Martin Luna

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North Carolina resident Martin Luna recounts his experience moving to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico in 1985 as a recently-graduated food engineering student. Luna arrived to work at the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina over the summer as an international student worker. Throughout the interview he describes the importance of several interpersonal relationships that shaped his work experience and that created the opportunity for him to attempt to pursue graduate school at Clemson University. He references the language barrier as a recurring challenge in his U.S. education. He also describes the role mental health had in his experiences in the U.S. Luna reflects on his experiences in both Mexico and the U.S.’s education systems, and closes the interview describing the kinds of challenges current Latin American immigrant students face within education systems and how they compare to the ones he experienced.



Sophia Luna [00:00:04]: Okay. It's 9:26 in the morning on March thirty first--March 31, 2023, and I am on a Zoom call joined by Martin Luna in his home in Asheville, North Carolina. So, can you describe--.
Martin Luna: Hey.
SL: A little bit about where you're from and what your life was like there?
ML [00:00:26]: Well, I was born in La Barca, which is a little town in Jalisco, close to Guadalajara. But, but I, growing up in Mexico, I kind of grew up in different cities because my dad worked for a bank and he was promoted, or he was tired of working in a place, so he used to move around. So, I lived in a lot of different cities, you know, in Sonora, in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, Querétaro, Toluca. So all those towns, some of them big towns, big cities, other ones, small--well, they were all cities--made me appreciate my countryside, and also learn to, to move around. So I was very close to my family because we were like, I have three brothers, four brothers and one sister. So we did a lot of things together growing up. So I was, you know, very family oriented, very, you know, driven, you know. [00:01:51] And I was one of the first ones to go to a private middle school and high school and then private college. My other siblings, they just went to state college. So it made a difference, you know, for me. It was very academic oriented, so I was striving to do my best in elementary school, middle school, high school. My parents never pressed me to study. They never pressed us to, you know, they just kind of coached us to do our best. But they never pressed us as far as academically. So it was more like my inner side motivation to always, you know, do what I can and do my best and learn as much as I could.
SL: Yeah. So where were you living when you started those private schools that you mentioned in Mexico?
ML [00:02:51]: We moved from Guadalajara to Mexico City, so I had to drive, I had to travel on the bus by myself. I was, I don't know, I was, I was probably you know, I was coming out of elementary school. So my mom took me to a bus and then I had to travel all the way to Mexico City because my dad was already working in the bank in Mexico City. And I remember when I got to the bus station, I was like, I started walking, following the people, and it was like a sea of people that I didn't know, and being so petite, you know, so I was petite. I was, I was one of the first one or the second one. Out of sixty people I was the shortest one. Anyway, I was very intimidated by that. But then finally I saw a smiling face and I recognized my dad, and I was like, “Oh, [Laugher] thank God he's there.” But yeah, so and I remember going to that middle school, you know, there's of course there's no school buses in Mexico. So I had to take public transportation, and mom raising four children back then, it was, always to do everything on my own and walk, you know, a couple of blocks and take the public bus. And sometimes it was so crowded [laughs].
SL: Yeah.
ML: That I had to, I had to just grab--. [Audio briefly cuts out due to internet connectivity issues]. Until people move up and then I could, you know, crawl up to the to the safer area. Never, never a seat because there’s always crowded. [laughs]
SL: And so when you when you started at that different school, like did you notice did you notice that it was different from the public school that you had gone to before or that your siblings were going to at the time or?
ML [00:04:46]: Of course. Of course, yeah. So, it was like night and day. You know, we only had one teacher for the whole elementary school for the [inaudible]. And there was kind of a very, you know, unformal informal but here it was very structured. Have like five or six classes every day. And all of them, you know, always pushing for doing our best. And also in this particular school it was just men. So we were just men just children. You know, middle schoolers. There was no female students. And it was run by an organization that was, you know, Catholic. Hermanos Maristas. So Maurice Brotherhood. So it was very prestigious and very difficult to get in because a lot of people wanted to study there, because of the formation, you know, academic formation.
SL: Yeah. So then how did it come about between you and your parents or your family that you decided to go to that prestigious school? Did you decide or was it--.
ML: I lost you. [laughs].
SL: Your parents, or you made the decision--.
ML: I lost you. I didn't hear anything. I didn't hear anything repeat that question, please?
SL: Oh, so when you when you mentioned that you were the only one of your siblings to go to this private school. So was that your decision or was that a decision that your parents sought out for you?
ML: Okay. I only heard my decision or my parents' decision. We having bad communication right now, so I only heard that. So, no, it was kind of. [00:06:47] My mom was kind of looking around, where should I go? And of course, he had relatives that they were in that organization, you know, in that brotherhood. So she kind of reached out to them to see if I could get in. But actually it was more academically their decision. That it was better. And of course, it was going to be, there was a cost, there was a tuition, of course. So they decided it was better for my education.
