived on the island without any idea of what to expect.
Nguyen came to Texas as an 11-year-old in 1980 when his parents, Kenneth and Rachel Marvin, had adopted him from Vietnam, where his family had suffered under the communist regime, he said. Arriving in Galveston was a world apart, but Nguyen recalled settling into the island quickly.
“When you’re a kid, you adapt very easily,” he said. “You have a carefree attitude and you don’t know good or bad, it just is. It was pretty exciting, actually.”
Nguyen has been gone from Vietnam so long, he no longer has many memories of it, he said. Galveston is home.
In his travels around the country, he’d occasionally encounter anti-immigrant and racial discrimination, but he said he never felt that way in Galveston.
“There are some cities that are still pretty backward, but it’s changing slowly,” Nguyen said. “I never had any racial issues in Galveston. My friends were white, black, Mexican — there weren’t too many Vietnamese when I got here.”
In the United States, there’s a diversity and opportunity that’s unmatched, he said. Even the ability for everyone to attend a public school provided more opportunities than some other places, he said.
If he met another 11-year-old arriving new to Galveston, he would tell him to work hard, treat people fairly and never take shortcuts, he said.
“They have to have the mentality that they’re going to work hard and also do the right thing,” Nyugen said. “You have to pick your battles and choose your path, but it’s there.”
– Story by Marissa Barnett