GP: Gigi Perez, participant
AS: Aryn Schriner, interviewer
Transcribed by Aubrey Edwards

July 23, 2022

AS: Can we start with you sharing your name and how you spell your name?

GP: Okay. My name is Alba Giselle Perez. Alba, A-L-B-A. Giselle, G-I-S-S-E-L-L-E. Perez, P-E-R-E-Z. 

AS: And you go by Gigi?

GP:  Gigi, yeah. Gigi is my nickname.

AS: Do you prefer Gigi? 

GP: Yes. 

AS: Can you tell us a little bit about your family and your family history?

GP: I consider myself Dominican American. I was born in the Bronx. My parents are Dominican. They came here, my mom was about 15 years-old when she came to the United States. She married my dad, had us, we’re four. We lived in the Bronx till I was about 12-years-old. And then we moved here to Pennsylvania.

AS: Can you tell us a little bit more about how your family decided to settle in this area?

GP: Okay, so, my mom had a friend who was [inaudible] friend, and they came up here. I’m not sure how they found the area, but they invited my mom over to visit and we never left. I guess my parents liked the idea of the calm area. The fact that there were houses everywhere instead of buildings. They liked the fact that it was cheaper. It was affordable. And it was safer for me and my siblings.

AS: What neighborhood do you currently live in?

GP: I live in Jeddo. Jeddo is a patch town between Freeland and Hazleton.

AS: How long have you lived in the area?

GP: I lived in Jeddo for about six to seven years.

AS: What’s your favorite thing about living in Jeddo?

GP: My favorite thing about living in Jeddo is how peaceful it is. The fact that everything is slow-paced. Not a lot of traffic. Everything is calm. The neighbors don’t really bother much. And it’s, it’s, there’s a lot of room for my kids to run around.

AS: And what’s your least favorite thing about living in the area?

GP: My least favorite thing is how unwelcoming people could be or were when we first moved up here.

AS: How would you describe this particular region?

GP: This area, I feel like it’s, if I had to describe it, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Um, it’s packed with history. And I feel like the more time goes by the better it gets.

AS: What parts of that history do you think are the most important?

GP: I guess I could say the bad, the bad parts of history. Only because I feel like if we understand how this area came to be… Well, first we won’t make the same mistakes, and the people who are already here, or have been living here for a long time, can see how much more alike the newcomers are then, as opposed to their families, when they migrated here there’s a lot of similarities.

It’s important to know the, we could talk all day about the good stuff, but I feel like remembering the bad also helps to shape the future, shape the area or make changes. It helps to be more accepting of the people that are coming in now and understanding what they struggle with when they come here. Learning new languages, assimilating, learning different cultures and traditions. New languages of people they’ve never seen before, things like that.

AS: What do you mean by the bad parts of history?

GP: I guess when I first moved here, I used to hear a lot of stories about the coal miners and the things that used to happen to them and their struggles. A lot of the stories that I heard were very similar to what I’ve experienced now. And what I’ve seen other people experiencing migrating to this region. People struggling, not speaking the language, trying to get comfortable in a place that they don’t know. Working really hard to survive. All that and then having to deal with people who didn’t accept them.

AS: We’re gonna pivot a little bit. What kind of work do you do?

GP: I’m an artist. I’m also a business owner. I host sip-n-paints, sip-in-paints are, or wine and paints. They have different names. I teach people how to do a specific painting in under two hours, they’ll bring drinks or food and stuff like that. It’s more for entertaining and relaxation than anything else. I also teach private lessons, private art lessons. I do commission work, I do face painting, body painting, anything that has to do with art.

AS: That’s really cool. What do you do on the weekends when or when you’re not working?

GP: When I’m not working I sleep. I sleep a lot. I spend a lot of time with my kids. We tried to make it so that we could go somewhere different all the time. I mean, there’s a lot to see here. You don’t even have to leave the state. There’s so much to look at. So I try to travel with the kids maybe go on road trips and stuff like that for them to see more than just the house.

AS: What places do you like going to?

GP: I like to travel without a destination. We usually just get in the car and go. We live like right on [Rt.] 940. So we’ll take that road, or that State Route, and kind of go to wherever the road takes us, and we always end up in a new place. It’s usually kind of like this, very natural. There’s birds and all kinds of things to look at. Lakes, a lot of hidden like, gems that people don’t know about so…

AS: Can you share a little bit about your community?

GP: When I first moved here, we moved to Hazleton, I lived in Hazleton with my parents. In the beginning, it was very depressing because I didn’t know anybody. There wasn’t a lot of, it felt like there wasn’t a lot of people. I guess I moved here when the time was kind of transitioning from it being such a vibrant and active town. A lot of the younger generation that reached a college age moved away. And it was like dying out.

I remember the businesses being empty when I first moved here. There was nothing to look at. Like, there was nobody here. And when I first moved, there were about maybe two or three Latino families and I didn’t even know who they were. It was very lonely, but then maybe five years into us being here there was this influx, this huge wave of Latinos moving in, so everything started changing like really, really fast. We had more businesses. Things start to get remodeled, a lot of abandoned homes were being purchased and remodeled.

The town started working on re-, how do you say that word? Revitalizing the area. I like the combination of them trying to keep the history or how things have always kind of looked. Um, I guess preserving the history of the town and combining that with the present day, like the influx and the people that are that are coming in. I feel like a lot of us who were not born in this area are not native to this area are learning a lot about the people that used to live here.