SL: Okay. And so then that was middle and high school. And so then moving, fast forwarding a bit, can you describe what your experience was like after high school and choosing to pursue higher education, whether that be in Mexico or whether when you decided to or if you decided to move to the United States?
ML: Okay. So in that particular school I met a lot of people, made friends and so forth. Some of them had the opportunity to travel to the United States. So the culture back then, for me, it was like I like a lot of American music and, you know, see TV programming and so forth; Of course dubbed in Spanish. But I was also taking English classes, you know, since middle school. I think it was more high school. In high school, I started taking English classes. So that opened up a little bit more of a desire to come to the United States in high school and actually I had a friend that was able to travel and do an exchange student. And then when he came back, he was like us, you know, really, really talking really. It was a great experience for him. So that kind of put the seed of me trying to do that. And I tried to. My dad, my dad at some point sent me to the border because he had an uncle, and I because I had really good grades that was my reward. He couldn't send me to; He didn’t know anybody to send me, you know, to the United States, but he knew somebody at the border. So I ended up going to a, you know, summer course of English, but it was in the Mexican side. So it made a big difference because you knew that you were like learning the structure, the grammar. But we were not practicing it because we were in Mexico. [laughs]. So it was an experience. It was really hot. So I was at right at the border of Matamoros. [00:09:39] But anyway, my transition to college was very interesting because I wanted to move to. I never liked Mexico City. I mean, I was safe and, you know, adapted, but I didn't like the fact that there was very little sun, very dark, a lot of traffic, some sort of crime. Anyway, because we traveled so many places there were other cities that were beautiful and that felt really good. So my dad got another job in Puebla and he was moving the whole family to Puebla. Two of my brothers were already in college, so they couldn't move. So they, they, they were going to stay in Mexico City. I wanted to move to Guadalajara, but my parents said no. Because they couldn't afford to split the family in three ways. So I had to follow suit. But there was like five or six universities in Puebla. And I chose the best and the most expensive one.
SL: [Laughter].
ML: And that kind of my parents, they did the effort to send me to the Universidad de las Americas Puebla, which is between Puebla and Cholula, and it's a very prestigious university. It's actually back then was the only one, or one of the few ones recognized by the Southern Association of the Board of Colleges in the United States. So that was a major thing back then. But anyway, I was not thinking about moving to the United States at all. I was just going over there to learn and I chose an engineering degree, which was a field that very few people; It was kind of a new career. It was food engineering. Like chemical engineering specializing in food. And I excelled there. I was one of the few students that finished the course. We started like thirty, thirty-seven students. And in Mexico to study to get a degree in college it's always five years.
SL: Right.
ML: Not four. So, so, so it was five years. And back then out of thirty-seven students from my generation, there were three that we finished. And also there were like three others that we catch [caught] up that they were behind. So we were like six or seven. I graduated in 1985.
SL: Okay.
ML: And at that time I also took English courses and I met all American people that were studying over there. So I had some connections, you know, with people from the United States. Of course, I was immersed in the city, so I had to take two buses to go to the college, you know, from where I live to go to the center of the city and then take another bus to go to Cholula. And anyway, I met a lot of people, made a lot of friends. And I was actually, like, my fourth year, I got into-- I was the president of my career in food engineering. And in that I met some people, some presidents of other areas. You know, there was like, I don't know, like sixteen different fields, careers. So we used to get together and do things, you know, to promote the university or for the good of everybody. [00:13:26] And I met a guy who told me about this excellent program that he went to and basically that it was in Black Mountain, North Carolina. And that basically if you were accepted they will give you a visa, a work study visa, and give you room and board and you could work there during the summer time. And so that was that became a dream for me to go once he told me about it.
SL: Yeah.
ML: That kind of started changing my life a little bit [laughs].
SL: Right. So, can you describe a little bit the process of what applying for this program in Black Mountain was like and how long that took, or just your general, like, experience applying for that program?
ML: Well, it was kind of difficult to get in because when he told me about it and I applied, he told me like in in April. In April, something like that, that's when I learned about this. So I applied immediately. And of course they sent me a letter saying they rejected me because they said it's already, you know, we already have the staff. You know, the American people plan ahead. So it was not like, hey, you can come now [laughs].
SL: Right [laughs].
ML: Last minute, last minute. But back then, I didn't know. I didn't know. I just started the process and I was intimidated because I had to fill out the form in English and I didn't know who to ask. So I did it on my own. My parents never speak English, so, um, and I didn't. I was kind of a solo person. I never asked for advice or I didn't know who to ask, you know, basically. But anyway, I was rejected. And then what I did is I went ahead and reapplied in November and I sent you know, they asked me for three reference letters. So I got my letters, I got everything. And then I got accepted. And then I got the letter. It was one of my happiest moments in my life because I knew that it was going to be something that I really wanted to try not knowing how it was going to be. But I just wanted to try, and to have that experience of being in another country.
