CHICAGO — When Yoni first arrived in this city 14 years ago from his home 20 miles outside of Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, he only knew two words in the English language: “Pepsi” and “pizza.”
“I came here because my best friend said, ‘In America, no matter who you are, you can make something of yourself and make something good for your family if you just work hard,’” he says with a rich mixture of his native tongue and near-perfect English.
“So, I did.”
Along with him came his wife and his 5-year-old son; they immediately settled in the northwest suburbs of the city — a city, by the way, that is home to the largest Bulgarian immigrant population in the world. Census data shows around 20,000 Bulgarian-Chicagoans. The consulate general of Bulgaria claims nearly three times that many.
Yoni is part of a wave of Bulgarian immigrants who have arrived in the Windy City in the past 15 years — a wave that has embraced the American Dream with gusto. These are the folks who help make Chicago Chicago; they are builders and construction workers, artisans, business owners, and professionals. They learn trades, they attend college, and they feed into our unique American exceptionalism.
“We thrive because we love the opportunities we have here not just for ourselves but for our children. The key is, not to give up. The deadbolt is, even when everything conspires to work against you, you have to be willing to find a way to make a living another way,” he said.
Yoni knows change is coming — he has been a driver since he arrived here. He has seen the changes that car services like Uber have made on his profession, and he knows that technology in the not too distant future will eliminate drivers all together with autonomous cars.
“Today, I make the same amount that I did ten years ago. It is not because I work less, it is because all of these technological advances have impacted my industry. I used to work 12 hours; I now work 14 to 16 hours to keep my salary the same. But I go to the grocery store, and the cost of food doesn’t stay the same,” he explains.
Sound familiar? It should — despite his youth, new immigration to this country, and his incredible work ethic, his economic struggles sound eerily similar to those of middle-aged Rust Belt voters whose manufacturing jobs were displaced by technology — the very sons and daughters of the last great European immigration wave of the last century. Like Yoni, they had strong pride in becoming American. Like Yoni, they instantly became cornerstones in their community. And like Yoni, they worked hard for their family for a better life.
“My son, he is so smart, he worked so hard in school. He got a great scholarship to attend Indiana University to become a chemical engineer. Our younger son is nine; he thinks he is going to be a professional soccer player,” he says laughing.
“All kidding aside, he works hard too,” he says.
Every immigrant in this country is an echo of all of us – tug the thread of his story seen throughout the fabric of our country, and you find that same strain of defiance that you will make it regardless of what obstacles you face. That defiance is common across the country, but it is particularly visible in first-generation immigrants.
Yoni says he does not get the part of the country that is angry all of the time. “This social media stuff is sometimes awful. Yes, I understand that things need fixed or changed, but sometimes I wonder if some Americans really understand how blessed they are. If they take the time to ponder that. No country is perfect, this country, if you use the opportunities in front of you, is as close as you can get,” he beams.
It really is that simple, he says.
He is appalled at what parts of Chicago have become, he says: “Too much death, there are kids who are afraid to go to school because they have to cross over several different gang territories to get from home to the school. I blame the machine politics of this city for that. They keep people down and give them just enough stuff to get their vote, but it is a culture that keeps them from succeeding. Generations of that, and you don’t know anything else and you don’t do anything else. They are trapped,” he said.
“When I first came to this country, I thought the Democratic Party was the party of the people, that it helped people. After watching what it has done to parts of this city, I want nothing to do with them. They hurt people; they don’t lift them up; they use them,” he said.
Seeing the country through the eyes of a recent immigrant to our country is a glimpse into the experiences of what many of our families faced. They came here without much, sometimes just the clothes on their back. They did not know the language, the people, the customs, and if they were going to be able to get a job once they got here.
Like Yoni, they came anyway. Life wasn’t always easy, sometimes life wasn’t easy at all, but they became the people who built America. They drove the trucks, dug the dirt, made the food, harvested the grain, soaked their lungs in coal dust, singed their hair, and their skin while working in the steel mills, and sent their sons and daughters off to college for a better life than theirs.
The next time we complain about the Metro or the barista or how offended we are by the outrage of the moment – think about the Yonis of our country and try to imagine what it is like to appreciate what we have instead of believing we are entitled to what we have.