One of James Mendoza’s “deepest dreams” is to travel, and that led to his interest in the hospitality industry. When his family moved from Manta, Ecuador, to New York City in 2012, he saw it as an opportunity to pursue that field with expanded possibilities. Although he had already completed three years of university back home, he had to start his studies all over again in New York. The first step was to learn English. Shortly after his arrival in the city, he found the job at Westbeth, where his colleagues have helped him with his English vocabulary. The 24-year-old Mendoza now has an associate’s degree from LaGuardia Community College, and he is continuing his studies in hospitality management at New York City College of Technology.
Terry Stoller spoke with Mendoza in August 2016 about his leaving Ecuador to come to New York, his efforts to learn English, the challenges of attending college while holding down a full-time job at Westbeth, his acting experience with a youth theatre in Ecuador, and his crowdfunding campaign to help victims of the April 2016 earthquake in Ecuador.
Terry Stoller: When did you leave Ecuador and come to New York?
James Mendoza: I left Ecuador four years ago in March 2012. My mother and my sister and I came because my grandmother made the paperwork for us about ten years ago. My father joined us later.
Most of my family on my mother’s side is here—some of them became part of certain programs that brought workers from Ecuador; that was a long time ago. The last of the siblings to come was my grandmother. She was the youngest one. And then my mother always wanted to come because of the American dream. She wanted us to get an education here. Thank god we had a good education in Ecuador, but she thought that it was much better for us to study in New York. My mother had a business in my country—a beauty salon—and she could build a house, and we had a nice life over there.
But she wanted to come to the US.
And I wanted to come here. I had the opportunity to come starting when I was 10 years old. I came three times with a tourist visa—and I came in the wintertime. When it’s winter here, over there we have vacation from school. So I loved it. I wanted to come back again. When I was 19, I came as a resident.
How did you feel about leaving Ecuador behind?
When I just came, it was really hard, as it is for most immigrants, I think. By that time, I was on my third year of university in Ecuador. Thank god, I could graduate from high school when I was 16. So by the time I was 19, I had three years already done in the university, and I was president of the student council. I had about 650 students under my leadership. It was a great experience for me. So it was hard because I had to leave all those people, all those friends—and also my family on my father’s side. All of them are over there, and I’m very tied to my grandmother and to my uncles and aunts. Family is really important for us. We had a lot of traditions with the family for Christmas and birthdays—everybody together. So it was really hard for me when I just came here. I faced a whole different city, which I wanted to be in, but I didn’t speak too much English by that time, and I was looking for a job. I remember one time they gave me an address to apply for a job, and I went and got lost because I had no idea where it was. And that was the first time I cried, and I was crying in the park because I didn’t find the address, and I felt so alone even though my mother was here. I was feeling that nobody cares about me. The house I was staying in—they forgot my birthday. They didn’t know when my birthday was. It was totally different to my country.
Where were you staying?
I was staying in my aunt’s house in Queens. My mother and my sister and I were using a little room in the basement. But we always had the hope that things were going to get better, and we knew that we were just starting.
You wanted to go to school here.
That was the most frustrating thing. I wanted to go to school, and I thought it was going to be expensive. (It is a little bit.) But the most difficult part was that I didn’t know English. So I applied for this job and came here to Westbeth. Before this job, I had a couple of interviews, and I always said, “My English is limited. Please speak slow.” They did it, and I could understand. I could understand reading and writing better, but speaking was the problem because I didn’t have enough practice when I was in my country. And then I started working here six months after I came from Ecuador.
What were you studying back in Ecuador?
Hospitality management. The same thing I’m studying right now. I was convinced about what I want to do for my life. I have always been excited about traveling. I think that is one of my deepest dreams: to travel and know the world and other cultures. When I came to New York the first time, I was looking at people wearing different clothes and eating different foods, so I was fascinated about that. And then I always kept in my mind that I wanted to come here. And then I studied hospitality management, and they taught me more about the world and travel. I think it’s easier to travel when you are here. I am very passionate about traveling and my career, and that’s why I decided to do it here in New York. I thought it was going to be better because now I would know two languages, Spanish and English, which would be a great advantage.
How did you learn English?
I came here, and I started going to different schools by my neighborhood, public libraries and church. In the church, they gave you some free English classes. So I started over there; the basic things I knew already. And then they started teaching me different things, and they recommended me to watch movies, TV programs, and I started doing it. And they said, We recommend you to read something that you like, and I started reading Time Out New York—I love the magazine; I’ve got the app on my phone—because I wanted to know more about the city.
And then here at Westbeth, it was a huge help with my coworkers. All of them really helped me out with English. I’d say, I don’t understand, and they’d explain it to me in a certain way that I’d retain the information in my head and know what it meant. In that way, I could start remembering more words. Then I applied to study at LaGuardia Community College.
