By Deborah Burke Henderson, Contributing Writer
MILLIS – Lelia Tenreyro-Viana of Millis was born in Buenos Aires and started dreaming about coming to the United States as a young girl. She credits her father, jazz musician Nimar Tenreyro, and a private English tutor, Helen Jackson, with planting the seeds for this journey. A journey that would take 20 years to complete.
Early roots in music
The Tenreyro name is well known in Argentina. All five members of her father’s family are professional musicians. Her paternal grandfather, a composer and pianist, played for silent movie audiences.
“I grew up listening to my father’s idols—Artie Shaw, Gerry Mulligan, and other big name sax players—and dreamed of coming to the States one day,” Tenreyro-Viana stated.
From age seven to 15, Tenreyro rehearsed four days a week and sang in the National Children’s Chorus, receiving a stipend that went into a bank account set up for her. As a senior in high school, she subbed for her music teacher.
The big break
At age 17, as part of her English studies, Tenreyro entered and won a writing contest which provided her a one-month stay to learn English in a college environment anywhere in the United States. In 1988, she chose to travel to Philadelphia for the one-month language immersion, and at the end of her stay, swore to return one day to continue her studies.
After graduation, she became a back-up singer, going on tours and singing commercials and jingles on television as she continued her involvement with several choral groups, while still living at home.
It took Tenreyro six years to achieve her dream of getting stateside. She landed in New York City in 1994 and took her first non-musical job as a coat check girl in an Italian restaurant where she worked her way up to assistant manager. An older family friend suggested that her credits from the Conservatorio Municipal de Musica Manuel de Falla in Buenos Aires, where she studied French horn, might be transferable to Brooklyn College. The credits were accepted, and she graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1998. During her senior year, she’d met her fiancée, Antonio Massa Viana. Her original tourist visa became a student visa.
Brazilian native Viana, after marrying his fiancée in 1999, accepted a position with the Brazilian Voice in Framingham, which precipitated a move to the Boston area. His wife secured a position as director of music ministry with St. Cecilia’s Church in Ashland, which required a religious-worker visa which would last five years. However, applicants’ papers were put on hold by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) as officials had apparently discovered some cases of fraudulent activity across the country and stopped processing religious-worker visas during their investigation.
The Vianas were told to move back to their home countries. With two American-born children, ages five and three, and a third on the way, they persevered to stay, not wanting to lose their immigration status. Viana filed a class action suit and ultimately won. Tenreyro-Viana was granted a green card in October 2009. This provided immigration benefits that included permission to reside and take employment in the United States.
“Many people came to our aid during this time,” Tenreyro-Viana said emotionally. “We were humbled and in awe of the goodness we saw in a community of people who have since become our closest friends, and I thank God for them. When we thought we were most alone, we realized we were not.”
Requirements for naturalization
After waiting the mandatory five-year residency time period from securing a green card, Tenreyro-Viana applied for naturalization. She would need to demonstrate being a productive, tax-paying resident throughout her entire stay in the States, provide letters from both professional and community leaders which would show her of strong moral character, pass a history and civics test, and prove to be proficient in English. And she did!
“In a memorable, tear-filled ceremony attended by family and friends at Faneuil Hall on March 18, 2015, I was awarded my long-awaited citizenship status, more than 20 years in the making,” Tenreyro-Viana stated proudly.
Music is her life
Tenreyro-Viana continues to hold her directorship at St. Cecilia’s, which includes directing the teenage and adult choirs and organizing musical productions to help fundraise. Able to sing in many ranges, she sings at Symphony Hall throughout the year, her voice is part of the color of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Lenox each summer, and during the holiday season, she sings with the Boston Pops. She loves teaching voice and piano privately when not working full-time teaching Spanish to 450 students at the Clyde F. Brown Elementary School in Millis. Tenreyro-Viana is also the artistic director of the Charles River Children’s Chorale in Millis.
“I love how music touches the soul, everyone’s soul,” Tenreyro-Viana added. “It’s a way of communicating that is stronger than anything else, transcending languages and social classes. All the friendships I make through music are for a lifetime.”