Employment skills — and values — from her grandmother
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
Natalia Fragapane and her husband, Adrian, own and operate Trattoria Dionisia in Glenwood Springs. They have two children. This is their interview with Walter Gallacher’s Immigrant Stories.
Fragapane: I was born in Rosario, Argentina, and in 1997 I came to Miami for a vacation. I was 21, and I was looking for an adventure. I loved the people and the beaches, and when I ran out of money I decided to stay and work for three months.
I grew up working in my grandmother’s restaurant back in Argentina, so I decided to try something different. My first job was at a car wash. I was the only woman working with all these guys. It was one of the only jobs I could get because I couldn’t speak English. I made about $2,000 a month. At night I worked as a flamenco dancer in a restaurant on the beach. I was always working.
I met a lot of interesting people at the car wash, even some famous ones like Whitney Houston and Dan Marino. One day I met a man who offered me a job in his Argentinian restaurant. I told him I couldn’t speak English but I could cook. He said, “Come to my restaurant and show me what you know.” When I got there he introduced me to his whole family and started me on the line.
My first job was on the pasta station, and then the grill, and after one year I was the main chef. During my time in Miami, I cooked in Italian, French, Mediterranean and Greek restaurants. I really liked the fusion of food, colors and cultures of Miami.
Gallacher: Where did you meet your husband, Adrian?
Fragapane: In Miami, I was working as a chef in an Italian restaurant, and he was working as a bartender. We started as friends and eventually fell in love.
Gallacher: How did make your way to Colorado?
Fragapane: In 2005, the economy was very bad in Miami and we had a friend who wanted to start a restaurant in Colorado. He promised us everything and gave us nothing. When we moved here I was pregnant with my daughter. We had no work and no restaurant, and it was hard to find a job. We thought about going back to Miami, but that was just as complicated as staying, so we started working here.
It was hard, but we made it.
Gallacher: You said that you grew up working in your family restaurant. Who taught you how to cook?
Fragapane: My grandmother, Dionisia, was the chef, and she and my aunt taught me how to cook.
I started as a bus girl when I was 14, and I worked there until I left for the United States seven years later.
My grandmother taught me everything. Without her I don’t know where I would be. When I was 9 years old my father left us. My mom didn’t want to take care of us, so she would leave me with my three sisters for days at a time while she went out dancing. I would wake up and she would be gone, and there would be a note and money on the table. I was taking care of my sisters when I was 10 years old. They were 8, 6 and 4. I did the cooking and cleaning, and I got them ready for school.
My parents never came to school for meetings with my teachers, and when the school sent papers home for them I was the only one there to sign. Sometimes I had to go to the neighbors and ask them to help me. I remember hearing the neighbors talk about us. It was very sad. But that’s when my grandmother, my dad’s mom, came to help us.
She didn’t want to get lawyers involved and fight my mother for custody, so she just decided to come by and help me with my sisters. That went on for two years, and then my mother decided to come back and take care of us. My sisters went with her, but I told her I wanted to stay with my grandmother.
Gallacher: So you chose your grandmother over your mother.
Fragapane: My grandmother was a very good person, the best I have ever known. She taught me how to work hard for the important things in life, how to be kind and caring, how to be humble and compassionate, how to be a good person. If I didn’t have her I think I would have gotten into drugs and wasted my life. She is the reason I never changed my last name. I wanted to honor her.
My mother never liked me. I knew that when I was very young.
Gallacher: How did you know?
Fragapane: When I was 6 years old she started telling me she didn’t like me. When I went to visit my sisters after they moved back with my mother she wouldn’t let me see them. She wouldn’t even let me in her house.
She didn’t like me questioning her. When I was little I saw things that I shouldn’t have, and she didn’t like me asking about it.
Gallacher: What about your dad?
Fragapane: He was gone for two years, and when he came back he had started a new life, and he had another daughter. He was supposed to send money to help us but he never sent anything. My grandmother paid for everything.
Gallacher: So how has that experience as a child influenced the way you raise your children?
Fragapane: Oh, I am very protective. I work a lot, but I always find time for my kids.
My daughter is 12, and that is an important time for her. I know that she needs me to be there for her, so I am.
When I was 12 I was alone, very alone. She has asked me about her grandparents, and I have tried to explain what happened.
Gallacher: Do you know where your parents are?
Fragapane: Oh, yes, now they want to be close to me, but I don’t feel anything. It is so hard. I send them money every month, and so does one of my sisters. They haven’t done anything with their lives, so they have nothing.
My father was a big gambler. He played the horses and lost houses, cars, his business. He even sold my grandmother’s property. He sold everything that was ours and never even asked.
My parents think that since we live in the United States we must be rich and we should send them money. They don’t know how hard it can be here. So the relationship now is that we send money but we don’t talk. My sister and I have decided that we want to do the right thing. If they say they need money we help them.
Gallacher: So you try to live like your grandmother taught you.
Fragapane: Yes, of course.
Gallacher: How do you find it in your heart to send your parents money after all they had done?
Fragapane: My grandmother taught me that it doesn’t matter how they are or what they do, they are my parents. My mother gave me life, so if she needs money and I have it, I give it to her. I don’t care about the money. I see how my parents’ lives are now, and I feel sorry for them. They are both alone living in different cities.
Gallacher: Have your parents ever apologized for not being there for you and your sisters?
Fragapane: No, they don’t feel like they did anything wrong. If you ask my dad he blames it on my mother, and my mother blames it on my dad. So we don’t talk about it.
When they call we just ask them how much they need, and we send what we can.
Gallacher: What do you do for yourself to alleviate the pain that your parents left you with?
Fragapane: I believe in God, and I believe in karma, and I believe in compassion. Compassion is what I learned from my grandmother. She taught me that even if someone is mean towards me I don’t have to be the same way. If you act the same way you get sick inside.
Gallacher: Where do you want to be in 10 years?
Fragapane: That is a good question, because right now I am working day to day. I work 16 hours a day, six days a week. We opened our restaurant three years ago, and from that day I have never stopped. My only day off is Sunday. I am the chef, and I am very picky with my food, so it is hard for me to find people who understand the flavors that I am looking for. So I have to be there.
I do worry about getting sick. I hope in 10 years I won’t have to work so much. I want to feel more happy.
Gallacher: What makes you happy?
Fragapane: My family and running. My kids are everything to me. I hope that when I get old they will love me as much as I love them.
And I love to run. I run 50 miles a week. I have been running since I was 12 years old.
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