Lola Gonzalez Farrell was 11 when she learned she was leaving her home in Panama and moving to Pennsylvania to live with her older sister. The daughter of a single working mother, Gonzalez was very close to her sister and missed her dreadfully when she moved to the United States to be with her husband.
She was filled with excitement when her mother explained she would be leaving Panama city to get a better education in the US. She was too young to think about how lonely she might feel living so far from her mother and two other sisters.
“When you’re a child you don’t think about the challenges of leaving. I thought I’d see my mum again soon and I was so excited to see a new place and live with my sister. We are 12 years apart but we’re very close because she raised me most of my life. My mum had to work full-time, she was a single parent, so she worked night and day for us.”
Gonzalez arrived in Pennsylvania in the depths of the winter of 1987. The temperatures were freezing and the young Panamanian was amazed by the snow on the ground. She had learned English in the private school her mother worked hard to pay for but the American accent sounded strange and was difficult to follow.
She was one of only two Latino students in her school and even though students welcomed her at first, racism and discrimination quickly followed. “The entire area wasn’t very diverse back then, I looked different and when you went shopping people would stare. I was very aware of being from another country.”
The dictatorship in Panama, led by Manuel Noreiga, made it extremely difficult to keep in touch with her mother and sisters.
We came from the tropical Caribbean to Irish winter, I think March was the worst time to move. I was thinking what have I done? But I was excited too and the scenery here was magical
“I had grown up under the dictatorship but then, two years after I left, things got bad when the US invaded the country. I lost touch with my family; lots of people did. There was no communication coming out of Panama. That was a very tough time, not knowing how my family was.”
More than three decades on, Gonzalez is speaking over Zoom from her home in Co Leitrim. She reflects fondly on the adventures and opportunities she enjoyed during her time in the United States. However, she also acknowledges the impact it had on her relationship with her mother.
“We didn’t have that closeness that a mother and child have because we were separated. She missed important things like birthdays, my graduation. It was really hard on her, she missed me intensely.”
In 2003, after graduating from university in Pennsylvania, Gonzalez moved to New York. She started working in fashion, managing boutiques and started her own independent line. She also met her future husband in the city; an Irish American called Kevin. After living together for a while, the couple decided they needed a change of pace and moved to Panama.
When the couple arrived in 2012, Gonzalez discovered a place very different from the country she’d left 25 years before. “It was more cosmopolitan than I remembered – more high rises and infrastructure. There were lots of street sellers when I was growing up there; they were all gone. They’d cleaned up the neighbourhoods. I was nostalgic for what had been.”
She believes the work of the community group has played an important role in changing people’s perceptions of migration and diversity
The couple moved to the province of Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast of the country where they opened a bakery cafe. “The first five months was like living in paradise, going to beaches, exploring islands. We were excited about opening our own business but it took up all our time, that’s what it’s like when you work in hospitality. We also realised there were only four months of the year when we actually made money. It was a great experience but the business became too challenging.”
Instead of moving back to the States, the couple decided to try somewhere totally different. Kevin had visited Ireland a number of times, had Irish citizenship and cousins in Longford and so, in March 2015, they moved to Co Leitrim. “We came from the tropical Caribbean to Irish winter, I think March was the worst time to move. I was thinking what have I done? But I was excited too and the scenery here was magical.”
Gonzalez’s husband ran his own business as a computer engineer and in 2016, she found a job as the retail manager of a second-hand shop belonging to the National Council for the Blind.
Coming from a career in New York boutiques, Gonzalez found working in a small charity shop in Carrick-on-Shannon challenging at first. She also managed a group of volunteers rather than paid staff. “I had to learn about volunteer management. Most of my volunteers were passionate and gave 100 per cent, but there are always some who said they’re doing this work for free so don’t try. You have to get them to see there’s a reward through the services we provide in the shop – helping people to find goods that cost less money because they may not be in a position to spend more.”
Inclusion and integration
In 2016 the couple got married and the following year, Gonzalez joined the Leitrim International Community Group which works to promote inclusion and integration in the county. From this, she joined the Leitrim Local Community Development Committee as a community representative for Leitrim’s migrant community.
She believes the work of the community group has played an important role in changing people’s perceptions of migration and diversity. Racism is a problem in Ireland, says Gonzalez, but it’s “minimal” in Carrick-on-Shannon. “I feel people are more welcoming in this community now. I think we’ve made a difference in how people see migrants. I’ve just had the tidy towns contact me to ask if people in my group can get involved. There’s also a lot of reaching out to include asylum seekers.”
Gonzalez was also recently selected by the Immigrant Council of Ireland to participate in their migrant councillor internship scheme and is currently shadowing local Fianna Fáil councillor Sean McGowan as part of the programme.
While she’s spent nearly seven years in Ireland, Gonzalez says Leitrim has only really felt like home in the past two years. “I’m very proud to live here, I’ve got to do so many more things here than I did in the United States. Everyone always sees the US as this beacon of hope where dreams come true but I feel Ireland has done that for me.
“I’ve worked hard but I want people to see that other countries can offer hope and opportunity. I’m amazed by how much I’ve been able to do here.”