a short story by Mina Wong
Virginia Robos studied bartending soon after coming to Canada from San Antonio, Chile. “Skinny Ginny” (as friends called her) wanted something quick and job-ready to support her family. A short hospitality certificate seemed perfect at the time.
When I first met Ginny, she and her child, Gabriel were refugees fleeing Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Her entire family had worked for Santa Maria Catholic Church near San Antonio, where all members of the small parish were blacklisted for learning English and French.
In 1976, Ginny’s husband, Ricardo who was Santa Maria’s language teacher, was arrested, followed by his brother, Roberto, a history student. While appealing for their release, Ginny worked with human rights groups in hopes of securing protection in any country that would accept Chileans like herself. She was connected with a church community near Edmonton that would try to bring four people in her family to Alberta. Ginny and Gabriel would arrive first, with more complex documents to process for Ricardo and Roberto, who would be in jail for sometime.
Arriving in Edmonton late 1977, Ginny remembered Ricardo’s friend by the name Lucas Diaz who could also be in northern Alberta. It did not take long for church networks to locate Lucas who was indeed, in Edmonton.
Completing film studies left unfinished back home, Lucas encouraged Ginny to learn new skills while job hunting, On his advice, Ginny became a volunteer for the settlement agency where I worked part-time after school. Everyone liked Ginny’s kind optimism, although we all thought she was so slender that even a breeze could lift her off the ground. But our “Skinny Ginny” loved working with young people who also met Gabriel, now in Grade two French immersion, and adapting nicely to Edmonton’s long prairie winter.
With a B+ in bartending that “wasn’t too hard”, Ginny worked at wedding banquets, business conventions, and any venues that paid her to mix drinks. Proud of Ginny’s independence, her sponsors suggested further studies for a long-term career.
But choosing a college or university program was challenging:
“What do I want to do in Canada with so many opportunities? What is the best choice for me, an art major? What about making enough money when Ricardo will be looking for work?”
Many uncertainties tested her decisions, and before she knew it, Ricardo would be arriving in Edmonton after almost three years of being apart from Ginny and Gabriel.
Like Ginny, Ricardo was very thin, but cheerful with strong hopes of having Roberto in Edmonton soon. Mindful of her responsibilities to support the family, Ginny decided to become a technical high school teacher, fully knowing that with no Canadian credits on her university transcripts, her degree might take longer to complete.
To Ginny’s surprise, all her art courses from Santiago were accepted toward a teaching degree in Alberta. Now she only needed to demonstrate competencies in English, commercial art, photography, and drafting before starting the degree program.
With Ricardo and Gabriel by her side, Ginny was halfway through the teaching degree when I saw her again in 1980. They were furnishing a room for Roberto, another remnant of a Chilean family in exile, to start his new life soon in Canada.
The next time I saw Ginny was 2003 while visiting Edmonton. Under a sunny arctic sky near Whyte Avenue, I saw Ginny’s unmistakable smile and quick gait; with her was a tall young man. I shouted, “Ginny! Gabriel!”
I hugged two robust people with radiant complexion. “My goodness, Gabriel, you are so tall!”
The lad shook my hand: “I’m Frank, Gabriel’s brother.”
“Gabriel’s thirty-three and married with kids”, Ginny beamed. “We had Francis when Gabriel was twelve. We were already thirty-four; can you believe this miracle baby?”
From Ginny, I learned that Gabriel had a general law practice, Francis would be a mechanical engineer in two years, and Ricardo was a counselor at an inner city parish. Ginny herself was teaching high school, and for over twenty years, she had been preparing students for apprenticeships and trades.
I was also curious about Ricardo’s brother: “And Roberto?” After living with them for a long time, he finished a history degree, and went to work for booksellers in St. John’s, Newfoundland, before setting up home in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon.
This is the story of Virginia Robos, a.k.a. Ginny, her friends’ Skinny Ginny. A refugee from Latin America, she sought shelter in our country, kept her faith, raised a family, launched a teaching career, and devoted her success to Canada where we should celebrate magnificent brocades of discovery, diversity, and everyday milestones that build our nation.
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