4 Treasure Coast Residents Open Up About Immigrating To The United States In Pursuit Of The American Dream
If we’re lucky enough to be born in the USA, we may be proud of our country and our American heritage, but it’s also likely that we take it for granted, not realizing just how good we have it here in America—“the land of hope and dreams.” We sat down with four Treasure Coast residents who now call the United States and the Treasure Coast their home, to hear their stories of opportunity and gratitude.
Arati Hammond was born in Bangalore, India, and was sent to the U.S. in December 1987 to join the husband who had been arranged for her. “I was 22, young, excited, and had one $20 bill in my pocket,” she says. “When I landed at JFK, it was cold, dreary, cloudy, and I thought I would land and meet Madonna.”
Sadly, Madonna wasn’t at the airport to meet her. But Hammond eventually moved to Connecticut and worked as a clerical assistant in an office setting. “I loved learning the whole new world,” she says. When the company she worked for closed, her employer found her another job immediately and because of her personality and ability to sell and work hard. She helped that small business grow to become a $10 million business before leaving.
After having her first child, Hammond, who chose to be a stay-at-home mother, and her husband came to visit friends in Palm City and eventually made the move to the area full-time. She got her real estate license and started learning the real estate business. “The more I did it, the more I realized how much I enjoy helping people,” she says. “I found that I am good at what I do.” Hammond says everyone has three people in common. They have a mother, a father, and they know a realtor. She says her heritage and willingness to work hard, learn new skills and adapt to technology have helped her to become one of the Top 10 Realtors in all of Florida this year, and the top in Stuart during 2015.
“My husband is a big influence on me,” she says. “He is an uncompromising, unflinchingly hard worker with impeccable ethics, and he has taught me a lot and helped me navigate through the culture.” When her father passed away, Hammond decided to become a U.S. citizen.
“I have learned so many good things from this culture, which has allowed me the freedom to be me. You can’t be yourself as a woman in so many places in the world, and the opportunities here in the U.S. are simply boundless. Even though I didn’t meet Madonna when I got off the plane, I can’t imagine living anywhere else—ever,” she says.
Crossing the street one day to go to school to learn English, Marcos Vallejos was spit on by a man crossing in the opposite direction. “I can’t explain how it affected my dignity,” says the Jensen Beach resident who was born and raised in Santiago, Chile. “I remember crying, not understanding why I had to go through that humiliation from anyone. But I had been an arrogant young man in Chile, and being in the USA taught me humility. I learned that you need to start at the bottom, learn the language and pay your dues.”
The son of a military employee in Chile, Vallejos was born in 1965 and came of age at a time when there was much political upheaval in his home country. His father, whom Vallejos says was his greatest influence, worked three jobs in order to provide for his children and send them to private schools because he believed the only way to succeed in life was through education. “From my father I learned ethics, hard work, patience and humility,” says Vallejos, whose father passed away just two months ago. “Now that I have two children of my own, I understand why he was so strict and tried to make us excel,” he says. “He paid and sacrificed so much for us.”
“America really is the land of hope and dreams. Whatever you dream, you can do.” - Marcos Vallejos
Vallejos left Chile at the age of 25 after unsuccessfully trying to become a lawyer. A very spiritual man, he initially tried to emigrate to Australia to live with relatives there but was denied a visa. “The public bus passed through the United States Embassy, and I pulled the bell, stopped and applied for a visa,” he says. Told there would be a two hour wait, Vallejos spent that time praying and making a personal pilgrimage to a famous statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking Santiago. “I remember praying, ‘Please give me one chance,’” Vallejos says. Upon his return, he happened to meet the U.S. Consul, who listened to his story and decided to give him a chance. “I didn’t speak the language. It was difficult and humbling, and I suffered and cried nearly every day, but God made me humble,” he says. “I struggled big time and experienced racism and prejudice.”
Vallejos, who worked as a busboy, janitor and any job he could find, recalls one winter when he was fired for not having papers. “I’ll never forget the sound of that metal door being closed behind me after I’d been fired. They had taken my uniform clothes away from me, and I had nothing but my parka on. The snow was nearly 7 feet tall, and the police followed me as I ran home, humiliated and defeated.” Eventually things began to improve, including his language skills, and Vallejos met and married his wife, and moved to Florida because it was affordable and there was work. With the help of his father-in-law, he purchased the Martin and Osceola County ServPro franchises, and like his dad, worked a second job in order to give his children a superior education. He says it was the best investment he ever made for his children. “America really is the land of hope and dreams,” Vallejos says. “Whatever you dream, you can do.”