ML: My parents, you know, tried to send me. But it was very expensive, really. So, this was like a big accomplishment for me. And that happened right after I graduated from college, you know. My dad did a big celebration. We got a lot of family gathering to celebrate my accomplishment. And then a few days later, I had to take a bus and come to the United States. Since I have like certain deadline to arrive, I was supposed to take a bus right after my graduation. But it was the party and we had so many family at home that one of my uncles said: “Well, don't worry about going on bus. I'll fly you in.”
SL: Oh, okay.
ML: So he was hoping to fly me all the way to here. But when he started checking on the prices and everything, he realized how expensive it was.
SL: [Laughter]
ML: To fly from Puebla or from Mexico City to Asheville. He went ahead and just flew me to Matamoros.
SL: Okay.
ML: And then from there I took the bus, which was fine. It was fine with me because I was going to do the whole, whole tour in a bus. I already had my ticket anyway. And back then it was like for fifty dollars, you could buy a ticket and you could go anywhere in the United States for, for, you know, seven days. You could travel all over the place with fifty dollars during seven days.
SL: Interesting. Okay. Can you remember what it was like when you first arrived or what your first impressions were of Black Mountain, and just what your general experience was, I guess in the first weeks and months of you living there and what you were doing in the program, too.
ML: [00:17:35] Sure. Well, I got really welcomed. I was very welcomed. They, you know, they sent somebody to pick me up in a band. Well, arriving, of course, traveling in a bus, I was like looking at a lot of terrains and a lot of time to think about different things. But I remember, you know, from seeing different sceneries. And then once we started getting to Hendersonville, I started seeing a lot of green and a lot of green. Never seen so much green during the summertime. You know, like everywhere. So I was very, very impressed with the beauty of the mountains and the beauty of the forest. So when this guy picked me up, took me over there, I was kind of late because I kind of took a detour. I got like two days late. I didn't got to the orientation. I got there like two days after because I took a detour to go to Orlando and meet some family member and then came back. I was just because I have that advantage of the--. [laughs].
SL: [Laughter]
ML: You could travel right for free.
SL: Right. [laughs]
ML: Well, as long as wherever you want to go. I went to Orlando, but I didn't visit anything. I was just. It was just wasting time, really, because I didn't do anything [laughs].
SL: [Laughter]
ML: But anyway. I was really welcome. Everybody was friendly. Everybody was very, you know, young. Most of the people were younger than me, but they were very, very friendly. Because most of the staff was college. So they were in college, or some of them they were in Master’s, but we were kind of similar age. And the center was very organized. And, you know, to make the experience even better. And some of the jobs were kind of tedious. They rotate every three weeks. So every three weeks you change. Two or three weeks, you change to a different department. So making it fun. And of course, every time you--[Audio briefly cuts out due to internet connectivity issues].
SL: You were mentioning how at the place you worked, they changed every three weeks to keep things interesting for the people working there.
ML: Yes. Yes, and so I felt very welcome. This YMCA is one of the largest facilities in the southern area, the southern region. It is owned by ten different states around North Carolina. It’s a conference center. So they bring people or different groups through the week or for the weekend to have a conference. So some of them were small, like two hundred people, other ones were like fifteen hundred people. So we were about maybe, let’s see, I’m trying to remember. We were twenty men and maybe thirty or forty women plus the management people. And we were, you know, in different places on the campus. It’s a huge campus. So every week we had to change everything.
SL: Right.
ML: At the conference they were coming to learn a lot of different things so we had to set the whole campus to their needs. And then, so they’ve been doing this since 1908. You know the center was founded back then. So through the years it's been very well organized, there's a lot of brotherhood, there's a lot of history and it's very well organized. So when I came I was very impressed that everything was so organized and we had fun and also played and made it very interesting. So, through the whole two and a half month experience every weekend we had themed parties. New year’s, Christmas in July, international night, a talent show, different things--Hawaiian party--different activities that kept us engaged and kept us having fun, and made the work kind of easy.
SL: Yeah.
ML: And there were always opportunities. So I took one opportunity myself and I noticed that the people that work less were the lifeguards [laughs].
SL: [Laughter].
ML: So I find out how I can become a lifeguard [laughs].
SL: [Laughter].
ML: So I took the class, and I got my certificate of lifeguard. So I was able to work, you know, and that was the most fun thing to do because you just clean, give a little bit of maintenance to the pool, and just sit down and see people and enjoy the sun [laughs].
SL: [Laughs]. Right.
ML: And get paid without having to clean or having to do a lot of work [laughs].
