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Sue Bush
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Berkshire Profile: Angela Thomas

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Sunday, April 23, 2006

Angela Thomas
Welcome to Berkshire Profile, an iberkshires weekly feature appearing on Sunday. Each week, iberkshires will highlight a Berkshires resident whose actions contribute to the Berkshires way of life.

North Adams - Angela Thomas remembered her first New England winter spent away from her hot and humid Cali, Colombia birthplace.

"I wanted to go back," she said. "I told my cousin, who was in Colombia, 'open your freezer and stick your head inside and leave it there for months. That's winter.'"

That was about 13 years ago. Thomas is now better able to tolerate winter's ice, wind, and chill. She is married to city police Officer Erik Thomas, and the couple have two daughters, Casey, a student at the Silvio Conte Middle School and Vanessa, an elementary school student. The family owns a Houghton Street home and is approaching the fifth year of operation of CAVE, a family-owned floor care and housecleaning service.

The life she and her husband provide for their daughters is a good one, said Thomas. She is happy to be in the United States, but there are times when she becomes homesick for the warmth and familiarity of Cali, she said. Some years ago, Thomas did return to Cali for a visit and brought her daughters with her.

Family members were happy to see them, Thomas said.

"We celebrated Casey's fifth birthday and you should have seen the cake. It was three tiers."

Love In Any Language

Thomas, 37, came to the United States in 1993 to join her parents Dorio and Lia Llano. A half-brother, a son of Dorio Llano, had arranged for his father and step-mother to come to this country; permission was given for Thomas and a sister, Lucy, to come a short time later.

Thomas did not speak English when she arrived in the U.S.. Family members had settled in the Northern Berkshires and Thomas traveled to the area. She found employment at the city-based Modern Aluminum Anodizing firm.

The mill was where Angela Llano met Erik Thomas and the two soon found that hearts can beat through any language barriers.

An enamored Erik Thomas decided that he wasn't about to let language issues stop him from communicating with the woman he found so appealing, so he acquired English to Spanish and Spanish to English dictionaries. With the help of the books, Angela taught Spanish to Erik, and Erik taught English to Angela.

The "lessons" were well-learned; Erik Thomas speaks and understands Spanish well and Angela Thomas speaks and understands English very well.

But language still poses a problem from time to time, she said.

Speaking "American"

On more than one occasion, Thomas or Spanish-speaking co-workers or friends have been criticized for being challenged by the English language, especially in cases when reading is necessary.

"People have said 'You should learn to speak American,' well, first off, I want to tell them the language is called 'English,'" she said.

She is fond of a quote from the movie "A Walk in the Clouds," during which one character states "I may speak with an accent but I don't think with one."

Although she successfully completed a Charles H. McCann Technical
High School post-secondary medical assisting program some years ago, concerns about her "accent" and whether people would understand medical instructions she might deliver made it difficult for her to find work, she said.

She is acutely aware of the way she speaks, she said.

"Every time I want to say something I have to stop and think, 'OK, did I use the right tense,' and sometimes I correct myself," she said. "I do feel judged sometimes if my English isn't perfect."

The Spanish-speaking population is growing regionally, Thomas said.

She is affiliated with the Pittsfield-based American Citizen Coalition, and earned medical interpretation certification in 2000. She has served as an ESL tutor at the Brayton Elementary School.

Local hospitals and medical service providers would benefit from interpreter services, she said. A current situation that relies heavily on Spanish-speaking physicians to offer translation services, sometimes over the telephone, isn't adequate, she said.

Free Fries?

Thomas is seeking American citizenship-contrary to a common belief, she did not "automatically" become a citizen when she and Erik Thomas married- and her permanent residency identification card once generated an awkward situation when the family took a trip to Maine.

While at a nationally-recognized chain-type restaurant, she ordered a drink that contained liquor, and when asked for proof of age, she presented the server with a government-issued photo ID card.

The server became arrogant, questioned the validity of the identification, and spoke to Thomas in a manner that was perceived as extremely demeaning by all those seated at the table, Angela and ErikThomas said.

"The tone was very bad-it was definitely a conversation stopper," said Erik Thomas.

Restaurant management became involved and attempted to smooth the situation with complimentary food and beverages, but in some cases, free entrees cannot reduce the embarrassment brought on by thoughtlessness.

