By Amanda Stickels, online editor-in-chief
It was December in Chicago, as junior Christian Figueroa’s father, José, stepped out of the plane in 1989. Snow was falling. Since he grew up in El Salvador, he had never seen snow before moving to America that winter.
Astonished, José took off his jacket and laid down in the snow. His sister, who had helped him move, thought he was crazy, but he laid there amazed at the new sensation.
“I couldn’t feel any cold. I was so delighted to be there,” José said. “It was amazing; I couldn’t believe it; it was beautiful.”
Growing up in a town outside of the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, in the midst of a civil war, Jose says that life was not easy. It was an extremely violent atmosphere, and it was even common for him to hear bombs exploding in the distance.
He worked and attended the university in the capital, but sometimes it was too dangerous to commute home, so he would stay with his friend, who lived in the city, during the weekdays and then come home for the weekends.
Eventually, the war became so hectic, as the guerilla moved their focus toward urban areas versus the previous rural areas, that some companies started closing down. It didn’t take too long for José’s company to shut down. That is when he decided to move to America.
He first arrived in Florida on Dec. 14,1989 when he was 25 years old. He found a job there, but his sister, who had moved to America 10 years prior, convinced him to move to Chicago. Having arrived on Dec. 21, José’s younger brother who also lived in America found him a dishwashing job for the holidays. From there, he had many jobs, including landscaper, baker, head cook, restaurant supervisor and location coordinator.
During this time, it was also difficult for him because he also had no background in English, so he had to learn on the fly, picking things up from listening to people and practicing at any chance he could get. Mostly, he remembers having an English-teaching book and locking himself in his room teaching himself English.
“I was practicing all the time even though I mispronounced many words, but that’s what I did,” José said. “I was not afraid to make mistakes. I did speak lousy, but I continued to practice. As of today, I may not speak the language like I wish I could speak, but I have to say one way or another, I made myself understand.”
In October 2000, after getting laid off from a job with a Chicago cabinet company, José decided to get into the insurance business. He worked for an insurance company for nine years but when the economy dropped in 2009, the company had to liquidate his position. Left without a job, José decided to start his own business, an insurance company called Vista Insurance Agency in Rolling Meadows.
He says that this wasn’t easy, but it was necessary to support his family, who themselves were supportive of him during this time. Working hard, José was able to build up his company.
“You know, little-by-little I picked up every single one of my clients, and the rest is history. We bought a few rental properties, and business is good. Life is good after that,” José said.
Since the moment he got off the plane, one of the main themes of José’s life has been hard work, and one of his main motivators, José says, is his family.
“When we decided to come to America for a better future, we always look for the future generation,” José said. “My kids are the next generation. I had to make a difference for them to have success. I have to provide the path and be an example for them.”
Christian, who is very thankful for his parents experiences and courage coming to America, is inspired by his parents’ stories.
“It kind of gives me motivation and hope… When I think of the American dream, I think of them,” Christian said. “[Their story] makes me strive to do better. Their story kind of means life to me, what life is. Life is trying to do better and do better than what others before you have done or just doing your best and being happy with it because they’re happy now, and they’re happy with what they’ve done, and they just want us to do better.”
Hearing stories from his parents motivated Christian to learn more about his Hispanic heritage. From a young age he asked his parents to teach him to speak Spanish, which he believes has given him deeper connections to his roots and his extended family.
“It kind of preserves my culture because I have pride in my Latino self because I speak Spanish,” Christian said. “Spanish is kind of what wraps hispanic culture all together and connects us all, so that connected me to other places.”
Eventually becoming close to fluent by the eighth grade, Christian has been able to communicate better when his family takes trips to both El Salvador and Mexico.
José enjoys taking his kids to the country where he grew up, even showing them the house he grew up in and the schools he attended.
“My kids are Americans,” José said. “They were born in America. They are Americans, so they grow up having everything. They have not missed anything. They had what any other American kid had. They did not grow up the way I grew up, so if I don’t [show] them where I grew up, where I went to school and the house where I was born, they would not know where they are coming. And they would not appreciate the effort that I made when I came to this country.”
Christian agrees that it is important for him and his siblings to see these places.
“It’s a different experience because I stood in the room where he was born,” Christian said. “You see someone who’s older than you, and to think about them as a child and as a teenager is kind of weird. Some 50 odd years ago my dad was born here in this room, and it was a nice feeling but also interesting at the same time. It’s a new experience, too. You think, ‘What would my life be like growing up the way my father did?’ You start asking questions and thinking about this alternative life that my dad experienced, and it’s pretty much amazing to think about.”
In retrospect, José is extremely thankful for his journey and his experiences that brought him to where he is right now.
“It has been a great journey,” José said. “It has been a great adventure. I could not have done better. I think that if I had to do it again, I would do it about the same. I just think everything happened the way it was supposed to be. … I have to say I think I am one of the most luckiest people alive.”