Ana Garcia Chichester ’76 was 16 when her family moved from Cuba to the United States. She didn’t know a word of English. ESL classes helped, but when she enrolled with her sister, Isabel Garcia ’76, at James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, she was far from fluent.
“It was either sink or swim,” Chichester said. “It was tough, but people helped us.”
Now the Spanish professor, who has been on the UMW faculty for two decades, is so comfortable with both languages she sometimes starts a sentence with one and finishes with the other. Her linguistic abilities reach beyond the foreign language department, translating into benefits for the community, where she volunteers extensively. As director of UMW’s Bachelor of Liberal Studies program, Chichester helps adult learners reach their academic goals. But perhaps her greatest gift to others is one she also gave herself – the ability to speak a second language.
“I think I had an early calling to teach,” Chichester said. “I’m high when I come out of the classroom. I just love it.”
Chichester majored in Spanish and French at Mary Washington, where Carmen Rivera, UMW professor emerita of modern foreign languages, sparked her passion for prose. Chichester earned a master’s degree in Latin American literature from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate in Spanish from the University of Virginia, where she worked briefly as an instructor. She also held an adjunct position at Mary Washington before landing a tenure-track appointment in 1992.
Colorful Cuban artwork, a map of the Caribbean island nation, and Mexican throws make Chichester’s office feel like home. There, the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences said she was ecstatic to visit her native Cuba as a guide with the UMW President’s Travel Club.
She’d like to return again someday with her adult sons, Philip, John, and Daniel – the loves of her life and the secret to the depth of her devotion to community. As her boys began to leave home, one by one, Chichester said, she staved off loneliness by flinging herself into public service.
“It’s also a good way for me to have a pulse in the community and know what the needs are,” Chichester said. Her volunteer efforts include the Rappahannock Area United Way and the Community Foundation of the Rappahannock River Region.
During downtime, she enjoys her Stafford County home on a sprawling cattle farm that bustles with wildlife. Its peace has grounded the dizzying pace of the past 20 years, through which she’s watched Mary Washington’s foreign language department blossom. But at least one thing hasn’t changed, Chichester said.
“If I’m here, my door is always open.”
What do you love most about UMW? The students. No question about it.
What would you change about UMW? One of the things I’m really passionate about is having more international students on campus, especially from developing areas of the world, like Africa and Latin America.
How would you describe yourself? I think I’m approachable and fair. I’m passionate about the things I do, about my discipline, and about where I live. That’s part of the reason I stay so involved.
What motivates you? Seeing students succeed. Also, when you’re an immigrant, there’s a kind of impetus to work hard and strive for more.
What inspires you? My family and my parents, who sacrificed a lot when we left Cuba.
What matters most to you? Whatever is going on in the lives of my kids, even at their [adult] ages.
What are you passionate about? All issues related to Cuba and Cuban-American relations. Whenever I have a chance, I go to D.C. to lobby Congress; I’ve kind of appointed myself as a different Cuban-American voice.
What do you enjoy doing? Getting up early and seeing the wildlife on the farm. I look forward to springtime, even though I have an acre of grass to mow.
What are you afraid of? One of my dreams is to be able to go to Cuba and have some sort of easy relationship with my place of origin; I’m afraid that won’t be in my lifetime.
What keeps you awake at night? Issues at work or with students. I’m not a great sleeper, so a lot of things keep me up.
What one thing would people be surprised to learn about you? A lot of people are surprised by the fact that I live on a farm. I don’t look rural.