La Vida Loca

Originally published in Flourishing Jan/Feb 2013

“You’re too smart to be from Mexico.”  Alfredo’s new friends and classmates were stunned into silence by that comment, made by a post-graduate teaching assistant (TA) at the University of California (U.C.) at Berkeley.  For his part, though, Alfredo mentally filed it among the many reasons he had for earning a college degree.  He was still using a Spanish-English Dictionary to interpret his professors’ lectures; and he still carried a heavy load of self-doubt. This wasn’t a hill to die on.

It had only been a few months since Alfredo Quiñones had earned an Associate’s Degree at San Joaquin Delta College (SJDC); and it was on the basis of his academic record there that he had been admitted at Berkeley.  In fact, he had innocently thought that when he finished at SJDC, his college education would be complete.  Fortunately, in his final semester, one of his SJDC professors discovered Alfredo’s confusion and referred him to a faculty advisor, who was able to explain his educational options.  In the process of advancing his education just that far, Alfredo had pulled weeds and picked tomatoes and cotton on San Joachin Valley produce farms; he had shoveled sulphur from rail cars; and he had learned to weld heavy steel in Stockton, California’s railroad yards.  Now at U.C. Berkeley, he was still burning the candle at both ends.

Alfredo’s big dream was to become an American citizen.  He had already helped bring his parents, Sostenes and Flavia, and his four siblings to the San Joachin Valley from their two-room home in Polaco, Baja, Mexico.  They were all on the road to American citizenship.  That journey had started the day that Alfredo hopped the eighteen foot fence topped with barbed wire that separated Mexicali, Mexico from Calexico, California. 

It had taken two attempts.  The first time over the top, Alfredo was greeted by American border guards. “Ay, Dios mío!” he thought to himself, not knowing what fate awaited him.  But the guards somehow understood that he wasn’t a threat to American national security, and they delivered him through the nearest checkpoint back into Mexico. 

After being released, Alfredo returned immediately to the same spot in the wall and scaled the rampart again.  This time, he vanished into the dark streets of Calexico, and by dawn he was in the San Joachin Valley at the home of his uncle.  That day had been his eighteenth birthday—the happiest day of his life he thought—January 2, 1986. 

Fortunately, Alfred0’s illegal crossing was soon forgiven when President Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazolli Immigration Act of 1986.  That’s when he felt it was safe to enroll at SJDC.

By the time he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from U.C. Berkeley, Alfredo no longer needed his Spanish-English dictionary.  And, he had decided to become a doctor.  Indeed, with his dazzling academic record, he was faced with choosing among medical schools at Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard.  He chose Harvard, where he again made a name for himself, this time with the nation’s most respected medical faculty. 

In 1999, at the age of thirty-one and with his medical education at Harvard nearly complete, Alfredo showed his academic credentials and letters of recommendation to the lady at the citizenship office in Boston.  Examining them carefully, she asked, “How did you go from being a migrant farm worker to all this?”  Alfredo Quiñones didn’t have an answer, and unsure of where the question would lead, he was trembling.  “Ay, Dios mío! Not again.” he thought to himself.  Then the lady smiled, stamped his papers, and offered her congratulations: “Alfredo, you are now a citizen of the United States of America.”  

He had often reminded himself of the words of his grandfather, Tata Juan Quiñones: “Alfredo, whenever you have the choice, don’t follow where the path leads.  Go instead where there is no path and then leave a trail.” La vida loca!  Live the crazy life, yes; but always with a worthy purpose in mind.  Alfredo knew he had done that, exactly.  He no longer had to explain—to himself, or to anyone else—that he was worthy of the risks he’d taken and the opportunities he’d been given.  He was chosen by his graduating class at Harvard to deliver their upcoming commencement address.  “That triumph”, he now says, “was also an exorcism. …with my photo on the front page, I was truly living la vida loca.”  And with that speech, his self-doubt was gone. 

Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa (he added his mother’s maiden name to his own) is now teaching and practicing medicine at Johns-HopkinsUniversity and Hospital in Baltimore, where he is one of America’s leading brain surgeons.  Dr. Q. has also created a brain research laboratory at Johns-Hopkins, dedicated to discovering the causes of brain cancer and for developing more effective treatments.  He is fully supported in his efforts by his wife, the former Anna Peterson of Mendota, California, and their three children. mh


* This article is based on the book, Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon, by Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, M.D.,  University of California Press, 2011.  You should read it.  Really!