At a time in our nation when the word “immigrant” is automatically — and wrongly — linked with the word “illegal,” I’d like to introduce you to Juan Guerrero.
He’s the “foreigner” whose home has been in the United States for 29 years. He’s the guy who came from across the border when he knew he would never be able to become an engineer while he lived in Mexico.
Guerrero still doesn’t earn his wage as an engineer. But his story is constructed with the fabric of the American Dream. The design of his life is a blueprint I will remember, even though I spent only 45 minutes with him in a car ride through the busy streets of New York City.
The trip itself was a life memory for me. I returned in February to Columbia University. It was the second time I had been asked to sit on the Pulitzer Prize jury. The first time, two years ago, I read, listened and observed. And I tentatively offered up my opinions.
This year I was asked to help judge the breaking news category, a topic I have become all too familiar with since the May 2011 tornado. A hurricane and multiple shootings — school shootings, a theater shooting, a mall shooting and a temple shooting — were among the top breaking stories of the year.
So, why does the memory of my conversation with Juan Guerrero stand out?
Because he has a story that’s definitely worth telling. And that’s what I do for a living.
Guerrero “rescued” me from what could have been eternal air terminal hell. When I walked out of La Guardia Airport expecting to find a driver from my hotel waiting for me, I became turned around. But Guerrero patiently stayed on the line with me until he had navigated me to the car where he was waiting.
Guerrero came to America right out of college. He got his work visa and held down two jobs. One of those was working for a driving service, a vocation he continues today. He set aside his dream of being an engineer. He married an American citizen.
“You have no idea how wonderful life is here,” Guerrero said. “Every day, I give thanks.”
He went through all the steps to obtain his own citizenship. By that time he had two children. He knew America would be his home forever.
“It is not an impossible thing. You take the steps and you can do it. But if you choose to bypass the steps, then it probably seems too difficult. For me, it was the right thing,” Guerrero told me.
As we drove toward the west side of Manhattan, he pointed out the places he thought I should visit, noting particular museum exhibits. I thought perhaps it was just idle chitchat; something he did to pass the time until he arrived at the destination.
Instead, he personalized the story, including anecdotes about what his own children loved most about New York.
Then, there was the dream, the big dream.
“You know my son is studying to be an engineer. He has just received a scholarship from Columbia University,” he said proudly.
“And my daughter is so smart that she has earned a scholarship to a private high school.”
This story from the man who had to stop short of becoming an engineer himself held no hint of bitterness or jealousy — only pride in his family and himself.
“It was worth everything, every long day, to see my children have this opportunity,” Guerrero told me.
The father’s dream of becoming an engineer will soon be realized through his son, who now has the opportunity to attend one of the finest schools in the nation.
Juan Guerrero’s story is the stuff that makes Pulitzers.
Only in America.
Carol Stark is editor of The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to her, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email email@example.com. Follow Carol Stark on Twitter @carolstark30.