My Journey From English-shy Immigrant To Multilingual Pageant Queen

8 Min Read

I was born in a small country off the west coast of Africa called Cape Verde. Growing up, I was raised to speak Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese. But at 7 years old, my family and I immigrated to the United States. At the time, I didn't really understand what that even meant. All I knew was that when I arrived the culture, way of life, and language were all absolutely foreign to me in every way. Eventually, I learned English and even Spanish. But learning the languages weren't nearly as hard as accepting myself for who I am as an immigrant.

All I Wanted Was To Be Normal

My fear and shame began on my first day at school in Fall River, MA. No one there spoke my language, so I simply stayed silent.

Apparently I was a little too good at that, because one of my classmates— who I will never forget because he always wore the same Spongebob shirt— told our entire class that I was mute. What did I do about this? Nothing, of course. I didn't even try to sound anything out… I was just so terrified of this new, foreign environment.

Andreia Gibau's Old School Before Immigrating Andreia Gibau's Old School

Within a year, my family and I moved to a new town. And along came a new school for me, as well. In our new home of Brockton, my school had a lot more immigrants attending; it was specifically designed with English language learners in mind. But being around other immigrants didn't change my mindset. In fact, it made me want to hide my true identity even more. Even after getting out of my bilingual classes, there were still bullies.

I thought that learning English would solve all of my problems.

All I wanted was to bring some sense of normalcy to my life. And I was certain that learning English as quickly as I could was the best way to do that. By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, I was secretly staying up late to practice. I didn't want to just know English, I wanted to speak it so "perfectly" that I would lose my accent. Having an accent meant that there was no hiding who I was, an immigrant, and all I wanted to be was "normal."

Even cartoons were a learning experience for me. I spent long nights glued to the screen, watching Spongebob Squarepants, CatDog, or Courage The Cowardly Dog. But not like most other kids, I had to have the subtitles on to glean some form of knowledge for myself from my favorite shows. I would even make flashcards!

Becoming American

I didn't quite learn English until I was in the 4th grade, about 10 years old. I was in a class full of other students whose first languages weren't English. We would have classes that basically just featured index cards with pictures being flipped through by the teacher in front us all, and we would have to say what the picture was. Or the cards would have words written out on them, and we would have to sound the words out.

It was basically a kindergarten class for 3rd and 4th graders. The school was two floors. The top floor only had classes for students who didn't speak English and the bottom floor was for students who did. I was on the top floor, of course.

Every two weeks we would have a test that would measure how well we were learning the language. I remember the day that I found out I would finally be taking English classes in one of the classes downstairs. I was going to be with all the English speaking American kids! Excited wouldn't even begin to do this feeling justice. I was finally getting closer to my idea of normalcy.

Young Andreia Gibau With Her Mother Young Andreia Gibau With Her Mother

I felt like I was truly becoming an American. I would soon be just like all the other kids. I was still taking all my other classes upstairs, but for just 55 minutes everyday I would be amongst English speaking students. Those 55 minutes were the highlight of each and every day. And by the time I was ready for 5th grade, I had become a US citizen, I was fluent in English, and I was at another new school.

I decided to forget about my past. I finally had a chance to be what I thought was normal.

My Not So Secret Shame

I grew up feeling so ashamed of myself, it wasn't just that I was an immigrant, but I couldn't even speak English. It seemed to me that speaking other languages was what made me different, in a bad way.

Now, of course, I know that it would be so silly to be ashamed of being multilingual. But, at the time, I was struggling. I was ashamed of speaking anything other than English for fear of being teased.

And I was teased about it. Whenever my parents would speak to me in Cape Verdean Creole in public, I would always only ever answer back in English. I didn't want anyone I knew overhearing me speak anything… foreign.

I even gave myself the nickname of Nikki, because I thought I thought it sounded more American than my own name. I had all my friends call me that.

I never recognized the amount of self-hatred that I was experiencing at this time. I disowned everything I was to be someone I wasn't… all because I was afraid.

Afraid of being ostracized. Afraid of being different. Afraid of being my true self.

I saw how my friends would make fun of all the other immigrant students who couldn't speak English. Saying comments like "get back on the boat you came from," or calling them "geechee," a derogatory term for someone who recently immigrated to the US. My friends never knew that I was really one of them— the kids they would mock mercilessly.

I knew how it felt to be in that position, and I refused to go through it again.

Pageants Changed Everything

This perspective of myself, my origins, and struggles all changed when I started doing pageants. Most people associate pageants with blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American-born beauty. But as our culture has become more accepting of diversity, pageants have shifted in the same direction. Rather than judging participants within strict molds of Western beauty standards and outdated ideas about women's worth, pageant contestants are held to their own standards.

