Not so long ago – a few decades – immigrants to the United States were extolled, celebrated, rewarded. Their success in what they did was considered a demonstration of the quality of our society. It was our success.
The most celebrated immigrants
Some of them are among the most famous names we know: the greatest physicist of all time and 1921 Nobel laureate Albert Einstein, the secretary of state under Nixon, Henry Kissinger, both Germans.
From Russia came Sergey Brin, owner of Google, and Irving Berlin, the author of songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “White Christmas” and even “God Bless America”.
From Hungary, Joseph Pulitzer, journalist and congressman. From Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder, actor and Governor of California.
Taiwanese David Ho, AIDS researcher and Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1996. Australian Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post. Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, the founders of YouTube, from Taiwan and East Germany respectively.
As a corollary, the new owner of Twitter and hope of trumpism is an immigrant from South Africa: Elon Musk
There are more, many more.
Racism as tradition
We tend to think that the racism displayed today by so many Republican politicians and activists is something new, or different. It is not. It is a rooted and harmful characteristic in our country. There was a Civil War about slavery, not 2,000 years ago, but 160.
What changes over the years is the object of discrimination and hatred against immigrants. One hundred years ago, Italian immigrants were not considered white. The same is true for other groups that came from Europe: Poles, Jews.
A couple of years ago, then-President Donald Trump said in a meeting with senators: “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They are shithole countries… We should have more people from Norway.”
Famous Latino Immigrants
Back to the illustrious immigrants, they have arrived not only from Europe and the East. There are Latinos, of course. From Cuba, Desi Arnaz, Gloria Estefan and Celia Cruz.
From Mexico, the great Carlos Santana, born in Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco, who arrived here in 1965 and was naturalized five years later; the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who won the Oscar as director for the also winner The Shape of Water in 2017
The Colombian actors John Leguisamo and Sofía Vergara or the painter Fernando Botero.
From the Dominican Republic, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, who died in 2014.
But most of the millions of immigrants who built America came here in poverty and fear, nameless and uneducated but with endless hope.
And many of them contribute to our society in a unique and memorable way, after they had to work twice as hard.
The ten names that follow have then little in common. Some are rich and famous people. Others have made progress within their communities. Others fell because of their mistakes or because of an enemy bullet.
But they are united by the fact that they came to the United States undocumented.
Today, the country thanks them.
Salma Hayek Jiménez, is of course a well-known actress from Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. A Mexican, she reported in an interview for E! News in 2015 that she had been undocumented.
“I was an illegal immigrant in the United States,” she told the magazine. “It was for a small period of time, but I still did it.”
Also, she says in the same interview, suffered racial discrimination as a Mexican in Hollywood: “It was inconceivable for American directors and producers that a Mexican woman could have a leading role.”
César Felipe Millán Favela, dog trainer and television personality, was born in 1969 in Culiacán, Sinaloa. While living in Mazatlan and at the age of 13 he decided to dedicate his life to working with dogs. At age 21, he illegally crossed the border in Tijuana with $100 in his pocket, which he had to hand over to someone guarding a hole in the border fence. Years of hard work passed.
Today his television series “The Dog Whisperer” is still broadcast in 80 countries; he is a bestselling author and philanthropist.
Dr. Alfredo Quiñones Hinojosa
Alfredo Quiñones Hinojosa, Dr. Q, per a television series in which he starred, is Professor and Chair of Neurological Surgery at the William J. and Charles H. Mayo Institute in Florida. He graduated cum laude as a neurosurgeon from Harvard. At John Hopkins University School of Medicine, he was Professor of Neurosurgery and Oncology, Neurology, and Cellular and Molecular Medicine. And the list goes on.
He had been a farmhand outside of Fresno, California, where he came from his hometown of Mexicali, Baja California. He was the oldest of six brothers, and at the age of 19, started his life here with just a Mexican teaching license, his ambition and hope.
He told his own story in his 2011 book “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon.”
Luis Alberto Perez
Luis Alberto Pérez, who became the director of legal services for the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) in Los Angeles, is the first undocumented immigrant to earn a degree from the prestigious UCLA School of Law.
He moved illegaly at the age of 8 from Guadalajara, Jalisco, to Pacoima and then to North Hills. He lived more than 30 years without papers. His father worked in construction. His mother took care of children.
At UCLA he was one of the founders of the IDEAS group, dedicated to undocumented students on campus.
There he graduated as a lawyer. He was also the first student beneficiary of the AB540 law that allows undocumented students to pay for their college education as if they were legal residents of California.
The poet Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador and emigrated to the United States at the age of nine. In 2019 he was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University and had fellowships from Canto Mundo, Colgate University, Lannan Foundation, MacDowell, National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation, Stanford University, and Yaddo. He has published several books of poetry.
A couple of months ago he published a memoir, SOLITO (Hogarth), where he recounts the details of the trip as an illegal immigrant, for nine weeks, from El Salvador to Mexico and then to Arizona, where he arrived after the coyote abandoned his group in Oaxaca.
In 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled that an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States illegally as a child could obtain permission to practice law, an unprecedented decision in the country. Sergio García was thus able to practice his profession. He specializes in personal injury claims.
García was the first undocumented lawyer in the country, and obtained permission to practice after a struggle of several years. Today, others have followed him.
Al (Alfredo) Labrada is Deputy Chief and Commander in the Special Operations Bureau at LAPD, the Los Angeles Police Department, where he has served for some 28 years.
“I was born in Mexico City. My father died when I was 3 years old. Finding herself alone, my mother, who is from Mérida, came to work in the United States to be able to support me and my three sisters,” Labrada told La Opinion. “Then we crossed the border in 1975.”
He grew up in Rosemead and El Monte. His mother cleaned houses and worked in a factory packing eggs. In the Los Angeles police he rose year after year, fulfilling functions in all the ranks.
Rubén Kihuen served as a congressman from 2017 to 2019 and was previously a state senator in Nevada. He was the First DREAMer and first former undocumented immigrant to serve in Congress. He was also the first Latino to be elected to Congress in Nevada.
Unfortunately, his political career was cut short by allegations of sexual misconduct against him by made a campaign staffer.
This native of Guadalajara, Jalisco, arrived in the country with his family at the age of 8.
Hugo Ortega has been a staple in the restaurant industry in Houston, Texas for years. In 2017, the James Beard Foundation named him the Best Chef in the Southeastern United States.
He was born in Mexico City and arrived undocumented in the United States in 1984 at the age of 17. In Texas he worked as a dishwasher and spoke no English. He currently owns a chain of prestigious restaurants and is the author of books on Mexican street food.
Damian Lopez Rodriguez
This list would not be complete if we did not include those who have given everything for this country where they did not even have residency documents. Therefore, the last selected is not a famous person. He did not graduate from college. He couldn’t even have a family. Damián López Rodríguez, born in Mexico and who emigrated as a child, died in the Iraq war in 2007, undocumented and anonymous.
He received posthumous citizenship under the George W. Bush administration. His story came to light in a video distributed years later by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
These ten undocumented immigrants that Make America Great Again are a sample, not only of people of their category but of the Latino community in the country as a whole, a group characterized by their hard, incessant, selfless and sacrificial work. The list is not complete, but it is representative.
Founder and co-editor of Latino Los Angeles. Editor Emeritus of La Opinion, former Editor-in-Chief. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a journalist, columnist, blogger, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Was the editorial director of Huffington Post Voces. Editor-in-chief of the weekly Tiempo in Israel. Is the father of three grown children and lives with Celia and with Rosie, Almendra and Yinyit in Los Angeles.