Photos by Monique Chevalier
All Jose Acebedo wanted on Christmas Eve was for his youngest son to witness a glittering snowfall for the first time. Traveling with his wife and his then 5-year-old son, Andres, Jose decided on Chicago as their vacation destination after a request from Andres to see the winter wonderland that was a novelty in their native Honduras.
Instead, Andres woke up in Chicago that morning with a headache and uncontrollable movement in his right eye that threatened his ability to see anything at all. Jose and his wife, Lourdes Paz, rushed their child to the emergency room where he would have surgery in an attempt to remove a previously undetected brain tumor.
Rather than spending their visit strolling down Michigan Avenue and taking photos at the Bean, the family spent the next month in the intensive care unit of John H. Stroger Hospital. And rather than returning home after a quick trip abroad, the family has relocated to Chicago permanently.
“We had never thought to live in the USA,” Jose said. “The majority of people think a Latin person came here because [he/she] didn’t have a job or had security problems, but in our case, we had a problem with our son’s health.”
While Jose and his family came to Chicago that Christmas in 2014 to catch a glimpse of snow, they stayed for the superior medical care the city could provide. His story reveals another layer of the modern Chicago immigrant: each come for a unique reason, not necessarily related to education, job opportunities or safety.
Defying traditional stereotypes of Latin American immigrants, Jose left behind a stable job as an electrical engineer and financial security in Honduras in exchange for the chance to save his son’s life. Although he has been able to take advantage of many of Chicago’s resources, his own career has taken a blow since coming to the city.
The now 6-year-old Andres’s initial stay at John H. Stroger Hospital uncovered a brain tumor diagnosed as Astrocytoma grade 1. Astrocytomas are tumors caused by star-shaped cells that make up the supportive tissue in the brain called astrocytes, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. This type of tumor occurs rarely, and is still a subject of research in the U.S. In Honduras, Astrocytoma is not even on the radar.
“In our country, it is impossible to fight for his life, because we don’t have the technology or the knowledge necessary for that kind of illness,” Jose said.
The family decided that, in order to preserve their son’s life, they must come to live in Chicago full time. Jose and Lourdes officially settled in Chicago in June 2015 along with Andres and their other two children: Alberto, 14 and Alice, 5.
Within two months of his initial Chicago trip, Andres had endured two craniotomy surgeries at John H. Stroger Hospital. Originally trying to remove the tumor from his brain, the surgeries were unsuccessful due to the tumor’s location.
In March 2015, he relocated to Lurie Children’s Hospital where he underwent one more surgery, this time shrinking the tumor instead of removing it. This treatment allowed him to regain a somewhat normal lifestyle, although ramifications such as the loss of his peripheral vision will continue to affect him.
Andres still visits the hospital 5 to 6 times a month for checkups, treatment and to participate in an ongoing study about his condition. He undergoes chemotherapy every 28 days as a means of keeping the tumor in check, and will continue to do so until the tumor’s behavior has been monitored long enough to confirm that it is no longer harmful.
Andres said that he feels scared each time he goes in for treatment, but he trusts the doctors. His favorite doctor, Dr. Stewart Goldman, tells him jokes and dances with him.
In between taking their son to checkups, Jose and Lourdes have been practicing their English, and Jose has been searching for work that both complies with his Visa and allows him to utilize his education.
Jose grew up in a medium-sized Honduran town alongside his three siblings. He described his childhood as enjoyable, highlighted by trips to the beach and the Ruinas Mayas. Based on the recommendation of a high school teacher, Jose went to Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras in the nation’s capital city, Tegucigalpa, to get his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and went on to get a master’s in finance from Universidad Tecnologica de Honduras.
From there, he worked 15 years for a government-owned electric company, in addition to maintaining a family business that provides aluminum for building windows. His career allowed him to take vacations to Florida, Niagara Falls and Chicago, while saving money for the future.
But after months of his son’s surgeries and prolonged stays in the hospital, Jose spent all of his saved money on medical bills, thrusting him into a job search. However, Jose has found securing a job in Chicago to be difficult, since his current citizenship status limits the types of jobs he is allowed to pursue.
Dr. Hector Garcia, Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies program at Loyola University Chicago, described the systems and attitudes at work behind Jose’s, and many other immigrants’, struggle for suitable employment.
“Chances are it would be very difficult to get a job in [the field of electrical engineering] if someone does not have a U.S. degree. We don’t usually acknowledge degrees from other countries,” Garcia explained.
Translation of foreign degrees requires a process of accreditation that is not easy. Additionally, many companies and organizations choose not to sponsor an immigrant for financial reasons. Jose hopes that sharing his story will serve as a networking opportunity for potential employers.
In between his hospital visits, Andres attends the Hope Institute Learning Academy, located in Chicago’s Near West Side neighborhood. His favorite parts of the day are lunchtime and recess, and he enjoys playing basketball, football and Legos.
All three siblings have adapted to life in Chicago, a transition made easier by the fact that they had already learned English at their school in Honduras. Alberto now attends Richard T. Crane High School, while Alice goes to Malcolm X Elementary. Both Andres and Alice said that they don’t want to speak Spanish anymore, since all of their new friends speak only English.
“When I’m older, I will play for the Blackhawks,” Andres said. He has not played ice hockey yet, but he likes the hockey video game at Chuck E. Cheese. His favorite food is chicken nuggets at McDonald’s and his favorite movie is “The Incredibles.”
For now, Andres says the hardest part about his condition is that it keeps him away from all of the things in Honduras that he loves.
“I miss my family, my dog Maya and going to the beach to surf,” he said. His doctors have told him that he can visit Honduras for a few weeks at a time but cannot return permanently.
Jose and his family feel fortunate to have gained access to the U.S.’s medical care. His wife, Lourdes Paz, described their Chicago hospital experience as very good, with experienced, professional doctors at their side.
The family initially lived in the Illinois Medical District’s Guest House, a temporary lodging service offered to Chicago patients, and recently moved to an apartment in the Pilsen neighborhood, a Hispanic enclave.
Despite the changes his family has recently undergone, Jose remains positive about his first year in the U.S. He is thankful for the beautiful city of Chicago for its medical care, and enjoys the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the relative safety the city provides compared to Honduras.
He describes his overall Chicago experience so far as both sad and happy. Despite the life-saving treatment Andres is receiving, the challenges brought on by the move still weigh on the family.
“Our life is hard. It’s hard to find someone to sponsor me for work and it was hard to leave everyone in Honduras behind,” Jose said.
Daniel Loftus, President and CEO of the Poder Learning Center, an English and job training program in Pilsen, has known Jose since his time in the neighborhood.
He described Jose as, “an extremely talented and driven individual who really needs an opportunity,” lamenting his difficulty in finding work due to his citizenship status in “limbo.”
While Jose’s circumstances for coming to Chicago are unique, his struggle to find work is not. As differing immigration policies continue to be a front-page issue, Loftus believes Jose’s story holds significance on a national scale.
“I don’t know how people can see topics as black and white, there is always so much gray area,” Loftus said. “A story like Jose’s can open their eyes to that.”