Immigrant Stories: Realizing a dream of an automotive career
Intro: José Alonso Puga and his wife, Alma, own and operate In and Out Automotive Repair in Glenwood Springs. This is their interview with Walter Gallacher’s Immigrant Stories.
Puga: I came to the United States from Nayarit, Mexico, when I was 18 to pursue my dream of being a better person and to be better in my automotive career.
Gallacher: Did you start your career in Mexico?
Puga: Yes, when I graduated from high school I went to technical college for automotive repair and graduated when I was 18. I got a job doing car repairs and worked there for a while before I came to the United States.
Gallacher: Was working on cars something you always wanted to do?
Puga: No, my passion, when I was a kid, was to be a graphic designer or airline pilot. I liked the uniforms. But once I started working on cars I really liked it a lot.
Gallacher: What was growing up in Nayarit like?
Puga: I grew up in a small agricultural town so we grew tobacco, beans and corn, but tobacco was our main crop. I lived on a little farm with my mom and my dad, my uncles and my three brothers and sister.
Gallacher: What was life like as a child?
Puga: It was difficult because I lost my dad when I was 15. I was lucky to have my uncles, Guillermo and Juan, to help me. I lost my dad but I got two dads to take his place.
My uncles were so good to me. They really helped me when I was grieving for my dad. I was really sad for a long time, but I eventually came to accept it, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of my mom and my uncles.
My mom is very kind, loving and strong person. She had to work twice as hard when my dad died because suddenly there was no more money coming. She was a very good seamstress, so when my dad died she began making clothes and doing repairs for people. She was able to raise all five of us kids with what we raised on the farm and what she made with her sewing business.
Gallacher: Did your father die suddenly or was he sick for a long time?
Puga: He died in a car accident in Los Angeles, California. He was in the United States working and sending money back to help us on the farm.
Gallacher: What do you remember about him?
Puga: He was a very good man but he was gone most of the time, trying to make money in the U.S. so that we could have a better life. I just have a few memories of him, but the ones I have are very special to me.
Gallacher: Did you work on the farm?
Puga: Yes, when I wasn’t in school I was working with my uncles. But when I went to technical college I had to leave home. My mom and my uncles supported me for the first year, but the second year I was able to get a job as a mechanic at a Volkswagen dealership.
Gallacher: Did you grow up thinking about coming to the United States?
Puga: Yes, I remember seeing people who came back to Mexico to visit while working in the United States, we called them “norteños” (northerners). They usually had nice clothes and drove really nice trucks. I wanted those nice things and money to spend. I wanted to be like them.
My teacher at the technical college used to talk about all of the opportunities for auto mechanics in the U.S. So when I graduated I went north to the United States and started my career.
Gallacher: How did you come?
Puga: I crossed illegally, the first time, through Tijuana. I hired a coyote and came with some other people.
Gallacher: Was it dangerous?
Puga: No, not at all. I had heard all of the stories about people getting stranded in the desert, but we didn’t have any problems.
I got to Whittier, California, and stayed with my uncle and found a job working for an ice company bagging ice. I stayed with him for about six months, and then I rented an apartment with some other guys my age.
I worked for the ice company for a year, and then I started working on my automotive career. Once I got started working on cars I just began working my way up. I got several jobs in auto shops in Los Angeles, and each time I learned more about being a mechanic
I was always trying to learn more, so when I felt like I had learned all I could in one shop I moved on to another one that could give me more experience. I am always trying to learn more. Right now I am certified as a master technician and an advanced systems specialist.
Gallacher: What is an advanced systems specialist?
Puga: That is someone who knows all about the electronics and the computer systems that power modern cars. These days there can be 20 to 30 computers on a car. Communicating with cars requires that you know about computers.
I am constantly studying because there are constant updates that I have to be aware of. Every time we get a new system I take the course and get certified. Auto mechanics has changed a lot from when I first started.
Gallacher: Did you come knowing English?
Puga: Yes, I would say that my English was about 50 percent when I left Mexico, so it was pretty easy for me to get the rest.
I met my wife, Alma, and she really helped me with my papers. And in 2001 I became a “resident,” and then I really studied hard for my citizenship. I had the equivalent of a high school diploma from Mexico, and I went to school for a year in Whittier when I got here. I finally earned my citizenship in 2007.
I was lucky to have graduated from high school in Mexico. I think that made it easier for me because I knew how to study. I think it is really difficult for immigrants who don’t have much experience with school.
Gallacher: Did you have a hard time getting legal status? I have heard that people who come to the United States illegally have a very difficult time gaining status.
Puga: No, I was fortunate. And I am a very persistent and positive person. I try to confront life with a good attitude, do the best I can and make the most of what life presents me with.
Gallacher: Where did you get that?
Puga: I think my uncles, Guillermo and Juan, taught me that. They were both very positive persons, and I tried to be like them. They taught me how to see life differently and take advantage of the situation.
Gallacher: Were these your father’s brothers?
Puga: No, my mother’s. They had the same kind and loving spirit that she had. They are both gone now, but I still think of them almost every day. They taught me how to work, how to be with people and the importance of respect for my elders and others. I learned how to confront life in any situation from them.
Gallacher: How long were you in the United States before you met your wife?
Puga: I was here about two years when I met her. She was my neighbor, so we started as friends, and the more we talked the more we liked each other.
We went together for two years, and in 1994 we decided to move back to Mexico. I wanted to open my own shop in my hometown. That’s where we got married. We only stayed a year and came back to the U.S.
Gallacher: What changed your plans about staying?
Puga: I couldn’t find a good location to open a shop, and the jobs there didn’t pay enough for us to live on. It was always my dream to open my own shop in my hometown, but it didn’t work out, at least not there.
Gallacher: But now you have your own place.
Puga: Yes, my wife and I opened the In and Out in 2007, and we are very happy, we’re growing.
Gallacher: Do you have children?
Puga: We have a daughter and a son, Belen and Roberto. Belen is 21 and Roberto is 19.
Gallacher: So life is good.
Puga: Life is very good. I have wonderful kids and a wonderful wife. I love my career. I love my job.
Gallacher: What brought you to Glenwood Springs?
Puga: The location and the weather but mostly my son. We came to visit my brother, who was living here, and we all liked it. But my son, who was 6 when we visited, never stopped talking about Glenwood. He fell in love with Colorado and Glenwood Springs.
It was like his dream place. He talked about it all the time, and he was constantly drawing pictures of the mountains and the rivers and urging us to move. This place captured his imagination, and he eventually convinced us all. We’re so glad he did. People here are very kind and open-minded. It feels like home.
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