Essay: One Immigrant's Journey

In a city where the Latino population is growing by the day, one man’s story shows how the help of just a few people can change families for generations


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Rich Robles came to the U.S. as a teenager, escaping an abusive family. Now he works at Novant Health and helps with multiple nonprofit organizations in Charlotte.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY TRAVIS DOVE

SHE WAS 21 YEARS OLD, a high school dropout, and 2,000 miles from home. She did not speak the language. Most of her family and friends were back home in Guatemala, but she was in Queens, New York, visiting friends after a breakup with her boyfriend. Now, suddenly, she was in labor with their child. It wasn’t until I was 28 days old that we made it back home to Guatemala City.

My mom did not marry my biological dad. When I was about a year old, she met my stepdad, Carlos. He did not officially adopt me, but when my brother was born, Carlos treated my brother and me the same. He was in the military, and I remember going to his work parties, where all the officers dressed in their gala uniforms and we enjoyed banquet food. We made trips to visit our grandma, taking a two-hour bus ride along the mountainous roads through the southern coast of the country. Those mountains felt like giants to me as I looked out the window. We enjoyed the American candy treats he would buy at the commissary store. We also had access to American toys, and knew that each birthday or Christmas, we would get something special, like the year I got my first Captain America action figure that could move, or our first remote control race car track. Carlos became, to me, my dad. My mom bought my brother and me nice clothes and dressed us in matching outfits. We were living a good life.

TRAVIS DOVE

Robles was one of the highest-achieving students in his military school in Guatemala, a feat he hoped would make his family proud. 

All that changed when my dad began to drink heavily. I was about eight years old when my parents became physically violent toward each other. By the time my other three siblings arrived, my mom had to scramble to get money together to buy us food and what we needed for school. My dad was always broke. I did not understand why, because he had a good job as a programmer in the military. My mother was under pressure to find ways to feed and clothe us, and at times she felt alone. I am sure she suffered from depression and felt abandoned. She, too, became more verbally aggressive and physically violent with us. I still carry some physical reminders from those difficult years.

I often think of those days now, nearly 30 years later, as I look at our warm home in south Charlotte, where I live with my wife and four children and enjoy homemade pizza and movies, as is our Friday night tradition. I think of those days when I think of children in this city who might be in similar situations, or worse. I think about the good nights and the bad nights, and how just a few people can change everything. 

I was a straight-A student throughout elementary and middle school. In spite of that, my mom belittled me and called me insulting names. I knew then that I needed to find a way to feel strong and gain my confidence back.

I decided to attend the only military high school in Guatemala. The admissions process was challenging—I had to have high recommendations, excellent grades, physical exams, and to pass a difficult application test across all subjects. About 2,000 12-year-olds applied, and I was one of 311 accepted. I was incredibly happy. If I succeeded in this school, I thought, I finally would gain the respect and admiration of my mom, and feel like a strong kid again. Half the students leave this school after the first year because of the strenuous military environment and high academic standards. I did well, though. I enjoyed the discipline and the fact that I knew what to expect if I behaved a certain way. During my senior year, I was promoted three times in five months all the way to sergeant, something no other student had done. I was in charge of a whole platoon of cadets. I led presidential parades and other military activities. Only 92 of the 311 students who were accepted into the school graduated, and I was one of them.

The day I earned the promotion to sergeant, I couldn’t wait to tell my parents. But when I got home, my mom was in a bad mood, and I mouthed off to her. The only thing she had in her hand was a kitchen knife, which she threw at me. I still have scars on my left fingers where I stopped the knife from hitting me. 

As I looked at my friends’ lives and their families, I knew there was a better way. I needed to get out.

In came my cousins, Betty and Alfonso. They were missionaries training in the United States, and they’d met a couple in Indiana who had been helping them. They shared with the couple my situation at home, and asked if they would be willing to take me in. I had a dream of becoming a pilot in the United States Air Force, and Betty and Alfonso knew that. 

I was only 17 years old, so I still needed my mom’s consent. After many conversations and lots of convincing, she agreed to let me go. She sometimes threatened to change her mind as a way to make me do what she wanted—I did lots of chores, babysitting, and laundry that last year. I had nightmares during the last few months that she reversed her decision, or that I had missed my flight. But the day finally came, and I was thrilled.

My parents, siblings, and friends could not understand why I was leaving. But to me, it was my ticket to a better life, where I would feel safe and able to dream freely. Still, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. They were my family. I had so many doubts in my head: Am I crazy? Will I succeed? Will my future actually be better?

I arrived at a farm in North Webster, Indiana, in the middle of winter in 1988. Everything was covered in white, bright dust. I had never seen snow before. 

***

TRAVIS DOVE

Rich and Jenny Robles met in college a few years after Rich moved to the U.S. from Guatemala. They now have four daughters (from left): Mari (11), Elli (4), Isa (8), and Calli (13). 

JUNIOR AND EILEEN were the husband and wife who took me into their home. My flight landed in Indianapolis in the middle of the night on a Monday, and they drove two hours in the dark in their shiny, green Oldsmobile to pick me up. On the ride back I was impressed that the highways were clean and well-maintained, as we cut through bright snow on the sides of the road. My dream had come true. When we arrived at home, they showed me the kitchen and where I could find breakfast for the next day. I could feel the heat hitting my cold feet, the house all warm. That night, all was quiet. And safe. And scary at the same time. I’d come from a large, metropolitan city, and now my next-door neighbor was several acres down the road. That next morning, they went to work, and I was in the house by myself. I still smile thinking about their kindness and how they trusted me.

