Mosaic Stories

    Susan & Mauricio Gobbo

    In 2005, Susan and Mauricio Gobbo moved with their nearly five-year-old daughter from their home in Brazil to the United States. Mauricio, working for Nestle Purina, was offered a job in Connecticut, so they spent three years in the Northeast before taking a new placement in St. Louis in March 2008. The St. Louis placement was supposed to be a temporary assignment, but they quickly fell in love with the city and did not want to leave. “We all loved St. Louis a lot,” Mauricio says, “so when the company offered me the chance to go to another place or stay, we decided to stay put. It was the greatest decision of our lives.”

    Mauricio’s background is in information technology, and he has worked on a variety of different projects for Nestle Purina. In St. Louis, he currently works on the coordination of different roles within the IT organization.

    Susan, however, encountered many obstacles to restarting her career upon arrival in a new country. Despite her previous work as a physical therapist in Brazil, due to her situation as an immigrant on her husband’s L1 visa, she was not permitted to work. Even when Mauricio was granted his H1B work visa, Susan still could not work. It was only when Mauricio decided to stay with Nestle Purina and in St. Louis that they could begin the process for applying for green cards, and they could finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately, it took two years to go through the process, and in 2012, Susan was finally granted her green card and permission to work, the first time since she left Brazil in 2005. “That was the biggest challenge,” she says. “I used to be independent, I had my job, a post-graduate degree... so this situation totally changed my life, it turned it upside down.”

    In addition, Susan had to completely learn the English language. She did not speak a word of English upon arrival, so every day after she would drop her young daughter off at school, she would go to a nearby college to study the language. It was not only learning the language that was difficult, though; she - along with Mauricio - also had to learn about the cultural differences and nuances. “Keeping up conversations was hard, not at the fault of anyone, but because we did not have the background knowledge of jokes, references, or cultural experiences,” Susan explains. “We felt like two fish out of water.”

    Around the time when she was granted her green card, Susan started exploring opportunities that would enable her to get involved in the St. Louis community, while also connecting her with her Brazilian roots. “I started looking for something because I love culture and learning languages,” she says. “I knew I had to start doing something.” She soon encountered Viva Brasil.

    Viva Brasil is a non-profit organization that promotes Brazilian culture and Portuguese language in St. Louis. Founded in 2012, it originally started out as a group of several Brazilian mothers who wanted to preserve and promote their native culture and language. Susan joined the team in early 2014 and became immediately an integral part of the organization. “I joined because of the language and culture that I love,” she says. She became a board member of the organization quickly after she joined, and continues to serve in that role. She also currently works as a teacher for their new Viva Portuguese program, an opportunity for anyone in St. Louis to study and learn the language. She teaches various private students, and beginning in fall 2015, she teaches classes at St. Louis Community College – Meramec, thanks to their newfound partnership with the school.

    The organization hosts a variety of events and activities for the greater St. Louis community open to anyone who is interested. “Our last event was a Brazilian Folk Festival at the Kirkwood Community Center with around 400 people there,” Susan explains. “It was great because we had our traditional food, music, was nice to see other Brazilians there and it was great to see other Americans learning and having fun.”

    Susan believes in the mission of Viva Brasil to promote her native culture and language not only around the St. Louis area, but for the children of immigrants like herself. “Viva Brasil provides an avenue for our kids to learn about the culture and learn the language,” she says. “It’s great to see our kids learning and having fun at our events.” She explains that it is a great connection to others who share a similar background and culture, and it makes it easier to cope with the homesickness that can arise while living in a foreign country. “Viva Brasil makes it easier for other Brazilians to stay here because they have some people who they can talk to and feel their Brazilian culture,” Mauricio says. “It’s not that you need it, but it does make your life makes you feel at home.”

    In addition to their involvement with Viva Brasil, Susan and Mauricio further promote the diffusion of Brazilian language and culture by hosting Portuguese meetup groups every month at different cafes and Brazilian restaurants in the St. Louis area. “We host these groups for people to get together and talk in Portuguese,” Mauricio explains. “It is for people who either lived in Brazil or have had other experiences with Brazilian people.” For each monthly meetup, they cap the attendance count at fifteen people, so that participants have the chance to really practice the language and engage with everyone else. So far, they have had nearly 190 people attend at least one of the meetings.

