I first saw him on my visit to the restaurant he and my friend work at. Just his head was visible from the little window that allows customers to see the kitchen, and the waiters to place the orders. I order eggs cooked in a Spanish style, a pretty dish with pink sauce around the plate. I tell my waiter (my friend Christian), that the food was great, and was different than anything I’ve had before. He laughs and says “Thanks, my dad made it!”. He calls out to his dad, who looks up and smiles when I give him a thumbs up for the great dish.
All that time I thought Christian’s father, Segundo, was a chef. When I visited Christian’s house, I asked how he likes working as a chef, to which he made a shy, bashful sort of face, as if I’d somehow flattered him in my question. Segundo replies “Oh no, no, I am no chef. I’m just a cook”. From my puzzled look he explains that the difference, to him, is similar to a person having a job and a career; and working at the little, but very popular burger joint in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was “more of a job”. The way he says it is nonchalant, as if he’s undermining his own talents, not wanting to take credit for being anything more than he feels he is.
Segundo describes himself as a “simple man”. He lived in the mountains of Cañar, Ecuador leading a “comfortable life”. “We had food, water, a roof over our heads; the necessities to survive. My family was not wealthy, but we worked with what we had and we had a lot of love”. Being the firstborn of his parents, he held a lot of responsibilities, and would help to take care of his four brothers and sisters.
Schools in Ecuador, similar to others in South America and the Caribbean, did “not extend as far as they do in the United States” when it comes to the number of grades. Most people were educated up to 8th grade, but Segundo was able to go to high school. After high school, he decided he wanted to help others, so he taught grade school for a few years. Eventually, he decided he wanted to go to the United States, after hearing about all the opportunities the north had to offer
The journey north, along with laying the foundation for his life was “a hell I never want to experience again”, he says. Segundo describes to me his experience of illegally making his way to America. Most of the traveling was done by foot, but it was not until he got to Mexico that reality hit him; “I couldn’t believe it. America was just a dream to some people, and I was so close to it”. With the help of a coyote, Segundo made it to New York; but things were not as amazing as he imagined. He owed thousands of dollars to the coyote so finding work and finding it fast was a must. He and about four others who traveled with him through the help of the coyote shared an apartment while they worked. Segundo’s face was expressionless, but it was clear to me it was a façade to hide the bad memories of that time of his life. “They were a bunch of horrible guys. It’s like they forgot we came from the same place, you know? We were all facing the same problems, but they were more concerned about helping themselves than looking out for one another”.
Segundo found a job at a small restaurant in Brooklyn, “another fast- paced burger joint”, as a busboy. It was there that Segundo picked up on English to become as fluent as he is today. “I was workin’, workin’ workin’. Here, there, anywhere I could, I was hustlin’. Plus I was young, in my early 20’s, full of energy!”, he laughs.
And then he found love. Through mutual friends he met his wife, and by his mid 20’s he was living in Jackson Heights, in an apartment with a wife and a newborn daughter. From there on, he continued to work in restaurants, building his skills and his English. He had Christian, and kept on working and saving until they moved to Queens. He then had his third son, Jason, and eventually gained residency – and finally, citizenship.
I asked him about his regrets, any dreams he wished he pursued, like teaching. “Teaching? It was fun, but we can’t always have what we want. God has his own plans for us, and I’m happy where I am, with my family”. He smiles and invites me to stay for dinner, saying he needs to cook for me outside of the restaurant. I happily and hungrily agreed.