CHICAGO — When he first came to this city 14 years ago from his home, located 20 miles outside of Sofia, 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 Chicago — a city, by the way, that is home to the largest Bulgarian immigrant population in the world. U.S. census data show around 20,000 Bulgarian Chicagoans. The consulate general of Bulgaria claims nearly three times that many.
He is part of a wave of Bulgarian immigrants who have arrived in the Windy City in the last 15 years, a wave that has embraced the American dream with gusto. These are the folks who help make Chicago Chicago; they are builders, construction workers, artisans, business owners, and professionals. They learn trades. They attend college. And they feed into our unique American exceptionalism.
He says: "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 knows change is coming. He has been a professional driver since he arrived here and seen the changes that car services like Uber have made on his profession. He knows that technology in the not too distant future will eliminate many drivers altogether with autonomous cars.
He explains: "Today, I make the same amount that I did 10 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."
Sound familiar? It should. Despite his youth, his relatively short time in 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. They are the very sons and daughters of the last great European immigration wave of the 20th century. Like him, those immigrants had strong pride in becoming American. Like him, they instantly became cornerstones in their community. And like him, they worked hard for their families to have a better life.
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 says you will make it regardless of what obstacles you face. It is common across the country, but it is particularly visible in first-generation immigrants.
He says he does not understand the part of the country that is angry all of the time. He beams: "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."
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."
Seeing our country through the eyes of a recent immigrant provides a glimpse into the experiences 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 or whether they would be able to get a job once they got here.
Like him, they came anyway. Life wasn't always easy — sometimes it wasn't 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, we should think about the young immigrants of our country and try to imagine what it is like to appreciate what we have instead of believing we are entitled to it.