America has long welcomed immigrants to her shores. From the Spanish to the pilgrims, and the waves that followed.
People arrived searching for, as it was eventually formalized: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Still, they arrive searching for the same.
“It’s the way America’s been forever,” said Sergio Martinez. “It’s an immigrant country.”
When he was 15-years-old, Martinez left Guatemala and headed north. On the other side of Mexico, he crossed the Rio Grande.
“When I got here I swam across the river—it was winter, it was freezing water,” Martinez recalled. “But I saw the American flag on the other side and I said, ‘I’m coming!’”
While each immigrant’s story is unique, they also share a common thread. The drive Martinez felt as he looked across the Rio Grande is not unlike the one that drew Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) parents to the states.
“For over two hundred years now, they have come,” Rubio said recently, delivering the closing remarks prior to the Senate’s immigration reform bill vote. “In search of liberty and freedom, for sure. But often simply looking for jobs to feed their kids and the chance of a better life.”
The senator’s parents arrived in Florida from Cuba in 1956. Rubio’s dad memorized the English words ‘I am looking for work,’ and the family struggled to assimilate into America.
“This is not just my story,” Rubio told his colleagues during the June 27 address. “This is our story. It reminds us that we are ‘E Pluribus Unum. Out Of Many, One.’”
Rubio was one of the key Republican senators—originally part of the so-called Gang of Eight—pushing immigration reform. He encouraged his party to embrace measures to create a path to citizenship for immigrants.
“Go to our factories and fields. Go to our kitchens and construction sites. Go to the cafeteria of this very Capitol. There, you will find that the miracle of America still lives,” Rubio said. “For here, in America, those who once had no hope, will give their children the life they once wanted for themselves. Here, in America, generations of unfulfilled dreams will finally come to pass.”
The Senate bill provides an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants with citizenship. It also provides increased funding to beef up security along the country’s southern boarder. It remains unclear if the House of Representatives can find their way to passing similar legislation. Thus far, there’s little reason for optimism.
“The Senate-passed immigration bill has no chance of passing the House,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), shortly after the senate bill passed.
If such immigration reform were successful, it would offer millions of people an opportunity to come out of the shadows. Millions of people who have come to the U.S. hoping to better their prospects. Millions of people pursuing the American dream.
It’s a dream Martinez has been following since he was a kid. It’s been a good dream, one that’s offered him and his family more opportunities.
“We’re blessed to be here,” Martinez said. “I would do it again.”
A Progression of Pilgrims
Once in Texas, Martinez was arrested and sent to live with a relative in the state. Later on, he married a girl from Mississippi and started a family. He now lives in Florida and exports cars to Central America.
“Anything that’s four-cylinder and cheap on gas,” he laughed.
As his son listened, Martinez talked about growing up in Guatemala with dreams of America and explained how he viewed the country as a land of opportunity. He’s found it to be a place where dreams can be forged into existence through hard work and determination.
“We have so many beautiful things here,” Martinez smiled.
The son has heard the stories before, and notes that on trips back to Central America he finds people still hold the United States in such a light.
“They think it’s a dreamland,” said Jordan Martinez, 15. “They watch Disneyland on TV and wish they could be here.”
People immigrate to America for various reasons. Martinez was, like many, seeking a better life. He was looking to escape his circumstances in Guatemala, where his family lived in poverty and there were little prospects for anything better.
“No TV, no stove, dirt floors, no bicycles, no shoes,” Martinez recalled. “I wanted to break that. I wanted better for my kids.”
His fascination with America began early on. In 1976, the U.S. military provided aid following an earthquake in Guatemala.
“They would feed the kids, give them Kellogg’s, which we had never had before,” Martinez said. “The little bitty Kellogg’s, I remember it just like it was yesterday. I had never seen a box of cereal. We had tortilla and beans.”
When he was old enough, Martinez set out with two friends toward America. They braved “La Bestia”—a notorious train that transports an estimated 1,500 immigrants a day—and a journey full of peril. They dodged guerrilla warfare and gang violence.
“People die coming here,” Martinez said.
But still, they come. The risks are worth it.
“There was an 80-year-old lady,” Martinez recalled, “who said, ‘If I was only young, I’d make the journey with my family.’”
Although she was young enough, Francis—who arrived from Nicaragua in 2005—was also pregnant when she made her journey to the United States. She was four months pregnant by the time she swam the Rio Grande River.
“It was raining,” relayed Josefina Devito, translating for Francis.
Devito—who herself migrated from Mexico after meeting her husband while taking classes in the states—works with immigrants and refugees through Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida. She retold Francis’ story in fragments.
“She used to listen about the U.S., always they were dreaming about the American dream,” she explained. “If she managed to get here, she would be able to have a better life, to make a better life.”
