George A. Cecato is a true inspiration to all new Australians – a man who has triumphed the challenges of migrating to a new foreign nation. He has been the Australia Day Ambassador in the past and this year he celebrates the Australia Day Ceremony with the community at Botanic Gardens on Saturday, January 26 from 9am.
Where are you originally from, and what made you decide to leave your native country? I was born in Cordoba, Argentina, in 1949. I studied at The Technical Institute Renault, and in 1968 graduated as a toolmaker and motor mechanic.
I worked as a toolmaker and intended to become an engineer. I became involved with the students of the University of Cordoba; we wanted a democratic country, and at the time Argentina was ruled by a very cruel and ruthless Military Junta. The students and I were part of an industrial demonstration on 29 May 1969, and it got out of hand and become a revolution called ‘EL CORDOBAZO’.
I was detained for a couple of days, and this is when a Police Officer made a statement that changed my life. He said: “Enjoy your last six months of life”.
Between 1969 and 1975, approximately 55,000 Argentinians disappeared, so I took the threat very seriously.
I hitchhiked from Cordoba to Buenos Aires (800 km away) to have meetings with the Australian Consulate. I slept on the side of the road, in train cars and service stations. I actually had to do this trip 3 times.
I was accepted by the Australian Government as a migrant with full residential status.
When did you arrive in Australia? I arrived in Australia on 1 Nov 1969. When I arrived in Sydney, I was 20 years old. I did not speak a word of English, and I didn’t have access to a relative or person I knew. I had $50US in my pocket and a debt of $2,000US.
I was placed at Villawood Hostel in a Second World War corrugated iron bunker. I shared it with a Yugoslav national who did not speak English and who suffered with some major mental illness.
It was the beginning of a very hard and lonely road.
What are some of the experiences and difficulties you faced as a migrant in Australia? Even though I was promised that I would work as a tradesman, I could not get a job as a toolmaker because I did not speak English. I was given a Job at Waterloo in the British Motor Company, fitting rear windows in the assembly line. I worked there for 12 months. It was a long journey to work every morning; I would catch the train and 2 buses, and I got lost many times.
I decided to learn some basic English, so on the way back from work I would attend a high school at Redfern that doubled as a learning centre for migrants at night.
In 1970, I got my first toolmaking job at Repco Die and Tools in Revesby. I met Anna, my future wife, at The Italian Apia club in Leichhardt, and for the first time I had a home − a small flat in Canterbury, with 2 other Argentinians.
Also in 1970, the Argentinian Government declared me ‘A Deserter’, because I did not return to do National Service.
If I’d returned, they would have arrested me at the airport and I would have joined the 55,000 Argentinians who disappeared. Mass graves have been discovered since, with many people taken on helicopter rides over the ocean (from which they never returned).
The Argentinian Army was so desperate to get me back, every month they would get my mother to face a military tribunal in Cordoba to embarrass her and try to influence her to get me to return; my mother had a very strong character and never gave me up.
I studied engineering from 1972 and graduated in 1977. I worked during the day as a full-time toolmaker, while I studied 3 nights a week and worked every Friday and Saturday night for 4 years at Amado’s Spanish Fiesta Cabaret. Anna and I married in 1973.
The first 10 years of my life in Australia were very hard, because of language barriers, discrimination and my financial situation, but one thing I learned in Argentina was to never give up. This attitude and the help from Anna, her family and the commitment to our children got us through.
When did you become an Australian Citizen? I became an Australian Citizen in 1974. This was a very significant moment in my life, because until that point (for over 4 years) I’d had no nationality, no country, and Anna was my only family.
Have you been able to meet up again with the family and friends you left behind in Argentina? I did not see my parents, family and friends in Argentina for 20 years. It was after the Military Government was thrown out and a democratic government elected that I was allowed to return to Argentina without having to worry about going to gaol or being dropped from a helicopter.
I left a single young man of 20 years and returned a 40 year old man with wife Anna, son Adrian and daughter Vanessa. I was lucky everyone over there was still alive. The first trip was very hard, because at that stage Argentina did not accept double nationality, so I spent four weeks trying to get an Argentinian passport to get back to Australia.
Reflecting back on your experiences, what does it now mean to you to be an Australian citizen? As I was building my Australian life through work and study, there was one thing I hated – and that was being called a ‘WOG’. I tried every which way to let my Australian mates know that I was not a ‘WOG’, but a mate. After a few years of suffering, I realised I was not going to beat them − so I decided to join them by taking the ‘WOG’ out of me.
I did not join my South American counterparts and I moved with my Australian family to an ‘Australian’ suburb. I gave up many nights to study English, I gave up red wine and started drinking beer, I stopped slow cooking BBQ ‘Azado’ and learned how to burn meat, I gave up football (soccer) and I started to watch Rugby League. I became involved with many volunteer organisations in my local community, and I’m proud to have been a Rotarian for the last 16 years.
In other words: I embraced Australia with all my might, because I truly wanted to be part of this wonderful nation of ours!
Australia has given me a country, a wife, two wonderful children, our first granddaughter, Anna’s incredible family, a son and daughter in law, many friends, a career and a place in our community. Even though I went back to drinking red wine and watching soccer, I am very, very proud to call myself an Aussie!
What would you like to say to anyone planning to become an Australian citizen this Australia Day? To all of you becoming an Australian citizen, I congratulate you! Please take the ‘WOG’ out of you by learning our culture, the language and by being part of this community, as there are many service clubs and volunteer organisations that will love to have you on board. Have a good day, mate!
This article was published in issue 28 of Coffs Coast Focus