By Sidney I. Thomas, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Imagine coming to a country where the national language is not your native one, a country where you have no family, and where you are constantly in fear of being detained and sent back if you’ve been found to overstay your welcome.

This is the case for thousands of immigrants in the United States every year.

Map of origins of foreign visitors who overstayed visas in 2015. [Source: Pew Research Center]

Whether they come to the U.S. to escape a country in political turmoil, to avoid religious persecution or to search of a better life, the reality is that many immigrants arrive with next to nothing–no plan, little money and little grasp of the language.

This experience can be likened to an episode of the hit television show Survivor. Instead of dense forests and desert wastelands, the setting they throw themselves into is the United States. No common language to bind them to the rest of the country, little money, and a vast unfamiliarity with the terrain around them lands them in a position where they have to use their wit, grit and intuition to survive.

Speaking little English, and with $350 dollars in his pocket, Alejandro Portela boarded a flight to the United States in 1979.

“I had no plan when I first came to this country. I just wanted to leave mine,” Portela says. After coming to the United States to participate in an international kung fu tournament, Portela fell in love with Miami. He knew he might.

Born and raised in a traditionally Catholic home in Argentina, 19-year-old Alejandro Portela had never ventured far from his home. His upbringing was “strict to say the least,” he says. “You either ended up being an apprentice for some low textile job or as a priest where I come from.” In search of something more, Portela prepared to leave his family.

“I just knew I belonged in the U.S. Everyone was so free here. They could eat what they wanted, talk how they wanted and there was Burger King,” says Portela. After taking first place in the tournament for his weight class, Portela dreamed of endless nights on South Beach and Burger King.

“I came to this country to participate in the championship, but something told me before I left Argentina that I might want to stay so I worked at el tejador’s and saved up some cash. And then once I got here, I just stayed.”

Like many immigrants who enter the country under the pretense of returning, Portela had a friend in the States. This friend would turn into his business partner with whom he would later open three successful Italian restaurants with.

After the kung fu competition ended, Portela decided he needed to disappear. He suspected his coach would make him get on a flight back home if the coach found out he wanted to stay.

“At around three in the morning I left the motel and walked five or six miles to my friend’s house. I stayed there for a couple of nights and then he found me a job which I was very grateful for.”

Portela received high marks in high school and his first two years of college. He came to the States in search of something more and to also send money back home to Argentina to support his aging mother and his family. The first job he was able to acquire, however, did not suit his skill set, he concedes.

The job was driving furniture back and forth from warehouses to local stores.

Alejandro Portela, at 45 years old. [Photo credit: Juan Gomez]

Coming from a small town where everyone travels by foot, Portela had never driven a car before, let alone a truck. “My boss said ‘go.’ So, I thought to myself, this can’t be that hard. I put my foot down and the truck shot forward and there was a loud crash in the back from the furniture falling over.”

His boss had a habit of hiring undocumented immigrants, and was understanding of his lack of experience, luckily. “From there I learned how to drive and slowly made enough money to start supporting myself. My English got better too. I went from pointing at the Burger King menu and grunting until they got that I wanted a number 2 on the picture menu to being able to say, “May I have a chicken sandwich with fries please?”

Unlike Portela, Rosario* came to the United States with no friends. She was on the run from the eventual starvation and demise that befell her family under the regime in Venezuela.

“It was just me and my sisters. My uncle had known a traficante in the years before things got bad who said he could helps us get a visa,” says Rosario. “Getting a visa to travel to the U.S. was nearly impossible except for the elite class who were able to afford it, and even they still had trouble procuring the documents.

“We sold all of our jewelry and only had enough money for one of us to cross. I was the oldest. It had to be me. I wouldn’t have let las chicillas go anyway, over my dead body.”

Rosario decided to leave, or face the same fate many people in Venezuela had known, whether it be a shooting or her family being put out into the streets, Rosario chose the United States under the pretext of visiting family, and she planned to overstay her visa.

In order to obtain a travel visa, Rosario wrote down the names of blood relatives whom she had in Texas but that neither she nor her family had spoken with since the falling out between her late father and her uncle’s wife.

When Rosario landed in Houston, she had $400 saved up. “I used the majority of it to get buses and hitch hike to Miami.”

Speaking only basic English at the time, which she had learned from watching a few television programs that ran in English, getting bus tickets to go half way across the country proved to be easier said than done. When Rosario had been planning her journey, she almost “skipped over that step” in her head.

“When you are a grown woman, a smart one which I am, you plan out everything, everything. But for some reason in this instant, after finally having managed to buy my flights, I don’t know why I thought it would be so simple,” she reflects, adding how hard could it be to buy a bus ticket after managing a visa and saving up months of salary?

She knew no one, except for a man in Miami whose phone number she had been given by the man who helped her get a visa. When she managed to discern the meaning of the public transportation signs, she realized there was no direct or clear route from Houston to Miami. She would have to stop in Louisiana, then take an overnight bus to Gainesville.

“Maps are maps, and I knew the names of the locations so I just said, ‘Louisiana to Gainesville,’ and the nice man seemed to understand,” she recalls.

Rosario managed to make it to Gainesville, albeit with some paranoia. Though she wasn’t technically illegal at that time, she was overcome with the possibility of missing her bus times and not being able to pay for another ticket. She did not sleep for 36 hours until she was on the last bus from Louisiana to Gainesville.

Not having any family, Rosario relied on finding someone in Gainesville who spoke Spanish to help get her to Miami. She guesses that at that point she had about $200 left and wanted to save most, if not all, of it to find housing once she got to Miami.

“It was like some kind of miracle. We got off near what I assume was an airport because of all of the noise and it was like a beautiful row of shabby white tarp tents with mercantes selling fruit. They offered me a ride in their little trucks to Ft. Lauderdale for next to nothing compared to what I thought.”

When Rosario arrived in Miami, she called the number she was given, half expecting no one to pick up on the other end. Much to her surprise, a friendly voice answered in a heavily accented English. She explained who she was and the man offered her work as a cleaning woman in a dentist’s office. No papers required.

Ten years later she is still working in the office. She has also picked up work cleaning houses on the weekends when she is able to, since inflation in has gone up.

When asked what the biggest contributor to her successful arrival in the U.S. was in the first days, Rosario simply answers, “luck and intuition,” then adds, “I think it is a combination of being calm and having the right people on your side.”

For Rosario, it was one thing to immigrate to a country and not speak the language, but it was an entirely different and more involved story when you do not arrive in the place where you intend to stay.

For both Rosario and Alejandro Portela, what mattered when they first arrived was to have someone willing to help them, look the other way and expect little in return but the self-satisfaction of welcoming a stranger.


  • Rosario preferred to not have her last name used for privacy and legal reasons.