American Dream Awards to Honor Danbury’s Immigrant Leaders

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DANBURY — Realizing the American Dream remains hard for some in the immigrant community.

But the Tribuna newspaper continues to celebrate the pursuit of that dream at its annual gala and tries to raise the spirits of those who fight for it every day.

The paper will host the American Dream Awards on May 16 at the Portuguese Cultural Center to honor community members for their contributions toward building bridges between cultures. The biweekly publication is printed in English, Spanish and Portuguese, and strives to connect people in the immigrant community with local news.

"We want to identify people in the immigrant community who not only pursue the American Dream, but also get involved in the community — not just the people who wanted to come here and make some money," Tribuna Editor Emanuela Leaf said.

"The event is an opportunity for all of us to come together and go beyond highlighting the cultural contributions of the immigrant community, and celebrate their determination in the pursuit of their American Dream," Tribuna Publisher Celia Bacelar said.

"Immigrants are bombarded with news from back home, but we want to connect them to this country instead of the one they left behind, and for them to make connections here," Leaf said.

Carolina Bortolleto did just that. Born in Brazil, she moved to Danbury when she was 9 years old, with her parents and twin sister, Camila. She graduated from Western Connecticut State University — where she paid out-of-state tuition because she is undocumented — with a biology degree in 2010, and is a proponent for schooling of undocumented immigrants.

Carolina Bortolleto co-founded Connecticut Students for a Dream, a statewide organization of young adults working for the rights of undocumented youths and their families, and she also served on the board of United We Dream, the county's largest immigrant youth-led organization.

But in December, Carolina Bortolleto began suffering severe stomach pain and hasn't left the hospital since. She's undergone six major surgeries for a rare digestive system blockage and was in a medically induced coma for 20 days. Camila Bortolleto, who now lives in Washington, D.C., visits her sister on a near-weekly basis, but the trips have been costly.

Because she's undocumented, Carolina Bortolleto does not have health insurance and her bills have already exceeded $110,000. Leaf has pledged that $50 of every $85 ticket to the gala will go toward her medical expenses. A GoFundMe account has already raised about $10,000 and the ticket sales could bring in another $20,000, Leaf said.

"We're very thankful," said Camila Bortolleto, who, like her sister, is an advocate for undocumented immigrants and used to write a youth column for Tribuna. "We don't have the funds to pay for everything. Carolina's been stable for a while but it takes a while to feel better. She still can't eat, she might need another surgery and she needs more time to recover."

In addition to benefiting Carolina Bortolleto, the gala, to be emceed by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, will present awards for the American Dream's Person of the Year, Veteran of the Year and three Students of the Year. Each student will receive $2,000, while the Person of the Year and Veteran of the Year recipients will receive $3,000 each. All winners will have their name displayed on a plaque in Danbury City Hall.

Leaf received 115 nominations of individuals from nine different countries that she recently whittled down to 10 finalists.

"What's great about this event are the stories about people who have made it," Boughton said. "I think it's great we're celebrating people coming to America and chasing the American Dream."

The Danbury Public Library will be honored as the Nonprofit of the Year, and will receive $3,000 for its efforts in assisting immigrants through a partnership with Tribuna to educate them on obtaining drive-only licenses.

Attorney America Ventura will receive the lifetime achievement award for his 50 years of service to the community. Ventura was born and raised in Danbury and his father, who owned a Portuguese food store since 1929, was known for helping immigrants, including sending them to the bank with translators and helping them obtain work.

"This is such a great community that accepts and helps everyone who comes along, and I think very highly of the newspaper themselves," Ventura said. "They are the people who really deserve the achievement award."

Danbury's accepting attitude toward immigrants helps keep Leaf's spirits high even through tough times.

"At last year's event, the diversity in the room beautifully matched the diversity we have on our Main Street," she said. "It's a beautiful example of what America's all about."

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