SL: That's funny. So being, you mentioned that you moved, you started this program right after finishing college and your engineering degree. So when you were living in Black Mountain and in North Carolina were you aware of any, you know, educational opportunities that interested you? Or were you wanting to continue your education in the United States? What was your sense of the educational sphere of North Carolina?
ML [00:23:47]: Well, for me, back then my priority was to feel fluent in the language. And I knew that my English was very very limited. I remember when I put in my application that I speak 80 percent of English. I knew 80 percent. But I realized I didn’t know. I mean I knew the grammar and the structure but I didn’t know how to speak. You know. So to me that was kind of an obstacle, a big obstacle. So I did want to learn the language. My first--I knew that the program was going to finish so I tried to figure out how to stay more. And I knew that the assembly was the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, so the assembly was hiring people to stay a little bit longer. And I wanted to stay. And I expressed my interest of staying, but they already hired other people that they had in mind. So I didn’t, I was not accepted. But when I talked to one of the executes about my desire to stay he kind of hooked me up with another executive from another town and said “Hey, this guy wants to stay as an exchange student.” You know, so he offered me, the gentleman offered me an opportunity to live in his home so I could continue with this experience and continue with learning the language. So I lived like two months with them in their home. And then when my visa expired I had to go back to Mexico.
SL: Right.
ML: And that was something that I had to do it on my own again. Nobody told me “Hey, you can stay.” I said “Well my visa will expire at the end of October, so I have to go back to my family.” And I did. So when I went back to Mexico, in my mind, I was like “Oh, that was a great experience, I feel better about the language, but I want to work on my field.” So I went to the town that I wanted to live, which was Guadalajara, and started looking for all the industries to find work and just start interviewing by myself. Talking to people saying “Hey, I just graduated from the university, I can help you.” I started offering my services. Because most people, they didn't know what food engineering could do in their industry. Remember I kind of went to like six or sevent interviews that I introduced myself to see if they were hiring and that I was available.
SL: Right. Right. So, did anything--.
ML: And then--.
SL: Go ahead.
ML: And then what happened was I went back to my parents to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s, and when I was back in Puebla, because I spent maybe a month exploring job opportunities in Mexico. A month, a month and a half and I was staying with relatives. Then I went to Puebla to see my parents, finally. [00:27:14] When I was there I got a phone call that changed my whole life. Because one of the executives called me and said “Hey, Martin, we really enjoyed your work ethic and we really would like for you to come back next year, would you like to do that?” And since I had a wonderful experience I said “Yes, of course!” So that phone call, without consulting anybody, I was like “Wow! That's great! I can go back!” Changed my whole life because then I was not pursue--I got distracted and was not pursuing my professional career. I kind of put that on the side and said “Well, I just need to work part time, you know, in another area or do something while I wait until I go back to United States.”
SL: Okay.
ML: So that’s what I did. I got a temporary job at the beach and I was using my English as I was working in a Japanese restaurant [laughs]. In a Japanese restaurant I was hired there. And I worked there for a while but it was hard to be on my own, to be honest. I was not used to being on my own, living by myself and making decisions by myself because we were always in a group. So YMCA was great because I had a brotherhood, a family, and I didn't have to worry about cleaning, cooking, or basic things. You know, so it was learning. But when I was in this beach, I was staying with some people first, but then, you know, they didn’t treat you as nice as the United States [laughs].
SL: Right.
ML: So it was a lot of decisions of: “How I'm going to get to my job? Where am I going to be living? Where am I going to stay?” And the accommodations they gave me were not the greatest ones. But anyway, I didn’t last too long there. When I got tired and just flew to Mexico City and went back to my parents and just waited until my opportunity to go back to the United States came.
SL: Right. And so what was your second experience like in the United States, and what did you do after the Blue Ridge Assembly?
ML: Sure. So it was even better, started meeting people again and then said “Well, I would like to stay here longer. How can I stay longer?” And it was three choices I had: One was, a friend from Nigeria says “Well you can join the army, they can definitely probably let you stay.” The other one was going back to college, and the third one was, you know, well if you get married you could probably stay also.
SL: Right.
ML [00:30:23]: But in my mind, it was more like “Well why don't I try to go back to college and try to get a Masters?” I knew several people from the University of Americas who had done that in different cities. In different countries. Some of them went to Germany, other ones went to Spain, and some to the United States. I knew it was going to be costly so I started to explore that. So I took some trips, I went to [pause] one lady lived in Raleigh so we went to the, I visited the university of, State University in North Carolina. And I didn’t know anything about Clemson, but there was some people from Blue Ridge Assembly that they were the directors of the YMCA in Clemson, and one of them offered me, opened up some opportunities there. So I kind of liked that, and started talking to the directors in Clemson and they said “Yeah, you can come here and help you.” In other words, there were some doors that started to open for me.