That first week in the United States, they took me to the local school, Wawasee High School, where I began to learn English. I’d completed high school in Guatemala already, so I planned to audit classes, spend time talking with other students, and try to learn English as quickly as I could. We went to meet with the principal, and after we said hello to each other (I knew how to say that), she said something that I did not understand. Later, Junior and Eileen told me that the principal thought I was not going to make it because of the language barrier. 

“This woman doesn’t know who I am,” I thought. Her words fueled me. I was determined to prove her wrong.

After about five months, I learned enough English to pass the tests for admission into the Air Force. The night before I was scheduled to fly to basic training, my friends at church threw me a surprise going-away party. On the way there, my white Chevy Cavalier hit a patch of snow and slid to the other side of the small, country road, and I hit another car head-on. When I came to, I was inside an ambulance, and I remember yelling toward the EMTs to let me out. I had hit the steering wheel and broken every bone in my face, but I could not feel it due to the shock. I looked at the rest of my body and did not see any damage. The EMTs kept telling me to calm down and stay on the stretcher. I felt my dream slip away in that ambulance. The accident required facial reconstruction and a long recovery. The other driver had a broken femur and endured a lengthy recovery, too. I was medically discharged from the Air Force before I even did a push-up. 

I had a girlfriend at the time, and her father, Linden, was a school counselor, and he asked me what I thought about going to college. I told him that I did not know anything about college, and I did not have any money. He committed to helping me. He paid regular visits to my house to teach me to fill out applications, write essays, and manage college financial aid and academic contacts.

In the winter of 1989 I was accepted to Huntington University, a small school with about 1,200 students in rural Indiana. My relationship with Linden and his wife, Beth, continued throughout my college years. They sent letters, encouraging cards, and invited me to join them for their famous chili dinners. They gave me a second chance at life here. During my senior year of college at Huntington, I met the woman who would become my wife, Jenny.

***

MEANWHILE, BACK HOME in Guatemala, my dad stopped drinking and my parents began to develop a healthy relationship again. My family and extended family get together almost every week now. I miss that. I love my mom and dad. I now realize that they did the best they could with what they had at that time. They are truly my family, and thanks to the ease of modern communication, I keep in touch with them every day.

After I finished grad school, Jenny and I got married and lived in Michigan near her family. We then moved to Chicago, where I worked in consulting, and became part of a great community of friends. We lived there for eight years, until we moved to Charlotte in 2008 for a job opportunity in banking. A couple of years ago, I took a management consultant position with a local consulting firm, and this summer I accepted a job with Novant Health, helping to lead the organization’s diversity and inclusion work. 

Twenty-nine years after moving to the United States, I am in a happy and adventurous marriage. We live in a great neighborhood, our four daughters are healthy and happy, and our driveway is often filled with colorful chalk drawings. That is it for me. That is how I define success. That is how I feel fulfilled.

I can’t help but think sometimes of the boy I was in Guatemala. I got from there to here in large part because of a few adults who took a chance on me and gave me access to opportunities. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to help kids who may be in the same situation I found myself in all those years ago. 

How could I be a Linden or Junior or Alfonso for someone else?

***

WHEN WE MOVED to Charlotte nine years ago, I was stunned to learn that we have so much poverty and homelessness in our city. In my quest to find ways to help children, I was introduced to UrbanPromise, an organization that hosts after-school programs for children who need additional support. High school students lead some of the programs. They go through a rigorous process with interviews, essays, and applications, and commit to high standards of behavior as mentors for the younger students in the program. Once accepted, the older students become known as the StreetLeaders of UrbanPromise.

The StreetLeaders grow up in homes where going to college may seem impossible. With resources and mentoring at UrbanPromise, these young men and women get to do something different. That is why I joined the board.

One night this past June, Jenny and I attended a ceremony where all the high school StreetLeaders got up on stage, told their stories, and revealed a T-shirt with the logo of the college they will attend in the fall. The crowd went wild at each announcement. I sat in my chair with tears running down my face. I see myself in them, as they tell their stories of pushing through something difficult, healing their souls, and anticipating something great ahead of them. I see their struggles, and I also see their hunger for their dreams to be doctors, engineers, counselors. 

Investing in kids and giving them a chance at a better life—these are the things that can change a city. We all dream about what we want to be when we grow up. I did. And a few generous adults made that possible for me.

Josh Shipp, a youth speaker and teen expert, says, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” From my cousins, to Junior and Eileen, to Linden and Beth, to my parents, I have many adults in my life to thank. We all do. At some point, it becomes time to return the favor. Caring for one child may not help all of the children in Charlotte who need help, but it is a good start. 

Rich Robles lives in Charlotte with his wife and four daughters. He enjoys learning about the different hues of purple and watching superhero movies with his children. He’s an avid fan of Spanish fútbol, and he is still hoping to someday share a mate tea with Messi. He can be reached at richrobles@icloud.com.

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