Celebrations are in order for a young man whose first goal has been reached, that of being financially independent, and he's not yet 40. That is something to celebrate for anyone, but it is an even greater accomplishment for someone who entered the country undocumented.
But for "Regino," honored by friends at a recent party, reaching one goal is only the opportunity to reach for another. It is also a success story to encourage others, immigrants and native Americans alike.
Regino and his wife, Maria, have overcome the obstacles of being in a new country, learning a new language, and working and saving to own two homes. Now that they can live from the rental income, they plan to open a restaurant. In their own place, they will use recipes he created while a chef in one of Newport Beach's finest establishments.
Cooking began early for Regino. When barely 9 years old and living with his mother in Mexico City, he saw that he would have to work. He learned to pop corn and sold it on the street, later advancing to tacos.
Some of the passers-by spoke a strange language, and he heard they came from a land up north. As he grew older he learned more of this place, where one would work to exhaustion, but where one's labor could carry a person beyond mere existence. Someday, he decided, he would find a way to go there.
Meanwhile, Regino's working became full time. Although he enjoyed school, he had to drop out after the sixth grade. He found a job selling furniture and appliances.
In the midst of years of work, a bright spot, he met Maria. Their minds and dreams merged in marriage. He says of her, "She is my companion, my partner in business and marriage." But as hard as they worked in Mexico, they saw it was not reaping a future, only survival. The land to the north had to be better.
To come with legal documents to the U.S. from Mexico, one must already have a connection. A legal resident can petition for spouse and child. A citizen can petition for spouse, child, parents, or siblings. Even then there is a wait from one to 10 years. There are quotas for some groups and waiting lists.
What of those who do not have a relative already here? It is like asking the pilgrims to have had a family member among the Indians to petition them to come to America.
When their daughter was only a year old, and his wife was expecting their second, they made the decision. Like fathers everywhere, he wanted to be where his work would support his family.
So one dark night Regino, crawling on his stomach with his baby cradled in his arms, moved slowly, inch by inch across the beach near San Diego. His wife, Maria, heavy with child, crawled beside him, fearfully, breathing as softly as possible. Like the determined people around them, they thought only of not being detected. Maria, as the Maria for whom she was named, wanted to have a good place for her baby to be born. If they were caught and sent back, they would start over again. For some around them, it was the only hope their families at home had to survive. All of them were determined to arrive.
Once here, Regino and Maria lost no time in starting to work. Although jobs are not always easy to find without proper documents, they were fortunate enough to find work in the same restaurant. Maria was in charge of parties, arranging the tables for groups of up to 200. Regino, as chef, would prepare and create. Often his new ideas were featured on the menu as the "Recipe of the Week." As his teacher, I was treated to a specialty seafood dish with an exotic sauce.
Meanwhile the baby he carried over and the new little girl, born a U.S. citizen, grew in this environment of love and work and started school here. The oldest daughter, now a 10th-grader, has done more than excel in school. She is already in a special UC Irvine program for advanced students, with plans for college. During all this time, Regino worked as two men. Leaving one job, he hurried to another, often sleeping only three or four hours a day. Maria was working eight hours a day, plus her work managing the home. Their oldest tested her wings with a summer job.
In the middle of his years of work, legal changes made life somewhat easier. Congress passed the amnesty law, giving those who had been here since 1981 the chance to file for legal residence. This makes working so much easier. One can live without the daily pressure of fear.
Once Regino and Maria began the process, they had to study English and U.S. history and government. This they were glad to do, although it meant rearranging work to attend classes. They learned of the struggles of the people before them, the Indians, the Pilgrims, immigrants of the 1880s, the women's struggle for suffrage, the Bill of Rights, and how a bill becomes law. Maria, especially, who has attended high school, was full of questions in class, always making top marks on exams. They learned how California went from Spain to Mexico to the United States, and of their responsibilities when they became citizens. (Their daughter was learning the same in public school.)
Five years from the day they became permanent residents last year, Maria and Regino will take the test to become U.S. citizens. Then there will be a new reason for celebration.
They are but one example of the contribution to this country that many new immigrants are making. Like others from his country, and throughout the world, he brings with him the same work ethic and desire to make things better for his family and new home as our nation's original settlers.