That’s the same thing University of West Florida graduate Frency Moore’s parents were thinking when they moved the family from Rio De Janeiro to Florida. Her mom has told her how they hoped to expand the family’s horizons.
“She really wanted my brother and I to have the opportunity to succeed,” Moore said, explaining the realities back in Brazil. “If you’re born in a poor family, you stay poor your whole life. There’s no opportunities.”
Seamus Hunt grew up in Ireland, 50 miles south of Dublin—”more sheep than people where we live”—and always knew he’d be leaving the island.
“I was either going to end up in America or Australia,” Hunt explained.
On visits to the states, the Irishman was sold on the American dream. He liked the odds the country offered.
“If you’re willing to put the hard work in, you’ll be able to do anything here you want,” Hunt said.
It was that hard work and the promise of a better life that brought Maria Rogado’s grandfather to Hawaii in the 1950s. He moved from the Philippines and began working the pineapple plantation for the Dole corporation, later moving his family to the United States.
“It’s the only country in the world that gives all these opportunities to people coming in search of a better life,” Rogado said.
Rogado’s husband has a similar story. Ramon Rogado and his family moved to America when he was a teenager, joining his father who had found work in Missouri.
“He wanted a better life for his seven kids,” Ramon explained.
Some individuals immigrating to the United States are neither fleeing nor seeking. Trish Taylor, left behind a nice little life in Yorkshire, England—a job, family, and seven weeks paid vacation.
“I had no reason to go searching for anything else. I was happy, complacent,” Taylor said.
But then she went Salsa dancing and met her future husband, a U.S. serviceman stationed near her hometown. She followed her husband home to America, and now she lives in Pensacola.
“I fell in love,” Taylor said. “I didn’t swim across the ocean, I wasn’t escaping a dictatorship.”
Other people come here just to visit. To go to school, or work, and maybe soak up some of the dream.
“Everything is here and nothing is missing—except my family,” said Nusaed Alajaji, who traveled from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to get an education in finance at UWF. “My father encouraged me to come here because he studied here in the United States in the 1980s.”
Alajaji said he would like to return to America when he’s finished with school. Work in the states, live the dream.
“I’d like to experience that,” he said. “I’d like to create a family and live happily ever after and have a great income and have fun.”
Made in America
When he arrived in the U.S. from Guatemala, Martinez was anxious to give the American dream a shot. It was what he’d come for.
Through the years the young Guatemalan found opportunity in the states easy enough to come by. Like so many before him, Martinez found his niche in American society.
“It’s easy if you look for it,” he said. “We’re hard workers, we get up early, we work in the sun, we take the jobs that no American wants. I guarantee you, if we go to a construction site right now, I’ll get hired. If you’re in line beside me, I’ll probably get hired before you.”
During his years in America, Martinez has found the dream to be true. For him, at least, hard work has borne fruit.
“You can build your own palace, or you can build your own jail,” he said.
Hunt’s experience coming to America from Ireland was entirely different than Martinez’s. He’d been coming for years to visit his uncle.
“I’d come to visit him for the summer and then I’d go home,” he said.
Hunt’s uncle is Monsignor Luke Hunt, pastor of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Gulf Breeze. But even with the familial connection, the move across the Atlantic was still a big leap.
“I came here with a suitcase and a hundred bucks,” Hunt recalled.
Though he had a degree in construction economics, the experience didn’t transfer and the Irishman worked a string of different jobs: Delivering hot tubs, pest control, maintenance work.
Eventually, he started his own business—Shamrock Home Repair—and later got a job with the city of Pensacola’s Department of Housing. In 2000, he helped open Paddy O’Leary’s Irish Pub on Pensacola Beach.
“I think we’ve established ourselves pretty good as a real Irish pub,” Hunt smiled.
He explained the tradition of pubs in Ireland—”it was always a place for the community to meet, for people to get together and talk about what’s going on”—and how he believes his establishment has helped bring that tradition to the beach.
“Irish pubs have a tradition of being friendly places,” Hunt explained. “Where ever I go, I find an Irish pub. It’s where I’ll feel comfortable.”
Julie Anne Atherton came to America from the Philippines in 1979. The wife of a U.S. service member, she got a nursing degree in Texas and later attended business classes at Pensacola Junior College.
“This is a place of opportunity, a land of opportunity,” Atherton said.
She’s now active in the local Filipino community, serving as the vice president for the Filipino-America Association of Pensacola, and also owns her own business.
“I own Julie Anne’s Bridals and Formals,” Atherton said. “I would never get that in the Philippines.”
Moore learned of her family’s ticket out of Rio on the radio.
“I heard on the radio about a green card lottery program,” she recalled.
Moore’s family was living a “high-middle class” life in Brazil. Her mother owned a business; her father was a professional basketball player. But still they left it behind to take their chances in America.