AS: What types of activities are you involved in beyond your work?

GP: Okay, so there’s an organization called the Hazleton Art League. They’re right there on Broad and Laurel street. So they have a lot of artistic events where they try to, I like to use the word bridge, to bridge the gap between the Hispanic community and the community that was already here.

So I participate in a lot of their competitions like art competitions, fundraisers, festivals, and things like that that they do during the summer. I think that’s about it. I’m mostly involved in anything art, anything that has to do with art. I don’t see it as work to be honest. It’s something that I like to do, and I enjoy doing so wherever there’s something art, I’m there.

AS: Are there any particular challenges that you and your community face?

GP: Yeah, there’s a lot of people that are native to this area that are not very accepting to the changes or I guess the fear of the unknown, right. It’s like things have been a certain way for such a long time. That now that there’s like something different coming. It’s like, they’re trying to hold on so much to what was and because of that, their attitude about seeing all this new stuff, there’s like a bit of a push back. So I feel it kind of slows down the progress.

Like I said before, I moved when the town was going through a transition. It was going from being all lively to dead, and then now back to lively, just with new people. And we hear a lot how, Latino people don’t like to assimilate, or we tend to stick together. But that’s because you move into a place where you don’t know anybody and people are not very welcoming. The attitude is like, it’s scary. So you find somebody that’s just like you and you’re like, “Oh, you know, I know you were the same let’s stick together over here,” because you feel more comfortable.

And then, the other side is like, oh, you know, they want to stick together. They don’t want to be a part of what we’re doing here. But, the reality is we do. We just, we do want to stick together and work together and get to know each other.

Where I come from we like to eat, we like to dance. We like to have a good time. Everybody’s always in a good mood. We’re pretty loud. Like everybody knows we’re here, and for this area, everything is so calm and quiet like <claps hands> so that’s like a big clap. So I can see why people are just kind of hesitant. It’s scary. You know, it’s scary, especially if you’ve never left the area and you’ve never seen anything else other than what’s here.

AS: Is anthracite coal history important to you and your community?

GP: Definitely. Definitely. As I said before, like learning, listening to the stories about how this area came about.I mean, a lot of it made me really sad, I guess because of the way people were treating each other. But part of them, of the people that were here just like working so hard and adapting, even to the bad, eventually learning to live together.

And, create – I mean, this is already here. This is nature, but you know what I’m saying, the vibe that they created, I feel like I just enjoy it so much. I feel like if we could all just kind of come out and sit out here. Like no matter what we look like, or where we come from. I feel like we can connect. I don’t know if that makes sense.

AS: Which part of anthracite history is worth remembering and making sure that your generation and community will remember in the future?

GP: So, I just don’t want to give you the same answer. It kind of goes all into the same thing. Remembering the good and the bad and exactly how things have been not just the sugar-coated version where it’s like everybody just came here and worked really hard and assimilated like this <snaps fingers> and everything was quick, and everybody did what they had to do. And that was that.

It was, it was hard. It was really hard for people that came from one place to another. They didn’t know how to, how do I say this, how to maybe establish or connect their tradition and cultures to what was already here, trying to figure out if they should, or maybe let it go to assimilate or, or how do you say, um, adapt to what was here. Just maybe the confusion and things like that.

And how they got through that and, and continued and made this such a great place for their future generations to live in. That’s something that you know, I feel like we could all learn from.

AS: Yeah, thank you. Is there anything else that you want to share about you or your family or your community?

GP: Yeah, sure. I do. I know I always bring up the downside of, of moving here. I talk about all my bad experiences, not because I want to dwell in it, but because I like when people understand where I come from, not necessarily the place but my-my experience, just so they could see that I’m not, I’m not what they think I am.

I’m a human being just like everybody else. I may look different, but we go through the same experiences, and we all want similar things, right? I moved here. I want the best for my family. I want my family to be safe. I want my kids to enjoy nature. I want them to live out their dreams. I want them to work hard to get to where they want to get.

I don’t want to raise them in a way where they’re hateful towards other people where they’re not tolerant or accepting or anything like that. I want them to see the world for what it is and try to figure out a way to make it better. Everything that I’ve done here so far, all my friends are like, “Oh, you need to move out. You can make so much money everywhere else with what you do,” and that’s true, but I don’t want to keep moving out like everybody else did when moved here. Which is why everything was so dead and all this stuff.

I feel like there’s so much work to do here. There’s so much that we haven’t touched yet and I feel like with what I do with the painting and stuff like that connects people, art always connects people. And even with my paint parties, I’ve seen how people go from coming into the studio and seeing me like, “Who’s this lady? Are you sure you own this business?” People ask me questions like that, like, “Is this your business? Are you sure?” at the end of the paint party, now they give me hugs, they congratulate me, they end up coming back.

I’ve made friendships, from when I started the business in 2015 to now 2022, where they call me “Hey, Gigi, how you doing?” When there’s an event, they reach out to me, when they want me to get some exposure, they remember me. And it’s people that maybe 20 years ago when I first moved here I would have never thought would even look my way.

So, again, I could sit here all day and talk about the bad, but you know, I like the fact that I’m here today and that I have the opportunity to maybe not change the whole world, but at least help bridge the gap between the communities. We’re keeping the history, you know, and then <smacks hands> just smooshing it together with what’s here now.

AS: Thank you.