One of the most popular pieces of pageant advice is to simply "be yourself." It's a cliché, but it works. That is exactly what I had to do. I had to learn to embrace who I was, to become who I am meant to be. The things that make me different are the things that make me, well, me.

Andreia Gibau Being Crowned Miss NY USA 2020 Andreia Gibau Being Crowned Miss NY USA 2020

Pageants gave me the opportunity to be out in society meeting all types of people from different backgrounds, which helped me come to terms with my own differences. As soon as I started competing in pageants, I realized that I wasn't being authentic to who I was.

In my second ever pageant, I was asked the question: "What makes you unique?" I was 19 years old at the time, and I remember thinking long and hard about this question afterwards. I wanted so badly to come up with the perfect answer. And my mom goes, "Well you speak four languages. Not every 19 year old can say that."

I was a little hesitant. Because I had never thought that was something to be proud of, let alone brag about on a stage.

But I went with it. And when I started to see it on paper, I naturally started to own it and embrace it as part of who I am in my everyday life.

I realized that not only does my skill with language mean a lot to me personally. But it's also helped me to develop some of my other most notable traits. Speaking these languages that are both oddly similar and completely unique brings up some unusual challenges.

But it is our challenges that make us who we are.

When switching between languages so often in my everyday life, I have to be extremely thoughtful in my word choice. I don't want to say "gracias," when someone gives me a compliment in Portugese. (Which I have done before!) Because of this, I've had to become a quick-thinking multitasker, so I can block out distractions and stay focused on what's important in the moment. This skill has been crucial both on and off the pageant stage!

From Miss NY USA To Miss USA

It was only after winning my first competition while being 100% true to myself, that I realized… I am worthy of that crown. But even moreso, I realized how good it felt to see someone like me, an immigrant, a polyglot, a non-native English speaker, win such a prestigious title.

As a pageant titleholder, you are a public figure. I am constantly meeting new people, going out to events, and representing my state wherever I go. Sometimes I catch a person's accent or I hear them speak their home language, and I speak it back to them. It's amazing how quickly someone's face will light up when I say something in their language. Within an instant, they're comfortable with me, because they know that we are connected in a special way.

I believe I am a reflection of not only New York but also the entire USA. Because we are a country where every race, color, religion, and language is represented.

Andreia Gibau Representing As Miss New York USA Andreia Gibau Representing As Miss New York USA

For years, I felt that this talent of mine was really something to be ashamed of, and I don't want anyone else to make that mistake. The things that make you different are the things that make you powerful. It's time to embrace our differences, shout them out to the world, be proud.

If you're interested in joining me on my journey to Miss USA, keep your eyes out for my forthcoming biweekly column on SWAAY, where I'll be continuing to share my personal experiences, discussing everything from pageant prep to my work with inner city youth.

5 Min Read

Judge Tanya Acker On Overcoming Racial Barriers And Her Rise To The Top

You may recognize Judge, Tanya Acker, from her political and legal commentary on different networks and shows like Good Morning America, The Talk, Wendy Williams, CNN Reports or The Insider. Acker is more than an experienced commentator. She is also a Judge on the fifth season of Emmy nominated CBS show, Hot Bench.

Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life.

The show, created by Judge Judy, is a new take on the court genre. Alongside Acker, are two other judges: Patricia DiMango and Michael Corriero. Together the three-panel judges take viewers inside the courtroom and into their chambers. “I feel like my responsibility on the show is, to be honest, fair, [and] to try and give people a just and equitable result," Acker says. She is accomplished, honest and especially passionate about her career. In fact, Acker likes the fact that she is able to help people solve problems. “I think that efficient ways of solving disputes are really at the core of modern life.

“We are a very diverse community [with] different values, backgrounds [and] beliefs. It's inevitable that we're going to find ourselves in some conflicts. I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.

Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life. Particularly, her time working right after college impacted the type of legal work she takes on now.

Shaping Her Career

Acker didn't foresee doing this kind of work on television when she was in college at either Howard University or Yale Law. “I was really open in college about what would happen next," Acker comments. “In fact, I deliberately chose a major (English) that wouldn't lock me into anything [because] I wanted to keep all of my options open." Her inevitable success on the show and throughout her career is an example of that. In fact, after graduating from Yale, Acker served as a judicial law clerk to Judge Dorothy Nelson who sits on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

It was not only her first job out of law school but also one of the formative experiences of her professional life. “[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law," she exclaims. “She delivers it all with a lot of love." Judge Nelson is still on the bench and is continuing to work through her Foundation: The Western Justice Center in Pasadena, California, where Acker serves on the board. The foundation helps people seeking alternative ways of resolving their disputes instead of going to court.

"I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.

“It was important to her to try and create platforms for people to resolve conflict outside of court because court takes a long time," Acker explains. “I'm proud to be a part of that work and to sit on that board."

