Gigi D’Amico moved from Puerto Rico to the United States to attend college in 1976. Her experiences of leaving her family, facing discrimination, rejecting her Hispanic culture, and then rediscovering a love for her roots has led her to serve in Hispanic Ministry in the Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Gigi is married and has a “Brady Bunch-style” family. Her husband has four adult children and she has an adult daughter. There are four grandchildren, and the newest additions are her daughter’s twin boys. She works full-time as a parent recruiter for foster care and part-time as the Director of Faith Formation of the Hispanic Ministry at a parish in Pittsburgh.
What was it like for you to move to the United States at the age of 17?
It was challenging because I came from Puerto Rico and had never experienced discrimination. I became distinctly aware that the words minority and majority were about people, and I was a minority. I was treated in an unpleasant and unkind way. I was called names, people wouldn’t sit with me, and I had a friend from Cuba and people would mix-up our names and say, “You all look alike.”
I didn’t know the English language. The school told me I had to learn it in one semester or I would be sent home. They put me with a speech pathologist to get rid of my accent because they told me I could “pass” [for looking American]. The speech pathologist told me that he wasn’t in agreement and he was going to leave a little bit of an accent so people would ask me about it, and I could tell them where I was from and be proud. He was the kindest person I met. Some students were kind, but some students and the administration were not kind. I was breaking the ice as a Hispanic person in their community.
How did that experience impact you?
That experience really affected me negatively. I became insecure and aware that who I was and where I came from was wrong, according to the majority. I felt I needed to be like them so I could be accepted. I was a teenager with the same feelings that teenagers have today – a desire to be accepted and included.
If I wanted to stay in the United States, I felt I had to hate where I came from. I had to put it away completely. I stopped listening to Hispanic music, eating foods from home, communicating with my family, etc. It’s the only way I felt I could survive.
How did you use these experiences to reach out to others?
It wasn’t until several years ago that I started to regain my culture. I started to go to Hispanic events and embrace Hispanic music, and I’ve became an advocate.
I feel there is a lack of understanding with youth because they’re caught between two worlds. They’re asked to be faithful to one or the other. They want to fit in with friends and make it here. Through my own experiences, I became acutely aware of that struggle, especially for youth. It’s very difficult.
How did your involvement in Church life grow over the years?
Initially, I was worshiping at a predominantly Caucasian parish. Though I was trying to be like the majority, I was always reminded that I was not. I felt it was like, “You’re ok, but you’re not one of us.”
Then I decided to attend an African American parish and felt more at home. It was kind of like home, but not home. I was there for many years and was involved in evangelization and on Pastoral Council, and I served as a Eucharistic Minister, lector, and catechist.
Eventually, I heard about a Spanish language Mass at another parish. I went and felt an overwhelming feeling of home – it was my language and my music. It reminded me of what I left behind.
A few years ago, my brother-in-law, who is a priest, told me that a priest from Mexico was coming to Pittsburgh and asked if I could help him with the English language and American culture. When Father arrived, he spent time with my husband and me, and we became friends. Father awakened even more in me about my culture and my love for it. We helped one another. I embraced everything that was mine.
Father celebrated a Spanish language Mass that I started attending. Everything clicked, and one year later, I was really involved in the Church. God truly prepared me with the skills necessary to be able to bring my experiences to help form ministries within the Hispanic ministry, including RCIA for teens and adults.
What are some best practices that you recommend for Hispanic Ministry?
The Bishops have called for a Shared Parish Model. Hispanic people need to feel really welcome. At Mass we welcome visitors, people with birthdays and anniversaries, etc.
It’s very important to start a Spanish language Mass and allow people to have their feasts and their sacraments the way they do back home. Give them a space where they can recognize their home. Most people didn’t leave their home because they wanted to; they felt they had to. They leave behind everyone they love because they have to. They feel lonely.
Recognize leaders. People want to volunteer and get involved. Call them forth and welcome them and their ideas. People will grow from involvement, to investment, and then to ownership. The Hispanic community needs a leader who understands and who can advocate for what is needed. Once you have leaders, you can work on evangelization and help leaders connect to and understand their faith community as well as the parish as a whole.
Eventually, move forward with events and doing things together with the entire parish community, such as bilingual Masses and other events. This will take years to build. But, even as the parish becomes more integrated, maintaining the Hispanic space will serve as a reminder of the universality of our Catholic faith.
If someone wants to get involved or help at their own parish, what should they do?
If someone is interested in helping in his or her own parish, begin by reaching out to the pastor to find out who the Hispanic representative is in the faith community. Get together with that person or the committee of leadership to see what can be done to help.
There needs to be training for both English speakers and Spanish speakers on understanding the different cultures. Some dioceses offer these kinds of programs.
Do you have any final remarks?
God is present with us. Jesus was an immigrant, he was rejected, pushed aside, and discriminated against. He understands what we’re going through because he went through it. Nothing is impossible with God. There are some people with bad will, but there are many people with good will who want to provide a safety net. We are not alone.