- Gig Harbor’s growing heritage. By Jon Johansen.
Proud Immigrant Roots
I found comfort in knowing that Dad’s hospice was a veritable “stone’s throw” from Puget Sound—in a location that strongly resembled his fjord birthplace of Rognan, Norway. I imagine his soul flew home over familiar glimpses of saltwater. Though I doubt that Dad knew it, our town was the natural place for an immigrant to settle.
In 1867 Swedish fisherman, Samuel Jerisich, arrived in Gig Harbor. It marked the start of a wave of migrants. Just over 50 years later, Johnny Finholm, the son of folks originally from Finland, bought what became known as Finholm’s Market.
Our hamlet is still blessed with new Americans. Here is a taste of their stories:
If you’ve ever attended one of the Y’s morning classes, you may have met a fit, former rugger. If you were really fortunate, you heard him preach—eloquently and from the heart—at Chapel Hill Presbyterian. In July of 2011, Ellis and Rachel White arrived in Washington. Here the couple found an unexpected challenge: the language.
Dark-haired Ellis cheerfully recounts, “American English is communicated in a very different way than British English…I often speak publicly, and I’ve had crowds staring in puzzlement as I’ve used words or phrases that have no equivalent here.”
Though the family, now with little ones Evelyn and Ezra, miss relatives in Britain, they love the USA.
“We’ve experienced generosity here beyond anything we’ve seen in the UK. And the desire to achieve great things, and be willing to fight for [them], is much stronger in the U.S.”
Ecuadorian Juan Cumbal has the shoulder-length hair of a musician and the gentleness of a poet. In the late 90s, Juan played music for American tourists. Just before closing time, a Washingtonian named Nina dropped in to listen. A conversation became a courtship. And the courtship became a union.
Cumbal recently grinned while exclaiming, “Everything is so perfect…and so clean!” in the States.
Though Juan’s sonorous music often hovers over Bremerton, he works in Gig Harbor. Here Cumbal helps fellow immigrants Marco Toctaquiza (el Jefe) and Silvia Ramundo-Lopez care for a school.
Though I don’t have a plethora of information about humble Silvia, I do know this. Born in Mexico, she spends six-plus days a week earning money to send home to her precious familia. And she takes amazing care of her daughter, Alejandra.
When Raymundo-Lopez speaks about her teen, her bright, brown eyes sparkle with joy—especially when discussing classy Alejandra’s recent quinceañera. Though another Gig Harbor mother equally cherishes her children—she’s new to parenting.
Natasha Lukan lived in Australia. Despite the warm surf of the Gold Coast, something was missing—her future husband. Thankfully, she met Troi Cockayne online.
After a truly long-distance relationship, Lukan arrived in Washington through a fiancé visa. Two days after her flight touched down, wedding bells rang out.
Mrs. Cockayne happily asserts, “I am now stepmother to three beautiful children and wife to the most amazing man of God and gifted sculptor.” (www.kingsgallery.net)
While Natasha formerly taught piano, her fellow Harborite instructs full-time.
Though the personality trait that I most associate with Iliana Nicholas—teacher at Lighthouse Christian School—is her lilting laugh, her childhood story is anything but jolly.
Nicholas recalls the way her mom wept while saying goodbye—perhaps forever—to relatives. The possibility of still “playing with cousins and the closeness of family and friends,” disappeared in the aircraft’s contrails.
“We left Cuba with only the clothes on our backs and the hope of freedom. We arrived in New York on a chilly February evening in 1973.”
Ensuing years saw Iliana marry a kind man and raise sweet children, while teaching a generation of students the beauty of her native language.
If Nicholas’ tale made my heart thump with compassion, the final interviewee repeatedly made me pause in awe.
Most locals know Miguel Galeana and his bride, Alexa, from their stellar running store or their helpful work with athletes of all ages, (www.route16runwalk.com).
Fit and compact, Galena recounts, “In the late 1970s my father traveled [to America] via the desert plains. My mother left a year later. She was the only female amongst many men and had the terrible task of inching, underground, through a half-mile of filthy, rat-infested waters. That tunnel got smaller as she wriggled further into it. My mother still speaks about how thinking about us children kept her going. I am very fond of my mother.”
While his mom and dad prepared a new life in the Northwest, grandparents looked after their grandchildren—Miguel, José, Mari and Luis—in Mexico. One day, friends escorted the youngsters to the border.
Soft-spoken Galeana continues the tale:
“I vividly remember… getting stuck on barb wire while crossing the fence… [the] back of my shirt got caught so I dangled until someone freed me. We had no understanding of English.”
Upon reaching Washington, Miquel recounts “I remember hugging my [parents]. My little brother cried out for mom [because he] didn’t recognize her. It was an adventure learning how to become Americans.”
Norwegians, Swedes, Croatians and Finns, British, Australians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans and many others.
We are all immigrants. We are Gig Harbor.