Coming to America

This isn’t my picture (credit), but it looked like this! (Pan Am went out of business a long time ago!)

July 16, 1991. There I was, staring in awe at that giant Pan Am jumbo sitting on the tarmac at Ezeiza International, with my jaw to the floor. I was 15 years old and I had never seen an airplane in my life. That airplane was going to take me to a new life in America! It was a cold, rainy, gloomy winter day in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Cue in melancholic tango music in the background.

The night before, I said my goodbyes to my extended family (some of whom I would never see again) and took an overnight bus from the small, dusty colonial town where I had grown up, in the vast pampas of South America.

I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since that fateful day! Today, I am a Senior Staff Engineer at Google, after having spent a couple of decades at Amazon and Microsoft, and a naturalized American citizen. That Pan Am flight feels like a lifetime ago. But that scared little immigrant boy is still very much part of who I am.

Regardless of which side of the political aisle you’re on, we can all agree that in the last five years we’ve had a lot of hateful rhetoric around immigration in the United States. That has been personally hurtful to me, as being an Immigrant is a big part of my identity. If you’re following my stories, chances are you are in the software industry. If you’re in the software industry, chances are you’ve worked with a fair bit of foreigners. Chances are some of those are your friends. And chances are that the stories of how some of them got to this country, and the sacrifices they made along the way, would surprise you.

How did my immigration story begin?

Both of my parents were born and raised in Argentina. Fun fact: I am apparently a descendant of Juan de Garay, the Spanish Conquistador that founded my birth town of Santa Fe during an expedition up the piranha-infested Paraná river in 1573 (then went on to found Buenos Aires in 1580). My mom had been a high school exchange student in Iowa in the 50s, and she fell in love with the US, but she went back to Argentina to marry my dad. I was born in the 70s, a tumultuous time in Argentina’s history. The 80s weren’t any better. The country was under a ruthless military dictatorship that made 30,000 people disappear. My crib had a bullet hole from one of these encounters, a stray bullet that missed me by seconds. I remember one day my dad had to get off the highway because there were tanks there, heading down to Buenos Aires (nothing to see here, just another coup d’état). Inflation was 2600%, to the point supermarkets would change prices of goods multiple times during the day. We weren’t particularly well-off. I grew up in a crumbling old house that was perennially grimy and graffitied. My dad passed away when I was 13, and things got even harder financially for us. I was also extremely close with him, so I struggled emotionally after losing my best friend. In a lot of ways, life felt hopeless.

The crumbling house where I grew up in Argentina.

I’ve painted a grim picture here, but there’s also plenty of positives to highlight. I did have, for thirteen years, a loving dad that was deeply dedicated to me, and to this date continues to be a role model for me. Having a strong male figure growing up made a huge difference. I did also grow up in a family that valued higher education, where several generations had gone to college, and had become doctors, lawyers, judges, and engineers. There was a non-negotiable expectation that I would reach high academic and intellectual achievements since I was a little boy. Even though my parents were poor, they managed to send me to an exclusive private Jesuit high school, on a full scholarship, the same one that the Pope taught in in his early days. Both the adversity of my early life, and the privilege of my early life, had a lot to do in shaping who I am.

My high school in Santa Fe, with its colonial church dating all the way back to 1610

My mom always dreamed of moving to the US and giving my brother and I a new life. She sent dozens of resumes to universities all over the US applying for Teaching Assistant (“TA”) position. The University of Missouri in Columbia was one of the ones that responded. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous job, and at $18,000 of today’s money, it put our family of three under the US poverty line. But it was a foot-in-the-door to legally come to this country.

That’s how we found ourselves in that Pan Am flight, landing in Chicago O’Hare on July 16, 1991, ready to start a new life. We literally just had a suitcase, a couple of hundred bucks, and big dreams. When we got off the plane at Chicago O’Hare, I was in awe. I was just a young kid from a small town in the middle of nowhere. The enormous bustling city, the limos waiting at the curb, skyscrapers everywhere, my eyes were wide open.

But leaving everything behind was extremely difficult. Teenage years are already confusing as-is, but imagine never again watching the tv shows you’re used to, or eating the food you’re accustomed to, or even seeing your friends or extended family. I didn’t speak a word of English. Imagine not being able to articulate your thoughts because you don’t know the language, or not being able to understand a single word the person in front of you is saying. People around me assumed I was stupid, because I couldn’t speak… yet I had so much I wanted to say.

Back then (1991), the internet was not widely available, and phone calls to South America were prohibitively expensive. So our only method of communication was physical letters. You would hand-write a letter, snail-mail it, and it would take 2 weeks to get there. That is, if you were lucky and the Argentinian mail system didn’t loose it, which happened often. Your friend would write a letter back, and it would take another 2 weeks to get here. So all in all, it would take 5–6 weeks to have a simple question answered! That made me feel terribly isolated. Hard to imagine today, as you can easily whatsapp anybody, anywhere on Earth, real-time.

During the nineties, both of my grandmothers faded away, and I cried them, from ten thousand kilometers, unable to hug them just more time to tell them I loved them.

