For immigrant Miguel Fernandez, going to the Spanish restaurant CafÃ© Iberico is like taking a journey back to his home country of Spain. The Chicago cafÃ© serves all his favorites â€“ paella, sangria, Spanish omelets and ham chorizo â€“ and patrons can watch Spanish television and listen to Spanish music while eating authentic cuisine. Though the restaurant is usually packed and has a 45-minute wait for a table, for Fernandez it is worth every minute.
â€œYou feel the flavor like you were in Spain,â€ Fernandez, 32, said.
Fernandez has been away from his home country for the past nine years, which makes his attachment to CafÃ© Iberico quite understandable. In 2000, Fernandez moved from Spain to the U.S. after being recruited to be a Spanish language teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. According to Fernandez, the public school system in Atlanta asks for only one or two years of teaching experience, in contrast to stricter requirements in other cities. Thus, moving to Atlanta seemed the smartest way to jump-start a teaching career in the States.
â€œI didnâ€™t know anything about the United States,â€ Fernandez recalled of his transcontinental shift.
Fernandez spent two years as a Spanish teacher in Atlanta, and then moved to the windy city. He is currently a 6th grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in west suburban Cicero, working with a green card he won through the lottery.
Teaching in Cicero is a far cry from Fernandezâ€™ life before immigrating. He is from a town of 5,000 in Cadiz, one of the provinces at the Southern tip of Spain. It is a place he makes sure to visit every year â€“ in fact, he is jetting off for his annual summer-long visit in two weeks.
Having no wife and children of his own makes Fernandezâ€™ immigrant experience quite different from the typical narrative. Thereâ€™s no confusion amongst second-generation children, no struggle to pay tuition, no stretching of finances within an ever-growing family unit.
â€œIâ€™m fine financially,â€ Fernandez said. â€œSince I donâ€™t have a family, I donâ€™t have a house and donâ€™t have to pay a mortgage. Iâ€™m renting my apartment. All the money [I get] is just for me.â€
Fernandez stays in close contact with his family in Spain. His mother calls him everyday at three oâ€™clock sharp for a short check-up â€“ the call lasts from two to ten minutes.
â€œItâ€™s nice to know thereâ€™s somebody there,â€ Fernandez said of their frequent communication.
Fernandezâ€™s mother finds it hard to have her son overseas, although sheâ€™s now come to understand he is gaining valuable teaching experience.
â€œLately sheâ€™s not pushing me as much,â€ he said. â€œ[But] every time I go, sheâ€™s always like, â€˜When are you coming back?’â€™â€™
Entering the English-Speaking World
Fernandez has had a vested interest in English ever since he learned the language in high school. At university, he majored in English Language & Literature and afterward became an English teacher. At a certain point, however, Fernandez realized he needed to apply his rapidly improving knowledge in a new setting.
â€œIf I wanted to start my career as an educator teaching English, I needed to have experience going abroad in an English-speaking country,â€ he said.
While here, Fernandez is making sure he collects all the experience he can. He recently completed his Doctorate in Education, and is now working part-time as an Adjunct Professor at National Louis University, teaching Assessment of Language for Minority Students.
A Cultural Gap
Fernandez has come notice stark differences in lifestyle between the U.S. and Spain. Americans are overly work oriented, he said.
“In Spain, we work but we enjoy life in a different way,” he said. “We spend more time with friends and family. We have time to go out.”
In Spain, Fernandezâ€™s days are full of unrushed conversation with family and friends. Whether at a coffee shop, cafeteria or bar, Fernandez sits â€œfor hours just chatting,â€ he said. In the U.S., thereâ€™s little relaxed conversation over beer and tapas.
But the thought of his family abroad is still pulling Fernandez home. He would ideally like to work as a professor at a university close to his family, but Spain asks for more experience than he currently has. Fernandez intends to move back to Spain in â€œone, two, three, maybe ten years,â€ he said.
But his future is, for the most part, uncertain.
â€œAll my family is there,â€ he said. â€œI always think, â€˜Okay itâ€™s time to come back. Iâ€™m going to spend one more year.â€™ But its been nine years and Iâ€™m still here.”