The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 26, 2010

'I enjoy being here'


— Denicia Greaves, 25, found the United States to be a melting pot when she enrolled at St. Francis University in Loretto a handful of years ago.

But not more so than her native Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean nation off the coast of Venezuela.

The World Almanac breaks down the major languages there this way: English as the official language, as well as Hindi, French, Spanish and Chinese.

Religions are all over the board, with Roman Catholic at 29 percent; Hindu, 24; Protestant, 14, and Muslim, 6.

“We celebrate every single holiday – together,” said Greaves, a petite, amiable MBA candidate.

By contrast, she finds that cultures in the U.S. don’t intermingle as much.

“A lot more separation is seen over here,” Greaves said.

And just as Americans might consider hamburgers and hot dogs as typical fare for the Fourth of July, Greaves said the multifaceted culture in Trinidad and Tobago allows for no such traditional meal.

That’s not to say Greaves hasn’t enjoyed her time in the states, a stay that she will close with her spring graduation.

She does her share of shopping, and that’s where America shines.

“I love the customer service. ‘The customer is always right,’ ” she said, and laughed.

On her home island of Trinidad, the more commercial of the two, if you leave the store with an item, consider it yours. Shopkeepers frown on returns.

Greaves found St. Francis through a directory of colleges after first considering Florida. But the hurricane season put a fright into her mom, so she looked farther afield.

Her speech is virtually accent-free, at least to Cambria County ears, though she “writes British.” Words such as “aeroplane” keep popping up on her spellcheck.

The exchange student was only a momentary American.

After graduation, she’ll return to her homeland – fiancé in hand.

“I enjoy being here, but this is not my home,” Greaves said. “I can’t abandon it.

“I want to give back to my own country,” she said, while acknowledging that better pay and opportunities probably are here.

‘It’s paradise over there’

She plans to become engaged soon to Markus Schulze, a senior biochemistry major from Germany, and take him back to join the 1 million residents of Trinidad and Tobago.

“He thinks it’s paradise over there,” she said.

Greaves received her bachelor’s degree from St. Francis in marine biology and hopes to work restoring coral reefs. And with her MBA, she’ll also be able to run the business end of things.

But St. Francis will not be left Greaves-less. Her younger sister Dane-Marie Greaves, 22, a junior majoring in environmental engineering, will remain.

And while love is in the plan for Denicia Greaves as she exits the country, Philippines native Nelita Noe Phillips found that marriage cemented her to the states as well as to her husband.

Phillips, 41, of Northern Cambria, met her husband in the early 1990s. George Phillips was in the Navy and was a family friend.

Phillips liked her future husband fine – as a friend.

“Every time – his ship going back and forth – he would visit us,” she recalled.

He wanted a relationship, but Phillips was skeptical. After all, Philippine women also had heard those “girl in every port” stories.

“How many girlfriends does he already have,” Phillips, who goes by Nelly, wondered.

But her family members reassured her that he wasn’t like that, that he was sincere, a good man.

‘Married to the country’

George Phillips became interested in her Mormon faith and, after praying and fasting on the question, both came to the same conclusion: They were meant for each other.

In 1995, Nelly Phillips gained a fiancée visa to be with George and they married.

Eventually, she and her husband settled into a Northern Cambria home that’s been in George Phillips’ family for four generations.

Phillips became a naturalized American citizen in May.

“At first, it takes a long time to decide because I don’t want to give up Filipino citizenship,” she recalled.

“(But) this is my home now and this is my family. Wherever my husband takes me, we become one as a family.”

Standing in federal court and taking the oath of citizenship was a profound moment in her life.

“This is what I felt, you know, when you kneel at the altar and when you get married and get the goosebumps. That’s what I feel,” Phillips said.

“I feel I got married to the country.”

Phillips has found her adopted homeland a bit cleaner, more green and less polluted than the Philippines.

‘Really friendly’

And then there are the Americans themselves: “Everybody is really friendly. No one will discriminate against me.”

 She said Americans don’t put people down because they may be rich or poor, middle aged or young, black, white or brown.

George Phillips is a truck driver and Nelly Phillips is a homemaker. They have three boys and a girl, Donovan, 14; Desmend, 12; Deseree, 11, and Daniel, 6.

Like Greaves, Mexican Ruben Ponce, 24, could end up back in his native country.

Or he might become a naturalized citizen like Phillips.

At this point, the supervisor at the Rey Azteca restaurant in suburban Johnstown just doesn’t know. He’s been in the United States for eight years, the past two in Johnstown, and Virginia before that.

A better life

Ponce came to America – as millions of his countrymen – searching for work and a better life. Folks in Mexico earn just $100 for a week’s work, he said.

“You leave your friends, your family,” the softspoken young man said with a tinge of melancholy.

His brother is in Virginia and others are in America, but half of his family remains south of the border.

“Now that it’s Christmastime, it’s more tough. They’re over there; I’m over here.”

One of those he left in Mexico is his girlfriend, who is working and studying in college. They speak by telephone every night.

Their plan seems to be to wait and see who’s faring better on the jobs front, he in America or she in Mexico. Then they’ll decide where to live.

If they pick the U.S., Ponce might take the path to citizenship, though he said, “It’s a long process, too.”

Now, he’s on a work visa – which forces him to periodically return to Mexico for a few weeks so he can get his papers renewed.