You got your associate’s degree this past June from LaGuardia, and this fall you’re continuing your studies in hospitality management at New York City College of Technology. Will that be for two years?
Two years to get the bachelor’s degree. After that I would like to start looking for a job in the industry. For now, I want to finish school. I did my internship last spring at the Holiday Inn Express Manhattan Midtown West on 48th Street.
You did an internship while going to school and working here full time?
Yes. Last semester was the busiest semester I have ever had. It was really hard because I had to complete eighteen hours per week for my internship, and I was working. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Thank god everybody helps me here on the job and also in the school. What I did was, on my two days off, I took those days to work in the hotel. So I did nine hours per day on my days off, plus the other five days working here full time, plus school after work. I did that for four months. That was the only way to complete the internship and graduate.
You have an unusual shift here, right?
I usually work seven to four. But last semester, I had a class that was only available on Wednesday from three thirty to five thirty, and I leave here at four. I couldn’t change my days off because I had to do the internship. So what I did was, in order to leave here at three, I had to start working at six on Wednesdays, so I could go to the school at three—running to LaGuardia, literally running. Then I got there at 3:35 or 3:40, but the professor knew I was coming from the job, so he let me start the class ten minutes late. And the day before, on Tuesday, I had to work seven to four, then go to school till nine thirty. Then I got home about ten thirty, and the next day I started at six here. So I had to wake up at four thirty in order to be here ready and changed to work at six.
Westbeth has been trying to accommodate you.
Yes, all the time. They have changed my days off a couple of times in order to accommodate my schedule. I am very grateful with this job for helping me out with that.
You told me that one of the reasons you liked coming to work at Westbeth was that you worked as an actor in Ecuador.
When I came here and realized it was a building for artists, I felt so excited because my little artist side woke up. I was sweeping the floors, and I listened to people playing the piano or another instrument. Also in the basement, before Hurricane Sandy, they had some studios down there, and they were playing instruments or actors were practicing, so I liked that. Because when I was 8, my mother signed me up for theatre classes. The classes were for three months. It was a program for vacation. When I finished, the professor liked how I was doing everything, so they talked to my mother and said, Why don’t you let this child stay with us and practice more so he can be part of the youth division of the group. The group is well known in my country. Its name is La Trinchera. They have a youth theatre. I became part of this youth theatre for six years, until I was 14. The youth theatre was sponsored by the city hall in Manta. I was engaged to go to all the events that the city hall sent us to. For example, if they opened a new recreational center, they had a ceremony, so we always participated with a play.
And you performed at a theatre festival in South America.
In Argentina, they had a youth theatre festival there. Some countries participated. Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador.
I remember I was playing a lion. The name of the play was La Montaña Azul, which means the blue mountain. The lion was one of the main characters. I loved it. I think I have learned a lot out of the theatre. They taught me discipline, values, about people, about respect.
This past April, you started a crowdfunding campaign for victims of the earthquake in Ecuador.
The earthquake was terrible, 7.8 on the Richter scale. My city, Manta, was devastated. We started calling my family, and nobody answered. All of my family on my father’s side live there, and most of them live near the beach. I couldn’t get in touch with them until the next day because the service went down. The next day I could talk to them, and thank god almost all of them were okay—except one of my cousins. She got trapped in the building where she was working. It was a small building with four floors. She was working on the third floor, and the building went down. She passed away. They found her after five days. There was too much trash, so it was really hard to rescue people alive and also rescue the bodies.
I feel that it’s very important to give back something to the society. So I have always participated in one activity or another in my country to raise funds for different things. I was a volunteer in a hospital for children with cancer. I also went to nursing homes to talk to elderly people who were by themselves. Now it was another chance to do something for our people. I came up with this idea, and I started using social media, and I created a campaign on GoFundMe. I sent a link for the website to all my contacts, and they started sending me money. I have a friend who is a Spanish teacher in New Jersey. He has a Spanish club, and they made activities to collect money, and the children sent the money to GoFundMe. Also my coworkers made a collection, and some tenants that knew I’m from Ecuador gave me some help. My family was bad, but I used all those funds for other people in Manta that didn’t have anything. People lost everything; they were living on the ground. I had friends in Ecuador who were with me before with these kinds of things, so I was talking to them, and they were the ones that were using the money for different campaigns or different things that they did. This was an opportunity to prove that no matter if you are far away from your homeland, you’re still an Ecuadorean, and you can still do something for your people.
Any final words?
I would like to take the opportunity to thank Westbeth. I like working here. People are very nice. I tell my coworkers that this place becomes like your home because you spend here more than forty hours per week. And you give your energy. I feel good working here. People talk to me in the halls, ask me how I’m doing. I will be sad when I have to leave, but I know I have to leave someday. But first I want to get my bachelor’s degree, and then I will apply to work in the hotel industry.
Photographs courtesy of James Mendoza.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Behind The Scenes, Copyright 2016 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council