Through the miracle of Facebook, I recently reconnected with William Rojas, a former student (the “Hot William” profiled in my nonfiction memoir In the Shadow of the Volcano: One Ex-Intelligence Agent’s Journey through Slums, Prisons, and Leper Colonies to the Heart of Latin America). This is the second of my 2-part interview.
M: I remember that you were in the carpentry track. Are you a carpenter now?
W: No, actually! When I got here, I discovered that carpentry work here is very mechanized. I was used to doing everything by hand, which takes a long time and is more expensive—and, here, people just want whatever is cheapest!
M: So what kind of work did you end up doing?
W: I got a job for Ashley furniture. Man, that was terrible! So, I quit that job. Then I worked for another company installing cubicles for offices. I liked that one because I was more in contact with people and I got to practice my English more often. But that company didn’t offer good benefits, and the boss liked to yell a lot. I was lucky that for some reason he liked me and promoted me to be the boss of a crew. I was working crazy hours, but I was making more than my wife—and she has a Master’s degree! But my wife was sad that I wasn’t home anymore.
M: Then what did you do?
W: I wanted to study to be an HVAC technician, but first I needed to improve my English and get my GED. My wife wanted me to just take the GED test in Spanish, but I was determined to take it in English! I got so lucky. I met this beautiful woman—she was probably in her seventies or even older—and she tutored me. It was like God put her in my way. I passed the GED—in English—and I will remember that lady forever! So now I work for U-Haul and am an air conditioning and electrician guy. The benefits are good, and I get to spend lots of time with my family. Life is really good.
M: And you have kids, right?
W: Three! I am so blessed. And their teachers tell me they’re gifted!
M: And what do you think of the education they are receiving? How does it compare to the one you got in Ecuador?
W: The education here is really good. Here, the teachers find a way to teach according to the way the kid learns. In Ecuador, it’s the other way around—the kid has to find a way to understand the teacher.
M: What surprised you most about life in the U.S. after you moved here?
W: The amount of different people from around the world who live here. You know, in Ecuador we don’t have a big mix of people like you do here. And your cities are very well organized.
M: You recently read my book, “In the Shadow of the Volcano.” What did you think? Did I get it right?
W: Maureen, your book is really good! I think that it really describes the way life is there. You did not hide anything. You really felt how life is there.
M: When is the last time you visited Ecuador?
W: Four months ago.
M: I haven’t been back at all, so I am curious: how has it changed in the past 15 years?
W: It has changed a lot! I used to walk the streets all the time, but this time I was totally lost. It was like a new country. Life is harder now. The food is more expensive than here in the U.S. Cars are everywhere, so the traffic is crazy and pollution is bad too. Banks are lending money to the people with 25% interest or more, even if people can’t really pay them back. The country is headed for an economic fall—like what happened here a few years ago. It’s sad. Another big difference is that child labor has been outlawed. That’s mostly a good thing, but it does make it harder for some families to survive.
M: You live in Arizona, which is on the front lines of the immigration debate. Do you feel welcome in the U.S.?
W: Yes, I do. I just follow the rules, and usually nobody bothers me. There was one day when I was going to Home Depot and this security guard told me I wasn’t allowed in. I laughed and told him I was going in whether he liked it or not.
M: How did he take that?
W: He said I was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. So, I just passed by him and went in the store. But then I heard him call the police on his radio. Sure enough, two police cars showed up. At that time, I was here on a fiancé visa so I figured I was going to lose no matter what. So, I decided to run away. I was wearing two shirts and a hat, so I quickly changed my shirt and took off my hat. That is how I fooled them. (laughs) I was sitting right in front of them and they couldn’t recognize me.
M: (laughs) Clearly, not the smartest security guard. Or the most ethical, or logical! (pause) Okay, switching gears now, one of the recurring themes in our conversations 15 years ago was gender roles. Now that you live here, do you think I described gender roles in the U.S. accurately?
W: Yes, you did! I really wish my sisters and mom lived here. I love it! Ladies here have more rights.
M: Tell our readers more about how women are treated in Ecuador, from your perspective.
W: My sisters’ husbands don’t do anything, so my sisters have to feed them! When I was growing up, though, my mom had the opposite problem. My dad was the man of the house, and my mom needed his permission to do everything—even take care of her own mother. So, I always promised myself that I would marry an independent woman who doesn’t need to depend on a man to survive.
M: Good for you! (laughs) Well, this has been quite a long interview! Are there any last thoughts you’d like to share with my readers?
W: Just this: if you are feeling sorry for yourself, look around you. You will see someone who is in a far worse situation than you.
M: So true. Thanks for talking to me, William!
W: Thank you! I’ve always wanted to be interviewed by a “famous” author in English!