Not knowing the language, I struggled for a while in high school. I remember I was taking a US History class, and every night I sat at my desk for two hours, with the chapter I was supposed to be reading on one side, and a Spanish-English dictionary painstakingly looking up every other word. It took me a couple of hours to read the few pages that we were supposed to read as homework. This is the sort of thing Google Translate does in a fraction of a second today.

I did get bullied a few times in high school for being a foreigner. Mostly, I was just ignored. Yet some kids and teachers did take the time to try to get to know me and teach me a thing or two about their country. I experienced random acts of kindness that made a huge difference and gave me just enough energy to keep going. Two years later, I finished my senior year.

College presented a financial challenge in many ways for an immigrant. [1] My mom, my brother and I were getting by on her $18k/yr income, so we didn’t have the financial means to pay for my tuition. [2] I was a resident of Missouri, but because I was an alien, I was subject to out-of-state tuition (3x the amount of regular tuition, $30k/yr), never eligible for in-state regardless of how many years I resided in the state. [3] Because I was an alien I was not eligible for most scholarships out there. [4] Again because I was an alien, I was not eligible for any student loans. [5] I even stopped by every recruiting booth from the Armed Forces, ready and willing to enlist, and hoping I could get thru college on the GI bill, to be turned down for being an alien.

We had the Big Gamble ahead. My mom had enough money saved to pay for one semester for me at the University of Missouri — Columbia. Best case scenario, I worked hard and got a straight 4.0 GPA that semester, which increased my chances to get one of the few highly competitive scholarships that I was actually eligible for, for the following semester. Worst case scenario, she wasted her entire life savings on a single semester of my education, and then we would just have to go back to Argentina and start from scratch.

There are times in life where you have to believe in yourself and the universe, take the plunge and hope for the best. Watching my mom sink her life savings into that first semester was scary. But I studied relentlessly, got straight As and got a full tuition scholarship for the following semester. But the Big Gamble continued. Even if I did get a scholarship to cover that semester, what about the semester after that? And the semester after that? And the one after that one?

My College Advisor, Jane, took pity on me and became an advocate. So many times I was in her office and she would casually mention, “you should apply for scholarship x, they don’t have an alien restriction” or “company y is in town, you should send them your resume” during my senior year (here’s that story). I suspect she had about as much to do with my scholarships as my straight As did. We like to believe we’re self-made, but nobody is successful in a vacuum. There’s always random acts of kindness: people who believe in you, doing little things here and there to help you move along the way, sometimes, without you even knowing. They do it because it’s the Right Thing to Do. You must not forget that, and when you are in a position of power, be an advocate and sponsor for the next generation, just like the previous generation was for you.

And so, in 1997, I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.S. in Computer Science and a minor in Math. I was not naturally a good student. I hated college. Those grades were not effortless. But I was in a position where I literally couldn’t afford to not get As. A single B would jeopardize my scholarships, and I didn’t have any other means to pay for my education. If I had to drop out of college I was going to loose my student visa, which meant having to go back to Argentina. I hated the pressure, but I had to do what I had to do.

After college, I got a job at Microsoft (and here’s that story), where I would spend the next 11 years of my life (1997–2009). In terms of immigration, life got easier. Microsoft was a powerful corporation with an entire building of immigration lawyers, and I went from my student visa to Practical Training for a couple of years, to an H-1B visa for a few more years, to finally a Green Card in 2002. From that point, I was required to wait five years until I could become naturalized.

I became a US citizen in January of 2007, in Seattle. My journey had started with that Pan Am flight from Buenos Aires on July 16, 1991. It had taken me sixteen years of hard work and some sweat and tears to become an American.

Becoming a US citizen: my Naturalization Oath, January 2007

The reality is more complicated though. When you’re an immigrant, you’re in limbo more forever. You’ll never be fully American no matter how hard you try — there’s always a part of you that is somewhere else. For me, it’s a tango-crazy, soccer-crazy, beef-crazy South American country, strangely Parisian, distinctly Italian, Spanish-speaking, perennially poor and always politically unstable, but it’s where part of my heart and identity will always be. I cry a little bit every single time I land in Ezeiza, and I loose my voice screaming every time I watch the Argentina national team at Copa America or the FIFA World Cup. But I also cry watching the 4th of July fireworks, proud of my choice to become an American, and all the sacrifices I made to get there. And, I’ve built a life here in the US, proudly raising two lovely American little boys with my lovely American wife. This is Home. I am told I generally speak without an accent, but it sure comes back after a couple of drinks. I’m forever a strange, incongruous and unique mix of my two worlds.

My birthplace: Santa Fe, Argentina

Well, that’s my immigration story. There’s millions of stories like mine. I have worked with many immigrants. Their contributions have made the companies that I worked for (Google, Amazon, Microsoft) better, and they have enriched my professional and personal life. I hope reading this will inspire some empathy towards others that are in various stages of immigration. Talk to them, ask them their stories, and learn a thing or two about the person sitting next to you at work. It might surprise you.

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Carlos Arguelles

Carlos Arguelles

Hi! I'm a Senior Staff Engineer at Google. Prior to Google, I spent 11+ years at Amazon. And prior to Amazon, I spent 11+ years at Microsoft.