New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 46
The pursuit of happynessAn immigrant from Mexico, now a successful business owner, talks about raising an Americanized family
BY MATT FOUNTAIN AND RHYS HEYDEN
EDITOR’S NOTE The following is Juan Cervantes’ story, much of it translated into English from interviews with New Times reporters. There are parts we can not possibly verify. Take it for what is, and remember to give your dad a hug this Father’s Day.
Juan Cervantes is the kind of guy who refuses to let any obstacle deter him.
The kind of guy who can weather a harrowing failed border crossing into the United States, only to try again a few months later. The kind of guy who listened to nothing but answers to his U.S. citizenship test for months in his car. The kind of guy who saw foreclosure on his home as an opportunity, not a disaster. The kind of guy who cheerfully works grueling 14-hour days to support six children, while insisting he’s living the American Dream.
On a recent Thursday night, as yuppies with reusable bags flocked in droves to the Downtown Farmer’s Market to get their fix of organic, locally grown produce, Juan, 46, sat back in his chair across from two reporters in New Times’ editorial department. Next to him sat César, his 10-year-old son, who helped his father grapple with the challenge of communicating his story in English.
Juan discussed the journey that brought him to where he sat: the long and arduous hours of working in fields of any kind, picking cherry tomatoes, avocados, broccoli, celery, peas—you name it. He talked at length about balancing long work hours and starting and raising a family, and eventually escaping the unforgiving fields to start a business of his own.
He spoke—half in Spanish, half in English—of becoming a U.S. citizen and the pride he feels in raising an American family that’s never gone hungry, as he did as a young man.
He spoke about one of his favorite films—2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness—and how he derives more than simple inspiration from the protagonist’s many struggles and ultimate triumph.
Finally, Juan’s tale is very much that of a father. A father who made every sacrifice to ensure that his family—his wife and their six children—is given every opportunity to succeed. For his kids, that means getting an education.
We present his narrative, much of which we couldn’t independently verify, to show that the American Dream takes many shapes, follows many paths, and—to one man’s way of thinking, at least—is demonstrably achievable. Because, after all, it’s heartening to know that there are fathers out there, regardless of what country they come from, who regard parenting as the ultimate triumph—and who are shaping the next great generation of fathers.
From Guanajuato to eternity
Juan’s story begins in a small village in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato.
It was 1985 and Juan—then 18—dreamt of the things many 18-year-olds do: earning a little bit of money, meeting a girl, perhaps starting a family. But above all, he wanted to find success. The problem was that there were very few opportunities in his small village of Cueramaro, a hopelessly poor area where residents lived off of what they could grow in a field or fish from the lake.
Growing up, Juan and his siblings were sometimes driven by hunger to steal an ear of corn from a neighbor’s ranch—but just one at a time. His mother had taught the children to never steal more than you need.
By his late teens, Juan was skilled at horticulture and confident he could make it in the United States. One day opportunity knocked: A friend told him that his father-in-law was going to cross the border, and if they went along with him, the father-in-law—who had already made the trip before and knew his way around—could help them find work.
And just like that, Juan was on his way. His backpack contained one change of clothes and very few other personal items. With the little money he had, he bought the cheapest sneakers he could find for the walk.
Juan left his family’s small ranch behind, and he and his friend hopped in a truck to the nearest train station, where they spent most of their money booking the cheapest seats. During the trip, they ate nothing more than what they needed to survive.
Juan clearly remembers a very small town named Valadeces—in the northeastern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas—which borders Texas; he said it reminded him of the Old West he had read about in magazines.
“We’ll, we’re here,” his friend’s father-in-law told the group of about 10. “Now what you have to do is avoid being seen by the police, because they will take what little money you have.”
They spent the remaining funds they had on bread, cans of beans, tortillas, and plastic bags at a little general store, and pushed forward to the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte. They headed to a deserted location where it would be safe to cross. By the bank of the river, they removed their clothes and carefully placed them in their backpacks, which they then wrapped in the plastic to keep their belongings dry.
It turned out that two younger members of the group didn’t know how to swim, so they found a large tree trunk they could use as a floatation device. The trunk was plopped into the cold water and the two novice swimmers held on for dear life as the rest tried to swim across, pushing the trunk along as they went. The current ultimately pushed them all some 100 feet downstream by the time they reached the other side.
When he stepped on the opposite bank of the river, Juan breathed easier, believing he was done. He was in America. What he didn’t yet understand was how big Texas is.