As a boy growing up in the small village of Bitetto, Italy, Mike Flora could look forward to a future farming olives or grapes. But it’s hardly as romantic as it sounds. Farmers—like most everyone else—barely scraped by.
“You become very strategic, very resourceful,” Flora remembers. “You try to make use of whatever you find.”
He dreamed of one day making a new life in America.
“Everybody looked up to Americans,” he says. “My perception was, ‘I want to be one of those.’”
His father, Frank, a tailor, shared that dream. Five times Frank went through the interview process—which questioned his trade, skills and political philosophies—in order to bring the six members of his immediate family to the U.S. before finally getting accepted. That same sense of determination would propel Flora to incredible heights of success in America, where he became part of a multimillion-dollar food distribution business that employs 30 people.
Flora was 12 when, after suffering bouts of seasickness during the two-week journey aboard the USS Independence, the Floras arrived in New York Harbor on Dec. 17, 1962. Family welcomed them to their home in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood known as “Little Italy.”
“I saw this abundance of food, that I’d never seen in my life—meats, cookies, sodas,” he says. “I started drinking orange soda, and said, ‘Oh my God. This is unbelievable.’”
“When there was an opportunity, I just took it. And it was up to me to take it to another level.” - Mike Flora
In time, Flora met Domenica Devito (one of 10 siblings who immigrated to America with her parents in 1961), fell in love and got married. In 1973, his brother, John, bought an abandoned pizzeria in Miami. Flora and Devito visited and decided to move down. Flora worked as a mailman, Devito with an attorney.
The restaurant earned rave reviews. Flora left the postal service to work with John, and they soon opened other locations. One day, a wholesaler suggested they save money by ordering canned tomatoes in larger quantities.
“He said, ‘You should buy a container and put them in the warehouse,’” Flora recalls.
Having no warehouse, Flora directed the delivery to his home. Days later a semi-tractor trailer arrived.
“I’m thinking the container is in the tractor-trailer,” he says. “The container is the tractor-trailer.”
Inundated with boxes of canned tomatoes, the brothers started calling other restaurant owners to offer deals. Selling every box in one day, they decided to formally try the wholesale food business.
“That’s really the role of the immigrant, especially my generation,” Flora says. “When there was an opportunity, I just took it. And it was up to me to take it to another level.”
Working from 4 a.m. till late at night, Flora and John created Flora Fine Foods. Later, Flora transitioned to Boar’s Head, building the brand in South Florida. After graduating college, his sons, Frank and Joe, wanted to become distributors. After going through training and approval by Boar’s Head, they now manage their own markets on the Treasure Coast and in Palm Beach County.
Flora credits his wife and his faith for his success.
“What it is to have a relationship with the Lord, I never understood that before my wife,” says the husband of 44 years with three children, 10 grandchildren and another on the way. “I’m so happy that I’ve been able to make my faith, and my God, the No. 1 priority of my life.”
Gytha Von Aldenbruck
Gytha Mandody Von Aldenbruck’s mission in life is to spread the word that each of us has the credentials, with the gift of our presence, to heal the suffering of loneliness that cannot be cured with medicine. But before serving others through Memory Bridge, an internationally recognized non-profit organization dedicated to this cause, Von Aldenbruck had a bridge of her own to cross. Born and raised by south Indian parents who were both descendants of Christian ministers, Von Aldenbruck says her family’s dream was to live in the welcoming Christianity of the U.S. Sadly, her mother did not live to see her dream come true.“She was secure in the knowledge that my elder brother, Julian, had been accepted at West Virginia Wesleyan College and would depart for the U.S. within a few weeks of her death, and that my younger brother, Clifford, and I would follow in his footsteps,” Von Aldenbruck says. She is proud to be a citizen of this exceptional country, which has welcomed her with open arms.
As a young stockbroker at E.F. Hutton, the groundbreaking Jensen Beach resident achieved the status of Blue Chip stockbroker in a field largely populated by men. She was later named a first vice president with Morgan Stanley, and was recognized as a member of the prestigious Directors Club.
But for Von Aldenbruck, who recently joined the board of the Martin County Community Foundation, the penultimate accomplishment has been cultivating emotionally nourishing relationships with those living with dementia. “There is a bridge,” she says, “and it is found through the quality of our presence and the depth of our communication.” For Von Aldenbruck, living a charitable life is about much more than just attending the next black-tie event. “I believe in the mission of my philanthropic efforts, and I bear witness to its authenticity,” she says.
“I believe in the mission of my philanthropic efforts.” - Gytha Von Aldenbruck