SL: Right
ML: So, I went and applied to Clemson. I got a place to stay, and they let me stay there. I paid for my room, for my board. For my food [laughs].
SL: Right
ML: The room was free, my food I paid for it. And then it was an opportunity to decide what I was going to do. And I visited the food science department. And because they knew I had the degree already in that field, they gave me a job.
SL: Right.
ML: So, the things were happening for me. But legally, I was there physically but as far as--how do you say--the credits, getting the credits, I was not admitted officially. I was kind of exploring what I was going to do, and I realized I needed to take more English classes. Because I felt that my English was really bad. The science I already knew, in Spanish.
SL: Right.
ML: And in English. But I was more interested in: What can I do with my field? How can I take what I know to use it in Mexico? And I realized that first I needed to improve my English, which was a big task for me.
SL: Right.
ML: You know, it was difficult. It was difficult because, again, I was by myself but I needed to master that so I could function. Like I am functioning right now.
SL: Right, right. So you hinted a little bit at it, but how did you feel like your degree from the University of the Americas…How did you feel like it translated to the United States and to Clemson specifically? In your opinion?
ML [00:33:50]: Well, it was a good opportunity for me to be there because people were very open, people respect me, you know, the doctors that I talked to. There was Dr. Moore, who was the permanent doctor in food industry and food science. He was kind of my mentor. He took me in, he gave me opportunity to work in the laboratory and start organizing everything there. And pretty much, I was probably, he wanted me to work on research but he knew that I needed time to adjust.
SL: Right.
ML: So, again, the sky was the limit there. We went to a lot of, well, you know being part of the food science group I met several students from other countries. I remember there was an assistant to Dr. Moore who was working on his PhD too, or Masters, that he kind of took me under his wing and he was helping me to fill out the forms which I was very intimidated. And helped me to get into the program, and also, um, so there was a lot of people very welcome. They went through my shoes, came before me, and they were studying and we went to several food events. I remember going to Atlanta to meet Dr. Labuza. Dr. Labuza was very famous for his research in water activity, you know, something that was, back then, really one of the fields that I remember. There are, I mean, so many fields in food industry. But anyway, I was meeting famous people that, before, it was just on a paper.
SL: Right.
ML: That I read about their articles on paper or on books, and I was very, you know, impressed meeting those people in person. And talk to them. Anyway, so everything was going well, and I thought it was a good opportunity for me. [00:36:17] But I had two tragedies that changed my life [laughs]. One, and it was I don’t know, just destiny. But basically, I needed to take two tests for being the next semester enrolled officially. One was the TOEFL. You know, the test for English as a second language proficiency. It’s a proficiency test to tell the university that if you can do it. That your English is good. And the other one is the GRE, I think. Graduate Record Examinate. The GRE. Which was a little bit more tougher that all the American people needed to take. The first one is just for foreign students. The second one was for all, you know, anybody that wanted to do a graduate study. So, the first one you know, unfortunately it was not offered on campus. It was in another city which was Greenville. So I needed to travel over there. And I didn’t know, you know it was on a Saturday morning. So talking to my people that I knew, there was another Chinese student that was going to take it. And I learned through my supervisor that says “This person needs to take it.” So I talked to him and I asked him if he could take me to the place, to Greenville, and he said “Yes, I’ll take you.” And then we set up a place and a time to meet. And then the second one was going to be offered there in the college, so I was already enrolled to take it there.
So I think it was like the end of October, or around October. It was around October when I took the test, I was supposed to meet this Chinese student to take the test. And I remember I got up in the morning early, and it was raining, it was pouring rain and everything. And I was out there in the corner where we were supposed to meet, and it was dark, and I was there for almost forty-five minutes and he didn’t show up. And I stayed there and stayed there and I never saw it, he never came back to pick me up. He probably did, but because of the language barrier maybe he didn’t know where I was and maybe he--I don't know. I don’t know what happened but he never showed up. And I was supposed to be there at 9, but by 8:30 I started crying and crying because, you know, that was very important for me to be in there. So I went to see other friends, and they didn’t have cars, so they couldn’t do anything. And they said “Don’t worry about it, don't worry about it,” but I felt, like, defeated because I wasn’t going to get into the next semester enrollment. And so, from then I started to feel, you know, and I didn't know back then, but I started to feel depressed because I didn’t know what to do. When I took the second test, I was encouraging to do it but when I took it I also felt defeated because it was really really difficult [laughs].
SL: [Laughs] Yeah, the GRE is…
ML [00:39:46]: It was very difficult, and I felt like a failure. Like “I failed, so what am I going to do? How am I going to get into the official Master’s degree?” And all this is the pressure that I knew it was costing me money, and I knew that my parents could not afford to send me to college, so kind of, I got into a depression stage.
SL: Yeah.
