The American dream of Norway
Part 8: Gabriela Capestany
Our ancestors came to America to give their families a better life. Now young Norwegian Americans dream of the old country. This series of interviews was conducted by a visiting Norwegian journalist.
“I am never going to fit in any box,” says 22-year-old journalist and student Gabriela Capestany. “I am half Cuban and half Norwegian and have always lived in a split between the two. I don’t look Cuban, and I don’t look Norwegian. I usually say I’m American. My Cuban family on my father’s side has roots from Spain, while my mother’s family were Norwegian immigrants from Bergen who came to the Midwest in the 1800s.
I have had much less to do with my Norwegian background than the Cuban. My father’s family had a dramatic story of escaping from communism in Cuba and making it in the United States. The Norwegian culture from my mother’s side came a little in the shadow of the Cuban culture in our home. We ate lefse, but that was about it.”
But when Gabriela started studying to major in film, she immersed herself in Scandinavian cinema and was an exchange student at the University of Copenhagen. “I do not know if I would have done that without an affinity with Scandinavia,” she says.
Gabriela went on to study multimedia journalism at the University of Washington and has had internships as a journalist, including a position at a larger news company.
As she gets older, her Norwegian identity is becoming stronger. “The Norwegian part of me is more important now than it was when I was younger,” she describes. “It helps me make sense of a few things in my life. For example, how I look: I have very bright skin, yet have curls. I feel Cuban, speak fluently and know the culture. But I don’t look Cuban. When I am at a Mexican restaurant, I order the dishes with Spanish pronunciation because it is natural to me, but I have experienced waiters rolling their eyes and commenting things like ‘who is this gringa?’ And again, I went to a very ‘white’ high school, where I was called a ‘fake Latina,’ and someone said I just got in because I looked white. I began to understand that I am never going to fit in any box. Which is fine by me. I think my roots add more to me than they take away. By recognizing the Norwegian culture in me, it has helped me be proud of that as well.”
Gabriela says her family is conservative and would call the Scandinavian nations the “worst run countries.”
“When I voted for Hillary in the 2016 elections,” she recalls, “my grandfather told me I shouldn’t come back from Scandinavia after my exchange. My aunt and uncle stopped talking to me. We are fine now, but they reacted strongly then. There is more and more hatred between the Democratic and Republican side now than just a few years ago.” Yet Gabriela thinks the Democratic side in the United States has a tendency to glorify Scandinavia and say that everything is perfect over there. “I have seen that this is not the case,” she says. “For example, I experienced racism and xenophobia in Denmark.”
But Gabriela is an optimist. “When my father came to the United States, he only owned the suitcase he carried with him. Now he works as a communications manager in a large company. I’m proud to be American; I believe there are opportunities in this country. I believe that especially here in Washington state, people are negative and complain a lot. I don’t. I look brightly at the future. But there is definitely room for improvement. Everyone doesn’t have the same opportunities, and I want a society with more compassion and help for those who need it.”
One of the stories that inspires Gabriela is how her father managed to change a law. “He was to vote in a school election,” she says, “but was accused of not being American by someone anonymous. It caused a lot of trouble and the whole burden of proof was put on my father. He later lobbied and managed to change the law, so that the burden of proof lies on the one accusing someone. And accusations can’t be anonymous. To me, that proves that you can achieve things if you just work for it!”
Ingerid Jordal is a photojournalist based in western Norway, with a great passion for the deep north and stories of belonging. She is scared of flying, but not scared of driving backward on a highway in Seattle. Learn more at www.ingeridjordal.no.
This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.