American Dream Awards- Rodrigo Fuenzalida’s Story

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish

By Abigail Delgado

When Rodrigo Fuenzalida left Chile to come to the United States of America, he knew that he was going to start from zero. He left behind Palmilla, a small town in the province of Colchagua, Chile, with no more than 15,000 inhabitants, known for its historical buildings, vineyards and traditions. He also left his parents, who always envisioned something big for their son and raised him to have a strong spirit and character. Fuenzalida eventually sacrificed this life, and his closeness to his parents, to chase his American dream.

In Chile, at the age of ten, Fuenzalida started working in vineyards and farms in his region but even though his family was not wealthy, his parents never asked him to drop out of school. As a result, Fuenzalida’s aspirations reached further than finishing high school and he enrolled himself in the prestigious University of Concepcion in Chile, to become a teacher. “I was the first one in my family to go to college. My parents were very supportive and worked harder to help me to achieve my goals. They were really proud of me,” said Fuenzalida.

However, in 2002, he decided to take a break from college and he came to
United States for the first time as an au pair. “I wanted to know more of the culture. I didn’t only want to teach from the book. I wanted to tell my students the meaning of American traditions and what people do for the holidays,” he recalled. After this experience, he went back to Chile, graduated as an English teacher and right after, he was hired to teach at a high school.

It was a simple conversation with some friends that lived in the United States that inspired him to take the risk and come live abroad. “For me, this was an adventure. I was not afraid of the culture or the language; I had experienced it before so I gave it a shot,” explained Fuenzalida. Nevertheless, the Promised Land this time was different from his first experience and he was having difficulties finding a job, so he decided to visit the Community Center of Mount Kisco, New York, were day labor workers were regularly hired. “I worked since I was a boy, and I was not afraid to do anything, landscaping, construction or painting. I was open to the options and I was hired a lot because I was one of the few that spoke English.” Later on, he decided to volunteer at the community center as an English teacher. Later on, his involvement with the institution paid off and he was hired as an outreach worker for Neighbors Link.

Fuenzalida was becoming rooted in this country. During this period, he was married, his daughter Savannah was born and the family moved to Connecticut, where they found more affordable housing options. Unfortunately, the relationship did not last and Fuenzalida continued his journey alone, with his daughter as his motivation. In 2012, his passion for helping others led him to join the National Guard. “It was something that I wanted to do. I always wanted to get involved with this kind of institution and when I was 31, I joined the army. The training was hard; it was physically and emotionally demanding but I did well,” explained Fuenzalida, proudly, who successfully finished the sixteen weeks of basic training.

The flexibility of being part of the National Guard allowed Fuenzalida to look for other jobs and by the end of 2014, he was hired by the Danbury Library as a communications specialist. There, he had the opportunity to restore the Talk Time English conversation program that was suspended and he will also start a new ESL class for beginners in addition to overseeing the library’s marketing and public relations efforts. “I really enjoy working at the library. I get to give something back to the community by giving people the orientation that I did not have when I arrived in this country,” he said.

Recently, Fuenzalida obtained his U.S. citizenship, giving him another reason to be filled with gratitude to the United States; nevertheless, his American dream has not yet been fulfilled. “I still have a few steps to achieve my dream. I would like settle down, be in a leadership position, open more opportunities for me and my daughter, be able to buy a house and then, I would feel that my dream in this country was achieved,” said Rodrigo.

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