ML: I knew Christine, and Christine wanted to help me out and she always wanted to say “Well, you know maybe college is not for you. Maybe you can come to Asheville, come back to Asheville, and you can find a job here in Asheville and do something else.” And I felt like yes, that would be an option, but I really wanted to--I was kind of feeling like the opportunity to study and be in college for, was going to be much better. So I got into a depression. And back then I didn’t, never had depression before, nobody knew about it in my family. I got really depressed so I went back to Mexico defeated.
ML: And when I got back to Mexico, unfortunately my parents were transitioning from one, from Puebla to Guadalajara and the situation, the dynamics were not really good. They were renting a small place that was too small for the family, so it was very, it added more stress. In a good note, by then there was like, already, job opportunities for me and I got into a job as a food engineer and I worked in the Sabrita plant. But I was comparing that job with what I lived here in the United States and the freedom and what I was doing, it was like night and day. Even though I had a job there now I was not happy. My heart was in United States, my heart was in this area of North Carolina, And I wanted to come back. So I decided to come back one more time, so I didn’t gave up. [laughs].
SL: [Laughter] Yeah, right! So what was that like? Was that the last time you came, when you decided you know like you said not to give up, or how did that come about and what happened after that?
ML: Well, you know, through the whole time when I was in Clemson I was dating Christine, and she used to come visit me on weekends or every other weekend when she could. So we, you know, I kind of started being interested in her because she was always there for me, you know. Actually she took me from The Assembly to Clemson, and then when she knew where I was then she was coming every other week or every week. We had fun events, I remember one time we, you know, both being Catholics, the priest from the parish where I was staying in Clemson, he was doing outreach to migrant workers in another place called Walhalla. So I told him that I played the guitar, and he says: “Well why don’t you come over to celebrate mass on the field?” And I did the first time, and I realized that I needed music so the next time I brought my guitar and make it more fun. And Christine went one time with me to those outreach, going to visit the migrants and bringing the word of God on their own homes. You know, they were living in trailers in the middle of the mobile home park we celebrate mass and I was playing the guitar. So that was really really nice.
SL: Yeah
ML: Anyways, um, she was, you know, always offering me “Come back to my home.” So we continued to write letters when I was in Mexico defeated. So she said “Come back here, you can find a job, we can. There’s opportunities here.” So she was always having faith in me that my dream could come true.
SL: Yeah.
ML [00:44:35]: So I came back the third time and I actually came back with another friend. And then we wanted to plan our wedding but, kind of, things moved quickly and we got married.
SL: Right.
ML: [Laughter].
SL: And what year was it when--what year was it that you came back the third time, and then were married?
ML: Eighty-seven. 1987.
SL: Okay.
ML: 1987.
SL: And just for the sake of anyone listening to this interview in the future, can you describe who Christine is and how you met her for the first time?
ML: [Laughter]
SL: Just for context.
ML: Well Christine is my wife, my companion for thirty-five years. So she’s my wife. We met in 1986 in my second summer here. Not--she didn’t work in our field, it just happened. It was like, God put us together, to be honest, you know? I’m a very strong believer, and back in Mexico I always was praying for God for the right person to meet. And basically, through all this events that happened in my life, the way we met it was kind of a coincidence. Because she never went--I think that was the only time she went from Weaverville to Black Mountain, where I was. But I was working at the YMCA but we met in a local bar back then it was called the Town Pump… Town Pump? And we went there with my friends, from Mexico, on a night that they said “Hey let's go down to Black Mountain.” So I did. It was a group of five people, you know, boys and girls. And she came too, out of coincidence, because she didn’t planned to be there at all but one of her friends went and got her out of her job to go--she didn’t want to go by herself because her boyfriend, this girl’s boyfriend--her name is Lisa--and Lisa’s boyfriend was playing in a band, and he was playing in this particular place on that night. So she went and talked to the boss and said “Hey, can you let her come tonight?” And the boss did, Mr. Boyd, I remember his name, Mr. Boyd did let her out earlier. So they went there, and I was there with my friends, and then I remember my friend Paco said “Hey, there’s a lady outside that speaks Spanish. There’s two ladies out there that speak Spanish, let’s go meet them.” So I went outside, and actually Lisa, it was, she didn’t speak Spanish. She’s an American. [laughs].
SL: [Laughter]
ML: And Lisa, I mean Christine, was both English and Spanish. So we started talking in Spanish and so forth. So we connected and we invited them to come back the next day for another event at The Assembly. Which was the talent show, which was open to anybody. And so we were hoping that both of them were going to come but in the end Christine just showed up. And from then, we kind of started developing a relationship.
SL: Right.
ML: And I remember vividly one time when I called her, she said “Hey”--her mom answered the phone--she said “Hey, would you like to come visit us?” and she say, “You know, we’d like you to come have dinner with us because we’re going to have steak.” and I said “Yes!” And you know the ironic thing is that that night we were going to have steak, too, at The Assembly.