The family didn’t speak any English. And much of their savings had been spent getting into the U.S.
“We moved here with a few thousand dollars,” Moore said. “It was rough for the first few years.”
Her mother waited tables, while her father found a job as a maintenance worker. The family moved into modest digs and dug in.
“I remember thinking it was the best, most awesome place we’d ever lived,” Moore laughed. “It had a community pool and air conditioning, so it was heaven.”
Moore has asked her parents if the move to America was worth it—worth giving up careers and the familiarity of their home country.
“They say this all the time,” Moore said, “even though they work harder, they have a better quality of life.”
This is a common sentiment amongst those who have made their way to America. It’s one Mark Dufva, executive director of Catholic Charities, has heard many times.
“The common goal is the American dream,” he explained. “That’s the goal. They know that they’ll get a better life for their children by coming to America.”
As Dufva sees it, this common yearning for the dream is what has given America its rich diversity from the onset.
“We’re a country of immigrants, unless you’re a Native American, the rest of us are immigrants,” he said. “We make up the fabric, the rainbow, the salad bowl, whatever you want to call it, we make up America. It makes our country better by having all these immigrants.”
On a warm June night, the local Filipino-American community filled the Zelica Grotto Hall for a fundraiser. They partied and feasted from a bottomless potluck buffet of noodles, beef and lumpia. They danced to “Gangnam Style.”
Taking a break from the cultural celebration, Atherton talked about the effect of three decades in the states.
“Right now, I can tell you, I’m more American than I am Filipino,” she said. “That just happens.”
Taylor described a similar transformation. She feels the American “can-do” spirit has rubbed off on her.
“Here, if you want something, you have to make it happen,” the English native explained. “I think I’ve gotten infected with that a little bit. I’m starting to go, ‘Hell, yeah, I can!’”
Other aspects of America’s culture still strike Taylor as foreign. The country’s love affair with firearms, for example.
“I’d never seen anybody with a gun,” she recalled.
The overwhelming sense of patriotism Taylor found stateside also struck her as a uniquely American quality. People in England, she explained, don’t tend to fly the nation’s flag on their houses.
“We don’t fly flags over there, we don’t fly flags in England—we fly flags for the World Cup,” Taylor said. “It just doesn’t have the same symbolism. Here, the flag is a person. You don’t leave a flag over night. You ceremonially burn a flag.”
Moore said that she has found American culture to place a greater emphasis on material and financial wealth. She contrasts this with life for the lower class back in Brazil.
“They live in slums, but they’re happy,” Moore said. “I feel like because we are such a money-driven society, we miss out on a lot of things.”
Martinez said he wonders sometimes if his venture to America deprived his son of the values an upbringing in Guatemala might have afforded.
“I think he’s got more disadvantages,” he said. “We’re too spoiled, we have too much.”
He chided his son about too much time spent on video games and Facebook. American kids, he said, spend too much time inside soaking up the air conditioning.
Martinez takes his family back to Central America periodically. He thinks it’s important to connect them with their roots and remind them how another part of the world lives. His son has taken notice.
“They’re not as sensitive, they wash their clothes with their hands and they dry them on lines. The tortillas, they make by hand,” Jordan Martinez said. “It’s more fun over there. Over there, I go out in the streets and play with friends. I don’t stay inside at all.”
Dreams, with Documentation
An immigrant’s journey to America is a big deal. A dream taken flight. A sprint of energy and excitement and nerves.
Making if official, however, is a years-long procedural commitment.
“It was kind of bizarre,” said Taylor.
The Yorkshire native described a litany of medical tests. Tests for HIV, leprosy and TB. Even a genitalia check.
“Drop your trousers, or whatever,” Taylor laughed. “I think that’s to prove you’re the gender that you say you are. That’s what somebody told me.”
There’s also the civics tests, and background checks. The personality assessments and oaths of allegiance and commitment.
“They’ve got all these questions about American history. It was a process. You had to study,” said Hunt. “They made you make all these promises to the country. That you’d fight for it. They don’t take citizenship lightly.”
Aside from the medical tests and oaths, there is the wait and the costs associated with the journey to American citizenship. Before an immigrant attains citizenship, there are years of living on a visa and as a legal resident. Each phase of the journey has procedural costs.
“It’s not an easy path,” explained Devito, with Catholic Charities. “It’s very, very complex. And also expensive.”
She explains how Francis, who has been in the country nearly a decade, is still waiting to obtain citizenship status. The mother hopes to soon join her son, who was born an American, as a citizen.
“When he is 21-years-old he can petition for his mother,” joked Devito.
Moore moved to America from Brazil when she was just entering high school. She’s a legal resident, though she’d like to become a citizen—participate fully in the dream.
“I’d love to,” Moore said. “I’d love to vote.”
If she takes that step, it comes with both privileges and responsibilities. And a ceremony.