Not Quite Sigourney Weaver, But...

However, possessing a card that identifies one as an "alien" has its' benefits, Angela Thomas said with a giggle.

One evening when her daughters were much younger, they were not inclined to settle down for the evening.

"I told them if they would not settle down that I would become into an alien, and that I had a card to prove it," she said. "Casey said 'I don't believe you' so I showed them my card."

That got the attention of the girls, Thomas said. She did immediately explain to her daughters what the card actually meant, she said.

In some ways, her daughters are experiencing a different childhood than she did, Thomas said.

Cali Childhood

She is the youngest of five sisters and five half-brothers and her parents were not young when she was born.

"I think my parents were very tired by the time I came," she said. "Mom was 42 and Dad was 62 by the time I got there. I got away with a lot because I was the youngest. The rules were easier."

Thomas was educated at a private parochial school governed by nuns. Pre-school to grade 12 students attended classes in the same school building, and students paid for school lunches. Thomas said that the school day began at 7:15 a.m. and concluded at 3:30 p.m..

She was required to study calculus, trigonometry, chemistry, physics, philosophy, religion, and a foreign language while she was a student, she said.

Her father owned and operated a profitable farm located in the Andes mountains and the family was considered upper middle class by Colombia standards, Thomas said.

Store-bought toys were not plentiful for most Cali children. Most toys were made from imagination and cast-off items, she said. She and her playmates did not sit in front of a television screen for hours on end but were found playing outside. And all household members had chores, she said.

After she completed high school she worked with her sister as a "junior model" for a time, and also worked as a manager for a Cali-based clothing store.

Poverty is prominent in Columbia, Thomas said.

"Police Officers Are Targets"

"I send my cousin $40 a month and that is about supporting her," Thomas said. "When I worked at Modern Aluminum, I made $125 a week and that was what a doctor would make in my country."

In an ironic twist, the very occupations that allow Thomas to send money to family members are looked down upon in Cali, she said.

"Police officers are targets," she said. "And a maid...come on! In Colombia, a police officer and a maid, that is like the mat you walk on."

The family's microwave oven, the large-screen television, the two cars, the motorcycles; owning these items is not unusual for an American family, Erik and Angela Thomas said. But for a typical Colombian family budget, many everyday items are out of reach.

"These things are in the stores, but to buy them, that is something else," Angela Thomas said.

Cultural Differences

Youth dating in Colombia is a bit different than in the United States, Thomas said, and noted that young girls do not ride in vehicles with boys without a chaperone of some sort. An older sister would be an acceptable chaperone, she said.

Parents have a great deal of control over a young person's friends and social life, she said. There are situations deemed acceptable in Colombia that would raise eyebrows or worse in the United States, she said.

"When I was 15, I had a boyfriend who was 25 and was a doctor," she said.

The relationship was not frowned upon but Thomas stressed that all the "rules" applied; she was not permitted to be alone with the young man or travel with him without an appropriate chaperone.

"Here, you see all these young, young girls with babies," Thomas said. "You do not see that in my country."

Hiring "babysitters" is a very rare thing in Colombia, Thomas said.

"The family unit is so tight," she said. "We do not have baby-sitters. There is always an aunt or a cousin; you do not hire baby-sitters, ever."

"You Are The Lowest"

Thomas acknowledged the country's active drug trade but said that most Colombian citizens are not themselves users of or addicted to illegal substances.

"I never saw pot until I came to this country," she said.

Those who are involved with the drug trade are often shunned by their families, she said.

"You are the lowest," she said of those engaged in the drug trade.

The movie "Maria Full of Grace," which tells the tale of a Colombian girl who turns to "muling" illegal drugs from Colombia to the U.S. for drug lords, is an accurate depiction of the life of many poor, young Columbian girls, she said, and added an insight: "You do not see the young boys doing this."

Cali is the third largest city in Colombia. Summer daytime temperatures are usually 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit while the "winter" days are "chilled" to the mid-70s, she said.

"Great Expectations:" More Than a Movie Title

Family members and friends who remain in Colombia have high expectations for the girl who went to the United States.

"You have to achieve," she said. "I mean, here you are, in the great United States! Every day I get up and have to achieve, achieve, achieve. And it can be so hard. When you come here from Colombia, you have to achieve. That is the only option."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at or at 802-823-9367.
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