Coming to America: A Success Story

A man with his arm around a woman smiling at the camera inside a house.

Deris and Gabriel Fernandez came to America from Venezuela about four years ago. I was volunteering at the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center and first heard about the couple after they began taking English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes at the center. When the pandemic hit, the school couldn’t hold classes and we connected to practice English via weekly Zoom calls. I wrote a story about my experience helping them with conversational English in January of 2021 for the Northeast Journal. Two years later, I was curious about how they were progressing and reconnected with them. We met for coffee at The Blend Old Northeast and again at my home a few weeks later.

Deris is now an ESOL teacher at Lealman Elementary in Largo. She works with Hispanic students who are new to Florida and transitioning to our public school system. Four days a week, after her teaching job, she heads to a second job she’s held for some time at Marshall’s, working from 5:30 to 10:30 pm and most Saturday mornings. At Marshall’s she works the floor in the men’s and children’s departments and has been promoted to cashier.

A photo of a family of four in matching t-shirts smiling at the camera in front of a Christmas tree.
At home with sons Enrique and Ernesto.

Gabriel had held a job at Amazon, but left for a better position with the GE shipping department. He’s currentlytraining for receiving department duties. Gabriel’s career in Venezuela was as an auditor, and his next goal is to seek a bookkeeping/accounting position. 

Deris and Gabriel also invested in a rental property in Hernando County. They were approved for a mortgage and are now landlords. Their oldest son, Gabriel Enrique, is currently working in Chile, while their younger son, Gabriel Ernesto, completed high school and is attending Pinellas Technical College with a focus on Information Technology. Deris and Gabriel’s hard work and investment in the future benefits not only their family in the US, but they also send clothing and toiletries back to Venezuela to help people there. With Deris’ employee discount, she’s able to purchase good quality, much-needed clothing for friends and family.

For now, Deris and Gabriel’s careers are limited by a bit of red tape. They’re waiting for their postsecondary education records to be sent from Venezuela for evaluation. “[We want to] certify our university degrees, see how many credits we are approved for in US,” Deris said. “Then complete degrees here so we can get better jobs. I would like to teach Spanish in high school.” 

A woman in a face mask sitting in front of a group of children on the floor in a classroom.
Deris teaching ESOL at Lealman Elementary School.

They both agreed, however, that “the most surprising thing about living in this country is the opportunities. Everyone is offered education and the ability to improve personally and professionally. In three years, we have achieved what in Venezuela took us 25 years.”

Of course, life in a new country has its challenges. One of the hardest things, they said, has been the language barrier.

“People told us we wouldn’t get jobs other than housekeeping and construction since we didn’t speak English,” said Deris. “Not that these are bad jobs, but we were professionals in our country and felt we had more to contribute to America who has opened its doors for us. It is so rewarding to help the young children I teach at Lealman Elementary as they feel lonely with difficulty communicating with the other children. They have gone through so much and I am able to encourage them.”

Both Deris and Gabriel credit their experience at the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center and regular Zoom calls for their remarkable language progress.

“Studying at Tomlinson was our gateway to this new country. We learned a little about the history and culture and took first steps learning the English language. Our Zoom conversations outside of class were the best practice,” Deris emphasized. “Sometimes in a classroom setting the topics discussed are not things we would discuss in everyday life. We needed to be able to ask for an address or order from a menu, say hello to a neighbor – language you use in everyday situations. So casual conversations were very helpful.”

A man and woman sitting at a table across from a woman who is reading a book to the them.
Deris and Gabriel building on their language skills in the ESOL classes

It hasn’t been all work, however. Deris and Gabriel have made time to develop their hobbies and explore their new city. “In our free time we enjoy cooking, watching movies, trying new restaurants and visiting new places,” Deris said. “We take trips with our two sons on holidays to different cities. We especially enjoy St. Pete because it has everything. We love the Pier, the downtown, the museums, parks, waterfront, and find the people cordial and kind.”   

Having accomplished so much in just a few short years, I had to ask about their remaining goals. Gabriel was quick to answer: “Resume good eating habits and exercise. Our focus these first years has been work. We want to get back to healthier lifestyle.” Also on the list is more travel, Gabriel said. “Another goal is to visit more of this incredible country. In 2022 we went to Las Vegas for a wedding, Memphis to see friends, and a family visit to Chicago. Maybe next year [we’ll go to] New York and California.”

Deris added one goal that is perhaps the hallmark of the American Dream: “We want to buy a little house in St. Pete,” she said. “This is where we want to live.”