SL: Oh!
ML: That night, but I said yes because I wanted to be out of The Assembly, I wanted to meet other people. So, I went and met her family, and there were some relatives visiting and so forth. But anyway, in the end it just happened that the food was delicious. Country food, it was potatoes and green beans and, and flavors that I never had. Well I tasted them at The Assembly but it was homemade, not bulk [laughs].
SL: [Laughter]. Yeah, that makes sense.
ML: Not bulk recipes.
SL: That difference matters, right.
ML: So I was like “Wow!” And I said to Christine's mom, “Hey, wow you’re a great cook, congratulations!” By the way, she’s from Colombia, and so I felt like I was at home. And she said, “No, no I didn't do the cooking. Christine did.” And I was like “Wow! Really?” [laughs].
SL: [Laughter]
ML: And I was really surprised because being so young--I think back then I was twenty-two, she was nineteen--I was like “Wow!”
SL: Yeah.
ML: “Congratulations, you really know how to cook.” Because it was a great meal. A great meal. So all those little things started to, you know, be in my mind. That we connected and that we, you know, eventually got married.
SL: Right, yeah. So, fast forwarding, or kind of switching like fast forwarding or looking to wrap up. After your third time coming to the states, like you describe and kind of coming back from that, as you put it: Trying one more time and not giving up and getting married to Christine--which is all well over I guess twenty years ago--when you think about your life now, I guess how do you view education, or educational experiences that maybe even some of your kids have had, how do you view them in light of the ones you had both in Mexico and the United States?
ML: Well, um, okay so could you rephrase that question?
SL: Yeah. So, when you think about education now like in 2023 in the United States, as you've been living here several years--several decades--how do you think education compares now than it did in the past, when you were part of education and part of the education system?
ML [00:51:28]: Sure. Well, through technology and through the new way of opportunities that students have, the world is shrinking quite a bit. There is more opportunities for new students, definitely. I mean I realize that people that really like school or they like to do something different, they kind of cling to their friends--in other words, there's a dynamic between teachers and students.
ML: You know, there’s a lot of students who are forced to go to school. There’s other students that love to go to school. And teachers kind of guide those students, well try to guide everybody, to do their best but not everybody has that call and not everybody is smart academically. [Clears throat]. The main thing here that I see is that the people that have, from experience, sometimes people have the opportunity to go to college and they have these scholarships and they want to succeed in college, but when they get there they are shocked because it’s not like a public school. Because they know they have to write important papers and they don’t know how to. I would not know how to, you know, if I had to write a paper when I was talking, you know, back thirty years ago. It's stressful. So not all the schools, not all the students have the same tools to succeed. Especially in public schools. So it’s important to take your education seriously, and unfortunately a lot of students, they don't. They take it for granted, they just want to use space but they aren’t looking about the future. In college, I know that if you are around people that want to help you can succeed easily. Like I felt--Even though my language was limited--I felt that, again, international students that they were in the same boat that I was, they were encouraging me to succeed. And I remember that. The problem is sometimes--I’m just going to give you an example. I knew of a lady that her son wanted to be a doctor. And she got a full ride to go to UNC Chapel Hill. And he went there very excited about it, and within a semester he came back defeated. And I don’t know all the details, but he came back with depression. And he felt that he was not welcome. He felt that he did not know where to go. And that’s what happens when you don’t have a core group of friends, or meet friends that can help you, you know, try it and know that you can do it. That happens quite a bit and quite more often, you know, that's why we see all these shootings. Those people are either mad or they’re depressed or they’re not welcome, and those things that are happening here in the United States it's a shame. Because, you know, not even in Mexico I remember somebody shooting a student, you know a student shooting their peers. Because there’s always some sort of--I mean there's frivolity and everything--but the worst that could happen is just, you know, fighting themselves. Like men. [laughs].
SL: Right.
ML: But not with a gun, not with a gun. But anyway. I don’t know if I'm answering your question but that’s what I see. [00:56:06] Right now, the opportunities that you can travel abroad and go learn from other places, come back and still get credits, that’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. I wish I had that opportunity when I was in college because that’s what I wanted to do. To come in a safe environment and come back to my home, but I didn’t know how. But now that people, and that’s what, we’ve been encouraging to do that to Jessica, to Robbie, to you, to go to another country and meet other people and come back and have more life experience that will open up the doors. Definitely coming here opened up this door for me, to work and you know through trial and effort find the right job for me. In my case, we haven't talked about that part yet, but in my case even though I have a food engineering degree and I wanted to use it for good, the language barrier limited it in the beginning. And then I saw a need here--eventually after trying different jobs--I did work in a plant here locally in a food beverage plant locally, but I felt like I was more in a prison after a while because it was just confined in an environment that was very routine [laughs].
