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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.


Andreia Gibau