    A few years earlier while Susan was experiencing frustration with not being allowed to work, she decided to conduct a study of expatriate spouses like herself, curious to see if there were any behavioral patterns among the group. She interviewed several wives who came over with their employed spouses, compiled the results of her study, and discovered a pattern of behavior among many of the women. “The first few months are the honeymoon period,” Susan explains. “Then you become depressed, reach a point of rock-bottom after a year, and then start recovering, but it comes in waves.”

    Giving advice to other immigrants coming to the United States, Susan emphasizes that “you have to go out and talk to people, get involved, volunteer, learn about the society and how people behave.” Stating the importance of learning a new culture in a new place, Mauricio adds that it is important to learn the little details and conventions of American culture. “For example, here you do not kiss and touch women you are talking with, or in supermarkets when people say ‘hello’ or ‘good morning,’ it is not a call for a conversation, like it is in Brazil.” It is little things like these, small details of cultural interactions, that Susan and Mauricio were not originally aware of. “If somebody could have prepared us, it would have been easier for us.”

    In March 2014, Susan was introduced to the St. Louis Mosaic Project. “A friend of mine brought me to a Mosaic Ambassadors meeting, and I met so many interested people talking about helping and welcoming immigrants,” she explains. Interested in learning more about how she could give back, she met with Executive Director Betsy Cohen to discuss possibilities about how to help immigrant spouses like herself. Thus began her involvement with the Women’s Connector Program in April 2014.

    As a Mosaic Project program in conjunction with the Women’s Club of Washington University, the Women’s Connector Program assists immigrant women with working spouses to learn basic things about St. Louis, engage in discussions with local leaders, and connect with others.  “I help connect these women with other women, social groups, resources, and other members of the Women’s Club,” Susan explains. “I enjoy helping newcomers that come over here in the same situation as I did.”

    Avid supporters of the Mosaic Project’s goal of fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment for foreign-born in the region, Susan and Mauricio are also both Mosaic Ambassadors. Their involvement spans from manning the Mosaic Project booth at the 2014 Festival of Nations event, to holding discussions in public libraries to inform others of Mosaic Project programs, to simply promoting an internationally-welcoming environment in their everyday lives. “Every chance we have to talk about the Mosaic Project, we explain the initiative, and many people have joined as a result!,” Susan says. Furthermore, Mauricio notes that Mosaic Project programs are also important in raising awareness among native-born Americans. “While immigrants can learn the language and culture, make friends, volunteer, and get involved, they cannot succeed by themselves; you need people to help them.” he explains. “The Mosaic Project programs help make people realize that this is important.”

    Susan’s involvement in the St. Louis community extends even further, as she also serves as volunteer for HavenHouse St. Louis, a medical care facility and hospitality home that provides lodging and support services for families and patients who travel to St. Louis for medical care. “I volunteer helping their guests, mostly Brazilian families, who come to be treated and they don't know to speak English,” she explains.  “I help them to understand how the house works, to set up their appointments and therapies at the hospital, with shuttle schedules, places to shop and eat, etc. My goal is to try to make them feel as they are ‘at home,’ providing them with information and being available to help anytime they need while they are here in St. Louis.” This is incredibly important in regards fostering a positive connection with St. Louis. Susan explains that when these people leave the region, “they take with them good feelings about our city and people, especially because they come here in such a delicate situation – having to deal with health problems in their families in a foreign country.”

    In regards to St. Louis, Susan and Mauricio have fallen in love with their new region, and the greater community is something they truly appreciate. “People make a difference in the region,” Mauricio says. “Our neighbors have received us well and are very welcoming and helpful.” They also cite the low cost of living as a huge asset, as well as the abundance of large companies and good universities. In addition, the couple cites the rich cultural life that the city has to offer, from the museums to the music scene to ethnic enclaves of activity. “St. Louis is a curtain city,” Mauricio explains. “You might not see what’s going on at first, but you just have to remove the curtain and see what's behind it. The city is a hidden gem, and I like it this way.”

    While the Gobbos return to Brazil every year to visit, they have come to call St. Louis their home. While it took years of feeling as though they were living in limbo, where they did not feel at home neither in Brazil nor St. Louis, they came to a newfound realization when they returned from a trip and landed at the St. Louis airport a few years ago: “Now we feel home,” they thought to themselves, “and now we can say that we are home.”