By Grace Cangemi
“I am part of this country.”
Maybe too many of us Americans take for granted what that means. Not Fernando.
Fernando Cesar Dos Santos said it over and over again, tears in his eyes as he told me about his path from busing tables without papers to becoming an American citizen. Fernando did it the right way. He and his cousin came here from Brazil on September 26, 2000 on a visa, and Fernando got a job as a 28 year old busboy making $180 a week.
A month or so later, he knew that he needed a better job, so he took the bus to Atlantic Highlands and walked up and down First Avenue, stopping at all the restaurants to look for work.
Fernando says it was “God’s hand directly” that brought him to the Copper Canyon . At the time, the location was tiny, and he didn’t think they’d be hiring, but the third time he walked by, he stopped in. When he was introduced to Michael Krikorian, he thought that the chef/owner was the kitchen help. He asked for work anyway, and Michael said he’d think about it. When Fernando got home, he had a message asking if he could start the next day.
“Michael is my angel. Everything I have is because of him and the people here. He trusted me and now I am a part of all of this.”
Shortly after Fernando started washing dishes at Copper Canyon, he asked Michael to sponsor him for his Green Card. Michael agreed and has since also sponsored Fernando’s cousin.
“Every day I checked online for four years to see if I got it. When I did, I was so excited.”
From there, it was nearly five years to citizenship.
“I don’t want to make money and go home to Brazil. I wanted to put my name down and be part of this country,” Fernando told me. “I could just have a Green Card but I work for this country. I pay taxes for this country. I can go to Brazil, but I worked so hard to be part of this country. Everything I have is from being part of this country”
Some Brazilians he knows think he shouldn’t have changed citizenship, but Fernando disagrees.
“My heart is Brazilian. My only family here is my cousin. But I am an American. I think everyone wants to be American.”
Last Monday night, the Copper Canyon staff had a party for Fernando at Taste in Red Bank. Lindsay Dewis, Fernando’s manager says it brings tears to her eyes when she hears about it.
Over the past ten years, Fernando has worked his way up from dishwasher through kitchen prep to serving, expediting, and managing. His co-workers say he studied day and night for his citizenship test and quizzing him taught them things about America that they didn’t know. That’s why they couldn’t wait to surprise him by wearing matching t-shirts. The front said “Fernando is an…” and the back blazed “AMERICAN”.
“Seeing my name on the shirt, that made me feel so special,” Fernando told me. “I never felt so special.”
“How many people want to be like me? I’m so lucky. I’m not born here, but I’m an American just like you.”
I’m going to do my best to keep Fernando’s word in mind every morning.
“I feel free. No one can say I’m not a part of this. I wake up in the morning and I’m so happy because man, I’m an American.”