Streets of Tepic
Juan grew up with 12 brothers and sisters in the large city of Tepic in western Mexico. Since the age of five, he worked on the streets – something that seemed reasonable to him at the time. Now that Juan has kids of his own in America, he often reflects on how different his childhood was from theirs.
When Juan worked on the streets as a child, he sold jello, bread, donuts, carried luggage, and shined shoes. Tips were the only form of payment he got to take home.
“Most of my recollections of my childhood are of work.”
Juan’s parents were teenagers when they married. Although they were opposites – his mother sweet and caring and his father a “strong macho Mexican male”- they always stuck together.
“Her life was us – her children. She always greeted us at the door and never went to sleep until everyone was inside. We knew she would be there waiting for us.”
Juan’s father made money by smoking fish. At five in the morning, Juan and his brothers would wake up, gut, scale, and prepare 50 kilos for smoking. After school, they would take the fish their father hadn’t sold during the day to sell in the neighborhood. However, the fish business wasn’t always a sure thing. Juan’s father struggled with alcoholism, and he often didn’t have money to buy fish. Sometimes money would have to come from tips the children could make on the streets, or else they wouldn’t eat.
“We didn’t wait to be told that there was no food – it was an ingrained family duty passed down from my older brothers and sisters. They did it. You saw it and knew you were next.”
Juan learned how to do the right thing from his mom, and he got his work ethic from his father.
“He showed me everything he knew how to do, and in that sense, he was a good father. If we needed to wake up at three in the morning to move rocks, he woke us up and worked with us. He moved the first rock and showed us by example.”
At 14, Juan went to live with his sister, who was studying in Puerto Vallarta. On the day he arrived, he walked by a clothing store for tourists with prices higher than he’d ever seen. He had his eye on a blazer for sale when a voice in broken Spanish asked him, “Do you like that?” It was a white man – he’d never met one before. The man told Juan that someday he could buy it if he wanted it. He also asked Juan why he wasn’t in school. The man asked questions Juan had never considered before. This was the start of a long friendship between Juan and the missionary Father Tony.
While working as a janitor at a hotel, Juan started volunteering with Father Tony to visit the sick and elderly in the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta. Juan didn’t know it at the time, but Tony had connections to wealthy people interested in sponsoring young men to study in the USA. Looking back, he realizes that Tony was testing him to see if he was right for sponsorship. One day he asked Juan whether he wanted to go to the US to study English, and Juan said yes. Juan realized how serious Tony was about helping him when they went together to visit Juan’s parents in Tepic, to get permission.
Juan arrived in 1988 with the plan to study English for a year and return to Mexico with increased job opportunities. The school in Nogales, Arizona, that Juan would be attending was for Mexican children from wealthy families and run by nuns. Juan liked the nuns and got along great with the other students, but the parents did not want him, this poor kid from public school there, and they voted against his return. When Father Tony heard this, he spoke up for Juan, and the parents reversed their decision.
“There were so many cases where things were not supposed to happen for me but Father Tony stood up for me and made it happen.”
It also wasn’t easy for Juan to get a visa to study in the USA. After denying him twice, Father Tony went and wouldn’t leave the office until they stamped Juan’s visa.
Juan enjoyed his high school years in Arizona and has many fond memories, like “funny hat day.” Juan thought he would return to Mexico after high school. Still, when a college in Mobile accepted him, he decided to give Alabama a try.
Juan worked three minimum wage jobs – at a deli, at a buffet restaurant, and a small airport – and it still was not enough to pay for college. Just when he was starting to lose hope, he met a man who invited him to help him with some landscaping work [see photo below]. Juan worked one weekend with his man – unclear as to how much he would get paid. At the end of that weekend, Larry paid Juan double what he made at his other jobs. As a student, Juan couldn’t officially work more than 20 hours a week. Larry knew this and told Juan that “if anybody ever asks, we will tell them you are helping me, and I am paying for your college.”
When Juan moved to Mobile in the early 90s, he didn’t feel understood or welcomed. Juan wanted to contribute and get involved but it didn’t feel like the local people wanted to hear what he had to say. At that time, it seemed like if you didn’t know the local politics or sports, you couldn’t join the conversation. Juan felt like a “foreigner” and often heard people refer to him as “the Mexican.”
“Immediately, when I came to Mobile, I felt ignored and invisible. People didn’t care or value if I had an opinion. I guess I can see where a group of people would find themselves with a foreigner and say, ‘oh that’s the foreign guy what does he know’? That sort of mentality is what I encountered right away. I understood far more than what I let know.” (audio below)
Yohana, Juan’s wife, moved to Alabama from Venezuela with her fiancé at the time. She started working at the same place as Juan. She didn’t speak English and enjoyed the Spanish conversations with him. After Yohana’s fiancé was fired, he decided that he wanted to return to Venezuela. Yohana didn’t want to go back with him as she had to continue making enough money to support her whole family in Venezuela. If she went back, the money wouldn’t be enough.
After her fiancé left, she went to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with a friend. Before leaving, her coworker Juan told her, “if you need anything, you can call me”. Shortly after getting to Atlanta, she realized that the situation she would be living in wouldn’t be safe, so she found a payphone and called Juan.
He told her, “Get all your stuff and come back. I’m gonna take care of you”.
Yohana was working for a health insurance collection agency in Alabama. She started feeling conflicted, realizing that it was her community she was going after. Yohana was trying to get poor people to pay money they didn’t have, so she quit. Around that time, she kept having the same dream.
“I saw the hands of women working in the field – dirt in their fingers and their nails. I felt like it was something important – like God was telling me something.”
Every morning she tried to figure out what the dream meant. She started praying – wanting God to tell her why she kept having this dream?
Yohana found out about a program by the city that provides services to immigrant families working in agriculture. Despite her academic background in architecture and previous unrelated jobs, they hired Yohana as a social worker. When she went for interviews with these agricultural families and saw the women’s hands working with the dirt, it was like her dream was a reality.
In 2011 Alabama passed an anti-immigration bill (HB 56) into law, and the immigrant community in Mobile was nervous. The local community didn’t seem willing to speak up in defense of their undocumented neighbors.
Yohana already had a lot of connections with immigrant families in Mobile. She and Juan felt like they needed to do something, so they invited a couple of friends over to pray and talk. This meeting planted the seed for what would become BELONG, their non-profit organization. They decided to host a kickoff potluck dinner, and over 300 people showed up. BELONG is a place where immigrants – not just Spanish speaking immigrants – feel valued regardless of social or legal status. They tutor children, provide ESL (English as a Second Language) and GED (High School Equivalency Certificate) classes for adults, and act as a channel to all the other services that are available in Mobile.
Juan thinks that because of his own experiences immigrating, he can better connect with newcomers.
“I know how difficult it is to be an immigrant in this country. It’s even worse for immigrants who came undocumented since the people they know are invisible too. I have a lot of empathy for the people we serve.” (audio below)
Juan and Yohana are trying their best to raise their two children to be inclusive and value diversity by exposing them to different cultures and experiences – including their own Mexican and Venezuelan heritage. Juan wants them to have the childhood he didn’t have. He knows the opportunities for bilingual kids in America are much better than the opportunities he had at their age.
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