In 1982, a woman, her husband, and their two young children, left Czechoslovakia as political refugees with nothing more than “one hundred dollars in [their] pockets, and no English.” Although that may sound like an introduction to a movie, it is the life story of Alena Mankovechy, Costa Mesa High School’s English Language Development teacher. One can find her roaming the halls on a typical school day, yet behind one of Mesa’s familiar faces lies an incredible story.
Mankovechy grew up in Bratislava, a city that was part of former Czechoslovakia.“I was adopted [by] Slovak parents who couldn't have children.” Thus, Mankovechy’s household only consisted of her and her adoptive parents, whom she described as “simple workers.” Her father worked as a train conductor while her mother knitted clothes for a living. According to Mankovechy, one of the most difficult experiences in her childhood was to see Western things on television, but not have them.
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At the time, Czechoslovakia was still a Communist nation. Even though Mankovechy appreciated certain aspects, such as the “rigorous educational system,” she nonetheless felt politically oppressed.
“I couldn't travel; I couldn't be accepted immediately into a University as my father didn't want to join the Communist Party; I was interrogated about my activity during [the] summer at the chemical exhibition while working for Bayer Leverkusen, West Germany; I was laid off because I refused to join [the] Communist party at the Technical University where I taught German for two years.”
Such oppression pushed Mankovechy to leave Bratislava with her husband and two children on June 4, 1982. “My son, Jan was exactly 8 months old and my daughter, Alexandra was almost 7 years old.”Mankovechy emphasized the difficulty and severe consequences of seeking political refuge. Not only did she have to lie, she had to guard against people acting as spies. So grave was her situation that she did not relay her plan even to her parents, who she felt would have reported her and her family.
After leaving Bratislava, the Mankovechy family traveled to former Yugoslavia, then Italy, and finally to Austria, where they spent 14 months in a refugee camp. A sponsor then helped the Mankovechy family get to the United States. They arrived in Columbus, Ohio on July 11, 1983 with one hundred dollars to their name and knowing little to no English. Her lack of English made it difficult for Mankovechy to get a job. She resorted to going to grocery stores where she could associate a word with its thing, thus expanding her vocabulary.
Mankovechy not only had to adjust to the language, but to the culture as well. When asked what aspects of America triggered a culture shock, she answered with a simple “Food can be delivered.” The concepts of bank checks and ATMs were also uncommon in Bratislava.
In 1993, Mankovechy moved to California where she has lived since. Her love for language encouraged her to continue teaching it, and has taught English Language Development in Costa Mesa High School for twenty years. Nowadays, she goes through a typical school day with only a light accent as a hint of her unbelievable past.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of The Equestrian.