After her clerkship, she was awarded a Bristow Fellowship and continued building her career. Outside of the fellowship, Acker's legal work incorporated a broad variety of matters from civil litigation, constitutional cases, business counseling, and advising. One of her most memorable moments was representing a group of homeless people against the city. “They were being fought for vagrancy and our defense was, they had no place to go," she shares.

As part of her pro bono work, Acker was awarded the ACLU's First Amendment Award for her success with the case. Though, she has a hard time choosing from one of many memorable moments on Hot Bench. Acker does share a few of the things that matter to her. “Our show is really drawn from a cross-section of courtrooms across America and the chance to engage with such a diverse group of people really means a lot to me," she discusses.

How Did Acker Become A Judge?

In addition to Judge Nelson, Judge Judy is certainly among her top professional influences. “I think it's incredible [and] I feel very lucky that my professional career has been bookended by these incredible judges," she acclaims. “I've really learned a lot from Judy about this job, doing this kind of job on television." Before Acker was selected for Hot Bench, she hadn't been a judge. It was Judge Judy who recommended that she get some experience. Acker briefly comments on her first experience as a temporary judge on a volunteer basis in traffic court. “I was happy to be able to have the chance to kind of get a feel for it before we started doing the show," she comments. “Judy is a wonderful, kind, generous person [and] she's taught me quite a lot. I feel lucky."

Judge Acker in white pantsuit with her dog. Photo Courtesy of Annie Shak.

Acker's Time Away From Home

Outside of Hot Bench, Acker took recent trips to Haiti and Alabama. They were memorable and meaningful.

Haiti, in particular, was the first trip she excitedly talks about. She did some work there in an orphanage as part of LOVE Takes Root, an organization that is driven to help children around the world whether it's basic aid or education. “Haiti has a special place in my heart," she began. “As a person who's descended from enslaved people, I have a lot of honor and reverence for a country that threw off the shackles of slavery."

She was intrigued by the history of Haiti. Especially regarding the communities, corrupt government and natural disasters. “They really had to endure a lot, but I tell you this when I was there, I saw people who were more elegant, dignified, gracious and generous as any group of people I've ever met anywhere in the world," she goes on. “I think it left me with was a strong sense of how you can be graceful and elegant under fire." Acker is optimistic about the country's overall growth and success.

“[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law."

“There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," Acker says. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving."

Her other trip was different in more ways than one. She traveled there for the first time with her mother as part of a get out to vote effort, that Alabama's First black House Minority Leader, Anthony Daniels was organizing. “It was incredible to take that trip with her [and] I've got to tell you, the South of today is not the South of my mother's upbringing," she explains. Originally from Mississippi, Acker's mother hasn't been back in the South since 1952. “Every place has a ways to go, but it was a really exciting trip [and] it was nice for me to connect with that part of the country and that part of my history."

Overcoming Racial Barriers

As a black woman, Acker has certainly faced challenges based on her race and gender. But it doesn't define who she is or what she can accomplish. “There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," she says. “There's no sort of barrier that someone would attempt to impose upon me that they didn't attempt to impose on my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother." In a space where disparity is sometimes apparent, she recognizes that there is no barrier someone would try to impose on her that they didn't attempt to impose on her mother or grandmothers. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving," Acker states. The conversation continues truthfully and seriously. Acker shares what it can be like for black women, specifically. “I think we're underestimated and we can be disrespected, whereas other folks are allowed the freedom to enjoy a full range of emotions and feelings," she articulates.

At times black women are often restricted from expressing themselves. “If someone wants to make an assumption or jump to a conclusion about me because of my race or gender, that's on them, but their assumptions aren't going to define me," Acker declares. “If something makes me angry or happy I will express that and if someone wants to caricature me, that's their pigeonholing; that's not my problem." A lifelong lesson she learned and shared is to not let other people define who you are. It is one of three bits of wisdom.

Three Pieces Of Advice From Judge Acker

The Power Of Self-awareness

“It's really important that you have a really firm sense of what you want to do and be, and how you're moving in the world because when people try to sway you, judge you or steer you off course you've got to have some basis for getting back on track."

Know Your Support System

“Have a strong community of people who you trust, love and who love you," she advises. “But also learn to love and trust yourself because sometimes it's your own voice that can provide you the most comfort or solace in something."

Learn From Your Experiences

“Trust yourself. Take care of yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. Be honest with yourself.

“There are times when it's not enough to say this is who I am. Take it or leave it. Sometimes we've got things that we need to work on, change or improve upon," she concludes.

Acker stands out not only because of her accomplishments, but the way she views certain aspects of her life. These days, she's comfortable accepting what makes her different. “I think there's a time when you're younger when conformity feels comfortable, [but] I'm comfortable these days not conforming," she laughs. She enjoys being a decision maker and helping people work through it on Hot Bench.

This article was originally published May 15, 2019.