Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is a neurosurgeon and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Known as “Dr. Q.” by his students and friends, Alfredo performs more than 250 brain surgeries each year, directs a world-class research laboratory, and has been the focus of numerous media profiles and interviews. Alfredo came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant when he was nineteen years old. He spoke to us of the years he spent building a better life for himself and his family in this country, a journey that took him from the farm fields of the San Joaquin Valley to Harvard Medical School.
I came to the United States in the late 1980s because of the American dream. I also came because of need. I realized that my own country of Mexico, a country that I love and where I grew up in very, very humble circumstances, was a place where it would be difficult to move upwards. Just like many people who have come to America, I wanted to open doors and opportunities. I wanted to be able to put food on the table for my siblings and my parents.
I came here with a dream that I could actually one day make a difference in this country. How little did I know that I was going to be the exception rather than the rule.
Alfredo’s father owned and operated a small gas station south of the border town of Mexicali, Mexico. After the devaluation of the Mexican peso in the early 1980s, he lost the business and the family struggled. During this time of increasing unemployment and economic turmoil in Mexico, illegal immigration to the United States surged to unprecedented levels.
Most people think poor immigrants like myself come to America because we think it’s an automatic ticket to a better life. They think, “Oh, you came here because you wanted to have an easier life.” I think that is wrong. Most immigrants who come here know that life in the United States is hard, but they see this country as a place where, if you work hard, you'll be able to put support your family. And think of all the things we leave behind—our families, our friends, our roots—to come into a new culture and a new country that doesn't necessarily welcome us. Yet we're willing to take that risk and leave everything.
I had just turned nineteen when I came to this country. I hopped the fence between Mexicali and Calexico, with literally nothing in my pockets. At this time, America for me was the land of opportunity. It represented a dream of one day being able to say, “I have contributed something to this world.” It was a place where I could potentially earn enough money to be able to eat, to be able to put shoes on my feet, to be able to buy a house one day, to be able to one day give my own children the opportunity and the education that I didn't have in my own country. And I knew from the start that achieving all of this meant working hard and using my intellect to the best of my abilities.
I came here with the idea that I would one day go back to my own country. But then I started enjoying the United States, and I began to see that the opportunities here weren’t a dream—they were very real if you worked hard. I matured in this country as this country began to mature in my heart as well. And so I never went back to Mexico. I wanted to stay in America and create a legacy I could leave to my children; I also felt I could leave a legacy for the world.