Crystal Canterbury
One Immigrant's Story

What's it like to leave your home country and end up in Ocracoke?

This is the first article in a series detailing the lives of some of the people who have immigrated to the United States from Mexico, Central, and South America. Because a few of the participants are in various stages of obtaining U.S. citizenship, some names have been changed or left out entirely for their privacy and safety.

I was nervous and anxious and excited to meet with E. For quite some time I’d been curious about the stories of those who had entered the United States from Mexico, Central, and South America; what their reasons were for immigrating, how they got here, what possessions they brought, did they find a welcoming demeanor from citizens of the United States? The words “immigrant” and “immigration” have seemed to overshadow the fact that we’re talking about people, and people have individual stories. Some are wonderfully inspiring, while others are gut-wrenching and painful.

When I met with E I wasn’t sure what to expect. Every interaction I’ve ever had with him has been friendly. E radiates kindness; often times telling random people he has nothing but love for them. His personal and business posts on Facebook are equally as sweet. 

The day we met was chilly, but the sun was shining brightly, so the air was crisp, but not uncomfortable. E pulled into the parking lot on his golf cart wearing a button-up collared shirt, his hair neatly done. As soon as he saw me he smiled, parked, and then shook my hand. We walked towards a picnic table, and he offered me the seat which put the sun to my back, even though I wore sunglasses. We exchanged the typical Hello-how-are-you-doing’s before getting into his story. With his arms resting on the table, his hands neatly folded, he began, “So, what is it you would like to know?”

He remembers overall liking his city life as a child. E’s father was a politician, a profession which allowed the family financial stability, but his father wasn’t a part of E’s life. E explained while he has spoken to the man, he hasn’t had a face-to-face conversation. Still, he enjoyed the city. He thought his country was wonderful, but as he grew he began to realize Mexico was run by a corrupt government. E also noticed this corruption led to excessive wealth for a very few, and extreme poverty for many of the citizens. He grew tired of the busy, smog-filled city and “was looking for the sea, you know the sea, the ocean.” He wanted to be in a place with, “an ocean [that seems to go on] forever.”

Fifteen years ago, E decided to leave Mexico for the United States. He sold his car in order to pay a guide to lead the way, and then made arrangements to leave. With his two young children in tow, E made his way to the Mexico/United States border. Thinking he and his children would enter the U.S. in a vehicle, E wore dress pants, a collared shirt, and a necktie; he said he wanted to look nice as he entered the new country. Much to his surprise, the guide took them to the banks of the Rio Grande River, where, “They came and said, ‘You ready to cross the river?’” So E, his children, and other people who had paid the guide, swam over to America. Over the next week, E and his children made their way to Ocracoke Island. Cousins and an uncle of E’s were already here, so he joined them, hoping to make a better life for his family.

When he arrived on Ocracoke Island in the winter of 2000, he spoke no English and had only enough money for food. E soon found employment through a resident who owned (and still does own) a local construction business. The business owner’s only condition of hire was E had to provide his own tools. E acquired a basic set of tools and began working for the business owner, whom he describes as, “the best guy I ever meet.”

He lived and worked on Ocracoke for a bit before moving to Oklahoma where he worked at a Chinese restaurant. It was there where E experienced the most racism and obvious resentment from American citizens. “I feel like Oklahoma is nowhere to go. And here some, some people, some people feel the same as them.” He went on to say overall he has been treated far better by the people of Ocracoke than by those where he lived in Oklahoma.

E returned to Ocracoke and resumed working on construction sites. He was still learning to speak and understand English at that time and described struggling to understand what, to English speakers, are simple words. On one occasion, another employee asked E to pass a pencil up the ladder. E was unfamiliar with that word and expressed the embarrassment he felt for not knowing more of the English language. Over the past fifteen years his knowledge of English has grown exponentially, and he can communicate with English speakers quite well.

E enjoyed and was very appreciative for the construction work he was hired to do, but he longed to be in the kitchen, which is where he felt at home. Soon, E began working at two local establishments and he became known for his culinary skills and creations. “I worked in the morning at this one, then went to the other one.” As the summer season of 2010 came to a close, an opportunity arose which E could not turn down. The owner and manager of a local restaurant thought opening a side business would be an excellent opportunity for E to cook and sell his own culinary creations. “They ask me  if I want to be in the kitchen, and I say, ‘Yes! Yes, I want it!’”  In December of 2010 E was open for business.

E started off small, making and selling his products in a tiny space. “I was so excited! I was so excited!” Since the business opened five years ago, E has up-sized to a larger facility, expanded the menu, and the food has become wildly popular with residents and visitors alike. The majority of his experiences here have been positive, though he mentioned a few instances (no details or names were given) of a few residents saying unkind words to him, and of another (again, no names were mentioned) who removed the Flag of Mexico he had displayed near his business. “That was not to be ‘I’m here!’ It was because it’s Mexican food, here at the business. Since it happen I decide not to fight with this, I decide to learn. Since that time I decide don’t put any flags, I put in my heart.”

E’s next business goal is to sell t-shirts which will have a design of his favorite animal: turtles. “I love the turtles. They are my most favorite. I don’t wanna see turtles cross the street. I always try to stop. I want to do good things for the animals and humanity.”

E explained living and working on Ocracoke is “like another life” compared to living in Mexico. He described the feeling of being so close to the ocean as, “Finally my dream come true,” but longs to see his family more. His son and daughter, now adults, have both returned to Mexico, and his mother still lives in their home city. Unable to travel safely to and from Mexico to visit his family, E stays within the United States. “In our culture, it is sad when the dad is far away from the mother, from the son, from the daughter. I cry because your family is away. It’s hard in these times, Feliz Navidad. No Feliz Navidad for me.”

E still emits joys and feels life is at its best if we all have, “something to eat, something to give, something to share.” Despite being far away from his family and the negative occurrences he’s experienced, E said, “I only see the human being. I don’t see skin, I don’t see any colors.”

Stay tuned to the Current for more in this series.