SL: Yeah, that makes sense.
ML: It wasn't until I got into real estate that it’s very challenging career. Very fulfilling because you’re helping people get their homes, helping them with the most important decision they can make financially. You know the most biggest financial decision that they can make. But there's so many opportunities for people here for homeownership. So I've been helping the Hispanics to get their home and have some sort of stability. And open up opportunities for them.
SL: Yeah.
ML: And of course in real estate, as a realtor, completely the rules change, the contracts change everything change, so--the technology has changed, to sell real estate--so it’s very challenging. There’s not a routine, you know, that I can’t handle the routine.
SL: That makes sense.
ML: I need variety, I need contact with people. So that’s why I chose that career eventually, you know, because I saw that there was a big need for people to buy homes. And the way it came to me this opportunity was because first I started selling satellite dishes, and they didn't own their houses. And when I got into real estate I could sell them both the land and the satellite. And I did that for a while, you know for a couple of years or so. But now it’s not necessary. I have clients that they are investors now, clients that are first-time home buyers, clients that they need to sell their home because they have other transitions in their lives. But yeah, the real estate has been able to open up doors for other people and me too because I’ve met some wonderful realtors, wonderful people, and wonderful, you know all different types of people that are moving to Asheville. New friends and old friends. And it’s a great career, a great career for me.
SL: Yeah.
ML: In this case, it's going to allow me to retire soon. Hopefully.
SL: Yeah! [laughs] So I just have one last question, and it’s do you think that the experience-- the challenges you faced when you were at Clemson University and things like that and places like that, do you think the challenges you faced then are similar, or different, or at all changed from the ones that people or students who are originally born in another country, like Mexico or Central America--or anywhere in Latin America--do you think that the challenges you had are different from the ones they have today?
ML [1:01:00]: Well I think they are--there’s always going to be great challenges for everybody. There’s always going to be, you know anytime you change your environment to a new environment there’s always going to be challenges. It’s what you do about it, how do you react to it? That’s why you have to have a good core, core friends or family that can help you when you’re feeling down. I always encourage, you know being a man of faith, I always encourage somebody who goes to a university to be surrounded by, you know, by students that they go to church and they have the same faith. Because they are going to help you to succeed. You can't succeed by yourself, never. Never. You always need other people. Good people that can help you succeed, and could be a good teacher, good professor, good, older student. I think that’s very important not to stereotype that, you know, a lot of times you feel like “Okay I’m in this level, I can only relate to these people because they’re on the same level.” There’s always learning experience from older people and from younger people, the thing is that are we open to listening to those, to their experience?
SL: Yeah.
ML: So you don’t fail. Like I’m thinking about this kid that he didn't make it when he had all these opportunities, it’s because he didn’t have that core, you know, group of friends, or the family who was not able to listen to his needs, and figure out. And it's hard to give--as an immigrant it’s hard to give advice especially if you never been in college. You don’t know what college is like here in the United States.
SL: Right.
ML: You know it’s um, very simple. The way I learned--in engineering you just it's a lot of mathematic courses. And I was bombarded with all the other courses all the way to calculus and different courses. Anyway. The way I learned it in Spanish is different when I remember you know Robbie or Daniel, seeing them studying it was just completely different. I mean the results are the same, the solutions are the same, but the way they teach you is different. So as a parent how can you teach or help somebody study when the language and the technique is different?
SL: Yeah.
ML: You can’t. So there’s always more limitation for us to help our children in another, when you move to another language. Another country. You know, it’s hard. But it’s not impossible. If you have the dream to do it, you know you do it. Just like I, I didn’t give up. [laughs].
SL: Yeah [Laughter]. Yeah, awesome. Well that was the last question I have, but is there anything you want to add or contribute before we finish the interview?
ML [1:04:39]: Well, to any student at the university, just to take advantage of it. Everything you do there is going to reflect in the future. So make good decisions, treat others the way you want to be treated, and it doesn't--we all have different types of intelligences, and unfortunately in this, you know in this society that we have, this western culture that we have, we give a lot of weight to the intelligence of, you know, that has to do with grammar--well not grammar--but we measure what we can in just one part of intelligence, which is academic. But there's other intelligence that we need to develop. And we need to just accept each other and learn from each other to do good for you and for others. Always, you know, you learn and then you share. You learn and then you share what you learn. And put it in good use, not in bad use. You know?
SL: Yeah, right. Cool. Well thank you again for your time in doing the interview.
ML: Sure. I think I--we went in different directions but I’m glad that you guys are doing this project so I can help others to understand and help, you know, other students to see the perspective of people that they are not from, they were not born in this area, they came from other countries.
SL: Right.

Transcriber: Sophia Luna
Interview Date: March 31, 2023