Natalie Gecele: Wife of an Immigrant, Lover of Vulnerability
Not many of us can say we started dating someone whose first language is different than ours. Natalie Gecele’s adventurous spirit gave her the bravery to overcome any hesitation in dating an immigrant from Chile. What most people don’t realize is that integrating different cultures under a roof can be a beautiful challenge when faced. Lots of questions come to mind; What language will you speak at home? What language will you teach your children first? Will you live in the States, or will you move to (insert another country here)? Won’t it be hard for the kids to see their grandparents?
There is a certain amount of tenacity a person has to have to brave these new cultural territories when marrying someone. This is exactly what Natalie has done. Natalie originally was introduced to Aldo through her Aunt. Listening to Aldo and Natalie share their story of meeting was delightful.
“My aunt met Aldo as a foreign exchange student. She told me there’s a really nice Chilean guy I want you to meet. I laughed and told her, ‘But I don’t speak Spanish!’ She’d gone on a missions trip with him and that’s where they got to know each other. She told me he was really nice and she thought he would be a great fit for me. I wasn’t really looking to date…”
This is not an instant love story. Aldo said when he first messaged Natalie over Facebook her messages were scarce. Eventually she disappeared and stopped replying. Two years went by and Natalie had started working for a special education school in Linden, Michigan where a position for a teacher of Cognitively Impaired students had opened.
I told my parents I knew this was something different.
While working as a special education teacher, Natalie and her sister decided they would run a marathon to raise money and awareness for autism. While Natalie was gathering support a familiar name showed up again. Aldo had donated to her marathon. Not long after the race, Aldo reached out to Natalie and asked her out on a date. After two dates, Aldo told Natalie he was serious about pursuing her. “That sealed the deal for me. I’d been in a relationships where we were friends and kind of liked each other. Dating was hard. People had lots of expectations and were not straight forward about them. I really appreciated his straight forwardness. I told my parents I knew this was something different.”
The tides changed and soon Natalie was referring to Aldo as, “My Latin Lover. He was so romantic and swept me off my feet. I really appreciate that about Aldo, even now!” Aldo and Natalie continued dating and nearly 11 months later Aldo proposed to her. Aldo proposed to Natalie at the Flint Institute of Arts where a secret photographer lingered to capture the moment!
Aldo had huge plans for their engagement. He originally had received permits for a helicopter ride and then dinner in Troy. However, Michigan being her old self, decided to have a full blown winter storm and everything was shut down! Aldo’s beautiful proposal came together due to his creative and quick thinking. After his proposal at FIA, they drove down to Maggiano’s in Troy, MI where her family waited to surprise her.
I want to honor and respect his culture and language.
There are so many worries and concerns during the planning of a wedding. I asked Natalie if during that time she grew nervous about her groom-to-be growing up in a different culture. “I want to honor and respect his culture and language. I don’t speak Spanish fluently, but I am learning. When we’d gotten engaged I hadn't met his family. I wondered what his parents would think. Would they want us to move to Chile? We were on the same page that he didn’t want to go back. But I was worried his parents would feel like I’d stolen their child. As a mom now I can’t imagine my child going to live in Chile. I wondered what they would think of our culture.”
It is so exciting to create new bonds with your future spouse's family. We go to their houses for dinner, we meet up for breakfast, holidays, etc. However when your spouse’s family lives in South America, there are some unique ways used to create and build these bonds.
Natalie stated, “I didn’t meet his brothers and aunts until the night before the wedding! We talked on Skype before hand all the time. I fell in love with his mom over Skype. We can have real relationships because of Skype. His parents are so kind. They sent him here when he was 17. They thought it would be good for his life for what he could learn and take back there [Chile].”
It was emotional to listen to Natalie as she described her experience of watching the intricacies of Aldo’s Chilean mother and Host Mother’s relationships with Aldo. Natalie's eyes filled with tears when she said, “Susana [Aldo’s mother] told me, sending him here she knew she was sending him here for good. It was very hard for her. ‘He was mine’, is what Susana told me. Aldo has a very good relationship with his host family as well. Aldo is Tammy’s [American mom] other son. Tammy and Eddie [ Aldo’s host parents] loved Aldo. They did so much for Aldo and me. God did so much for Aldo bringing him here, but also for me. It was never on my radar to marry a boy from Chile. I didn’t even know where it was! It was amazing to see how things unfolded. And now we’ve been to Chile 3 times!”
The story of the combining of Aldo’s host family, his Chilean family, and Natalie’s family is beautiful. I still get goosebumps thinking about the story of their wedding day. “Our wedding was so much fun! It was the first time meeting MY Chilean family. Thirty three of his family members came here for the wedding. It meant so much to me and to my family. We had my family, his family, his host family, and his church family. There were 400 people at our wedding. It was interesting and it was so fun to watch! We had a translator... Some of his family doesn’t speak English and it was important to me for them to understand. And the dancing! Chileans know how to have a good time! Now I know why weddings in Chile go all through the night and until 4 a.m.! For me it was a dream.”
The story of marrying an immigrant does not stop after the wedding. Immigration and the whole process of getting a green card or citizenship is another adventure on its own.
Aldo said to me about his citizenship, "I have just my green card. Until we were married I was on a student visa. After we were married I needed to find a sponsor. People think and ask if we got married so I could get my card. But that’s not why. It took 8 months to go through the green card process. It took until October to even get the interview. It took until September to get a work permit. We went until the following spring with only Natalie working.”