The first few days in the United States were rainy ones. At first, he was fine, but soon those cheap sneakers he invested in began falling apart. So he took them off and walked barefoot in the mud. His feet began to suffer, but Juan recalled that his desire to leave his life of poverty was more important than anything else.
His friend’s father-in-law, acting as the group’s guide, knew of the various ranches along the way where they could stop and replenish their water supplies. Juan recalled finally arriving at one property with a water source and almost having to fight off the wild cows to be able to tap the water that fell from windmills, the likes of which he had never seen before. The water was salty and hot, but Juan said he recalls it being the most delicious water he’d ever drunk.
They walked for days into the vast south Texas landscape, and soon they were out of food again and exhausted. Juan and his friend encouraged their guide to go to the home of one of the ranchers and ask for something to eat. Luckily for them, the owners of the ranch were friendly and gave the group rice, beans, and flour tortillas.
At this point, Juan was completely disoriented and had no clue how many days had passed. They moved from ranch to ranch, asking the owners if they had a place to stay—a barn or abandoned house—in exchange for work.
They found one such place, fixing or cleaning the property’s fences, but work was pretty limited. As they moved on, they lived off of watermelons they took from a local field. One by one, the group split up as they worked a ranch here, a ranch there as needed. Juan worked for a small family that was so poor they couldn’t afford to pay ranch hands to help care for their cows. They did, however, have enough food to share with Juan and a roof to shelter him for a few nights.
Eventually, one of Juan’s companions returned for him and encouraged him to press on into Texas. Juan said his goodbyes to the family and thanked them for their help. He said he still doesn’t know where she found it, but the old lady of the ranch—he assumed it was the grandmother—gave him $6 to help him on his journey.
It was the first U.S. currency he ever held in his hands.
He and his friend walked for days until they encountered a large mountain blocking their route. As they were about to begin their ascent, U.S. Immigration Patrol agents, hiding behind a fallen tree, spotted the two.
Juan and his friend spent the next two days locked up before they were brought back to Tamaulipas, where Mexican police officers took their cash. Juan had very little—save for the $6, which was promptly confiscated—but his friend, he discovered, had about $50, as well as Mexican currency.
After all they’d been through, there was nothing left to do but return to their hometown, defeated and empty-handed.
Juan continued working whatever jobs he could find in Cueramaro for about a month before another opportunity presented itself to once again leave Mexico. But this time, the plan was different: He would head into California through Tijuana. And he would travel with others who had used the same route before and knew what they were doing.
In Tijuana, the group—again, nearly 10 people—made it across the border through tunnels and scrambling across freeways. Once in California, they crammed into a Chevy El Camino, and Juan was one of four people squished into the bed of the car (if you’re not hip to El Caminos, they’re shaped like a truck), covered by plywood, tires, and sheets. In this fashion, they made their way north. They were tired and hungry, but this trek was easier than walking through the desert.
Juan’s first job was picking cherry tomatoes in Cambria, he said, where he lived in a barn with about 70 other workers, sleeping on bales of hay. He lived there for about four months until winter came, and he moved south to a similar job in Grover Beach. He worked for a rancher there for a long time, raising chickens and working the fields.
A few years passed, and Juan realized he had worked on the Central Coast long enough to qualify for U.S. citizenship—after five years, a green card holder can apply. Up until that time, he’d been working legally under a work permit. He was granted an extension on that permit, long enough to apply for and receive a green card, which bought him another 10 years. Green card in hand, still working full-time in the fields and as a ranch hand, Juan applied for his citizenship.
Despite his many years in the country, the path to citizenship was a laborious one. When he wasn’t at work, he was attending classes with other hopeful citizens, learning historical anecdotes many American-born citizens have burned in the back of their mind: America’s original 13 colonies, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the like. He and his classmates prepared relentlessly for the 100-question test that marked the end of their long journeys.
He gave up music on his car stereo for awhile, instead playing a study guide CD packed with information that would get him through the test.
When the day came, he was nervous as hell, he said. When he got word he was now a U.S. citizen, he and his classmates walked down the street waving the American flag. Since then, he’s worked to help a brother and other members of his extended family navigate their way to citizenship.
“I consider myself lucky,” Juan told New Times. “Lucky to get my legal documents in the United States with the help of many people of goodwill who I have met since coming to this country as the first in my family.”