“That was an awesome ceremony,” recalled Hunt, who became a citizen two years ago. “Very impressive. My parents came over from Ireland.”
In a way, the American dream has always been the dream of the immigrant. A dream that bets hopes against risks. A human dream.
Taylor, perhaps because she’s from England, thinks of the pilgrims.
“I think the idea that people came over here from England, survived the frontier and all of that, that is the perfect example,” she said.
Since moving to the states herself, Taylor has found that spirit alive and well. She’s found the dream to be true.
“It really sounds corny, but you can really do anything you want, the opportunities are out there,” she said. “You can do anything you want, the only person who can stop you is you.”
At the Filipino-American party, Atherton offered a similar assessment.
“The American dream is if you want something, and you want it so bad, work hard for it and you can get it,” she said.
Such praising of the American dream may seem like misdirected sunshine. There are, after all, plenty of Americans stuck in their own nightmares, or simply grinding through the ruts and routines of their life.
But the immigrants who arrive in this country tend to embrace the dream like a rally cry. It is not an academic sociological concept, but rather it burns in their belly and propels them forward.
“I think when you come from another country,” explained Hunt, “you’re more determined to make yourself a success.”
Reflecting on the American dream, Moore looks back to her home country of Brazil. She recalls an unstable and insecure landscape. Here in the states, her family has found it possible to stride sure-footed toward its future.
“To me, when I think of the American dream, I think of prosperity, but not financially—understanding that you can work hard, and you don’t have to fear,” explained Moore. “[In Rio] it’s almost like people work, work, work, but they don’t know what the future holds so they can’t advance in life.”
This is the dream that immigrants have long looked to as they set out for America. For the land of opportunities.
Through the centuries, the dream has evolved. It was different for the Mayflower’s pilgrims than it was for the waves of Irish, Italians or Chinese of the 19th century. It continues to evolve in modern days, as the immigration conversation focuses on people entering the country through its southern border.
Martinez knows the trip would be much different for his son than it was for him so many years ago. His experience on this side of the border would also be different.
“Nowadays, it’s harder to get jobs,” the Guatemalan explained. “People don’t hire illegals like they used to.”
But Martinez knows that reality hasn’t dampened the dream. People all over the world still look to America with a glint in their eye. They still long for the opportunities the land is so fabled for. And they still make the journey.
“Everyday, all day,” Martinez smiled. “Today, right now, as we speak.”
Immigration in Pensacola
By: Jessica Forbes
Pensacola’s multi-cultural heritage is just one story in a nation of melting pots. Beginning in 1559, the bay attracted the Spanish, French and British for military and colonization purposes. Early Spanish and French efforts fizzled—it wasn’t until 1757 that the Spanish built a wooden fort and housing for a small number of civilians in what is now downtown Pensacola.
Most of the First Spanish Period soldiers and settlers evacuated when the British took control of West Florida in 1763, but continual settlement of Pensacola began during the Second Spanish Period, starting in 1781. Settlers consisted of Spanish soldiers and civilians from across the Empire, French from Louisiana, both free and enslaved people of African descent, and others from Caribbean and Central American colonies, and the then newly independent Haiti (1804).
Eventually, the Spanish, French and early Anglo-Americans from the Second Spanish and the U.S. Territorial era (1821-1845) became Pensacola’s old-timers. Immigrants foreign and domestic began arriving after the Civil War, some settling in the growing port city to support the lumber, shipping, brickmaking and snapper fishing industries.
Through its port, Pensacola developed sizeable Greek, German, Italian and Scandinavian populations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ties to the broader Atlantic seafaring world continued, and several early Jewish residents emigrated from Holland via the Caribbean in the 1850s. Creoles, many from New Orleans, also moved to Pensacola for the opportunities in the burgeoning city. Those of Scotch, Irish and British ancestry—some first generation Americans—relocated from elsewhere in the eastern U.S.
In the early 1900s, the world wars and resulting military build-up, and later the growing tourism industry, paper and chemical plants, were the opportunities that drew people to Pensacola.
After World War II, many new immigrants, so called “War Brides,” hailed from countries in which American soldiers had served—typically England, France and Italy. The same was true for the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Soldiers commonly returned with wives hailing from Asian countries who added their cultures’ traditions to the ever-expanding mix.
Though people from a variety of countries continued immigrating to Pensacola on an individual basis throughout the late 1900s, the Gulf Coast’s next large influx of immigrants from a single country was in the 1970s. After South Vietnam fell to the communist North, thousands of Vietnamese sought refuge in the U.S. Eglin AFB was one of several refugee and resettlement centers established in 1975. Refugees settling on the Gulf Coast were able to establish or continue their tradition of fishing, and the area’s Vietnamese immigrants—like so many other new Americans before them—started building their American dream.