‘Don’t be surprised they will ask you anything and everything. They want proof of your marriage and your sponsorship. Who takes a shower first? Which side of the bed do you sleep on?’
The process of getting a green card is overwhelming and fearful. The process involves mountains of paperwork, interviews, money, and oftentimes a lawyer. The scariest part is even after all of your labor and money spent, immigration can still deny you a green card or citizenship.
Natalie shared her story of getting Aldo’s green card. “ Aldo’s parents hired a lawyered for us. He did all of the paperwork for us and prepped us. He said, ‘Don’t be surprised, they will ask you anything and everything. They want proof of your marriage and your sponsorship. Who takes a shower first? Which side of the bed do you sleep on?’ I felt really nervous. We know where we are in our relationship, but if I don’t prove our relationship to them what will happen? It was really scary. I tell other couples to hire a lawyer. They [Immigration officers] will try and trip you up. When we went through our interview down in Detroit, the lady came out and called ‘Gecele!‘ And then when we answered she said, 'I already called you twice!' But I knew she hadn’t and I worried if that was already one strike against us? We had our photo albums and wedding pictures with us. They were serious and very mean. And I sort of understand, not everyone going in there is sincere. But I was like we have quite a lot of evidence! The immigration officer had the address from when I lived with my parents in Swartz Creek. When she read it, she said if I lived there and I said ‘yes’. So then she said, ‘So you don’t live with your husband?’ My heart dropped and I thought this is it. It’s like they want to trip you up! The lawyer stepped in and said, ‘Okay. I think our nerves are heightened. They obviously have evidence they live together at this address.”
Natalie recalled that she couldn’t remember crying but knew she was shaken after leaving the immigration office. The lawyer reassured them when leaving that October. They didn’t hear back from the immigration office till the end of the year. During their wait time Aldo was waiting for his NCLEX [Nursing State Boards], studying, and applying for a job. Natalie reflected on that time and stated, “That was stressful, but it also wasn’t. We had an apartment. We enough to pay our bills. We were newly weds. We had a good first year of marriage. I remember when he passed his NCLEX and we both sobbed in the living room.”
During this time of their lives I asked Natalie and Aldo if anyone ever said anything to them that showed a lack of understanding. Natalie said most of things people said were jokes like, “ 'Aldo’s just marrying you for his citizenship.’ People don’t understand the process. They think once you’re married you get your green card. If you go through it, it’s like, no! I earned it! There’s not an awareness of what you have to go through to get your green card.”
Language has never hindered them as a family.
Since their wedding Aldo and Natalie have been combining cultures in their home magically. Natalie and Aldo now have two children; Tenley Viviana and Luciano Isaiah Gecele. Their family has traveled to Chile and spent holidays and many special moments together. Language has never hindered them as a family. Aldo’s family loves to practice their English and Natalie works on her Spanish.
There is something quite beautiful when you witness another person become vulnerable and attempt to speak a new language to create new bonds with another human. Last summer Natalie hired the daughter of an occupational therapist from work to come to her home and speak/play with Luciano in Spanish. “It was awesome. Hannah and Luciano would play outside or on the deck and he [Luciano] became more comfortable speaking Spanish to Aldo’s parents. I was so relieved. I really want them [her children] to embrace that. It’s the same for people here. Being able to speak more than one language is a gift. When we traveled to Europe, so many people speak more than one language. So many people cater to those who speak English. That doesn’t settle well with me. Even when I’m in Chile I want his family to speak Spanish to me, and by the end of one week being there I am really understanding.”
What I value about going to other countries is that they value other cultures
We talked about traveling to other countries and the sensitivity she noticed other countries have towards other cultures, “It’s an American mentality. It almost hurts my heart. You’re going into their country, you‘re going into their culture. Show them you value their culture and language. In Switzerland, his family knows three languages. Being exposed to them made me realize that is such a huge piece that we are missing. It’s not about how we’re American. It’s not about the American dream. What I value about going to other countries is that they value other cultures.”
I couldn’t help myself but bring up Chilean food and drinks during our interview. If I can be totally honest, my favorite part of other cultures are the food and wine. Aldo’s father, Piero Gecele, is originally from Italy, so at every meal there is a delicious glass of wine to accompany the meal. Meals, parties, they all start later in Chile! Natalie remembered a time they were all up late and her, Luciano, and Tenley were up at 2 am dancing with their cousins. They reminisced also about the delicious breads, the meats and the unbelievable array of natural beauty in Chile as well.
Listening to Natalie tell her love story with Aldo and his family overwhelmed my heart. Aldo has endured so much in becoming an immigrant to the United States. He has created bonds with his host family that can also be described as deep and beautiful. Natalie fights for Aldo’s culture to stay vibrant in their home. There is no adventure that Natalie and Aldo won’t go through together.
This story of a woman marrying an immigrant is our story. Natalie taught me how important vulnerability is when different cultures collide. We know what it is like to meet a new family, meet a new friend, but few of us know what that is like when you add a different language to the equation.
Natalie and Aldo are an incredible inspiration to me and I hope that their story inspires you as well. Maybe you’ll try a Pisco Sour? Maybe you will get out your old French/Spanish flashcards and practice another language… Maybe you will find the courage and travel to a new country that doesn’t speak English, and you will see how brave you truly are. You will also see how beautiful, wild, and vibrant other cultures can be. Salud! Viva Chile!
Written by: Jenifer Veloso
Photographs (except the last one) by: Jenifer Veloso
Interview transcribed by: Heather Fenner