To add to this accomplishment, while Juan was pursuing his citizenship, he was also pursuing a triumph of another sort. A few years into his job in Grover Beach, he met a young woman who had traveled to the Central Coast with her family from Guerrero, a coastal state in southwestern Mexico.
They ended up working the same fields together, and despite the many cultural differences that stood between them, they began dating after a year. It wasn’t long before Juan popped the question, and they were married in a small but “pretty” ceremony in Guadalupe.
“She gives me a lot of spirit, a lot of ideas,” Juan said of his wife. “She’s my better half—my brain.”
They’ve had six children together—three girls and three boys—the oldest of which is now 23 and the youngest of which is 2. The couple’s marriage is as strong as ever, cemented by a foundation of communication and collaboration, he said.
Since then, both have left the fields. Juan started his own cleaning services business serving the San Luis Obispo County area. His wife, a licensed day care provider, has worked myriad jobs cleaning hotel rooms, making soup, and running a daycare business out of their home.
21st Century fatherhood
As the subject turned to family and fatherhood, Juan’s eyes lit up and a grin spread across his face.
With three sons, three daughters, and a wife of more than 24 years, Juan has made family his first priority.
Juan’s father, he explained, wasn’t very involved in his life, and so he now prides himself on being involved with his kids. Juan has been present at all six births of his children, and he keeps a flash drive with hundreds of family pictures on his keychain.
“Around Father’s Day, I have a lot of pride,” Juan said. “I love kids, and I have worked hard so all of my kids could have a better life.”
Juan said he first and foremost emphasizes education to his children, something he was never able to complete himself. For him, school is the means to that elusive “better life” he sees in America: devoid of suffering or hunger, and full of untapped opportunity.
This might seem a little naïve coming from anyone else, but Juan clearly embraces the American Dream, even with its myriad imperfections.
When Juan’s business suffered during the recent years of recession and the bank foreclosed on his home, he took the misfortune as inspiration and a lesson.
“Just as the birds make their nests, bad weather or the hand of man or any other animal can destroy the nest,” Juan said. “But they start again, and they rebuild. In order to succeed, we have to follow suit and start over again.”
Another lesson for Juan has been his relationship with his eldest son. Juan said his son, who will turn 18 later this year, has been a challenge. Juan can’t relate to his son’s obsession with video games and other symbols associated with pro-consumer American culture.
Juan, who had to work long days and grueling nights, sacrificing his own comfort for everything he and his family has, is troubled by his son’s seeming lack of respect for hard work and appreciation of the value of a good education. His son, he said, also finds it hard to relate his father, and can’t seem to tolerate the idea that Juan cleans other people’s offices and houses.
They’ve sparred on and off for about three years, Juan said, but he isn’t giving up and still holds onto a lot of hope that the example he’s tried to set will soon take hold after the teenage angst subsides.
“I want to share this with you because I know that if a young person reads this, and misbehaves with their parents, this might help them appreciate what their parents have done to achieve what they have,” Juan told New Times.
“For them, it’s very easy to ask for the best cell phone on the market or the best electronic device—computer, iPod, iPad, Xbox, Wii—and become addicted to playing with their supposed friends online without thinking school is important at all or doing any house chores,” Juan said. “Because of this, in these times, kids fight their parents and have no respect for them or society.”
But in recent months, Juan’s son picked up a part-time job and even a girlfriend, and Juan cites both as positive influences on his drive as well as his behavior toward his family.
“He’s a very smart kid, and he has the same opportunities as everyone else,” Juan said. “I think he will keep improving.”
For his part, César, 10, is infatuated with newspapers and dreams of being a reporter someday. He’s even mocked up a four-page newspaper of his own. As Juan told New Times reporters his life story, César listened intently to the conversation and supplied suggestions and English vocabulary from time to time.
Despite Juan’s 28 years in this country, his children are undeniably more Americanized than he his. Yet he instinctively beams with a deep pride when he mentions that they’re all American citizens.
Juan said the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness—which was based on the real story of a single father’s fight for a better life for his son—inspired him. He counts the film among his favorites and notes quite a few similarities between his story and that of the protagonist: his perseverance in waiting out the bad economic times and his determination to provide opportunities for his children.
“I think the most important thing as a father is to be a good role model,” Juan said. “To be an honorable person, a hard worker—these are the kind of people who succeed in life.”
News Editor Matt Fountain says, “Love you, Dad!” Reach him at email@example.com. Staff Writer Rhys Heyden had his shout-out idea stolen, but he loves his dad too. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you dare.