Our Latino Heritage: Left Home in Peru, Now at Home in Wisconsin

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By Esther J. Cepeda

Our Hispanic Heritage Month series, "Our Latino Heritage," profiles a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.

Like so many wanderlusting sons around the world, Benjamin Rojas-Caceres, the youngest of four children raised in Trujillo, Peru, slipped out of his mother’s firm grasp at age 21.

“My mom was excited for me, and a little bit worried, a little bit hesitant because I’m the youngest, but I got the chance to come to the U.S. as an exchange student and I jumped at it,” Rojas-Caceres said.

As an engineering student in college a friend had told him about an exchange program that would pay him to work and visit the United States. Before long he was stepping out of an airplane onto the ice-cold tarmac of an airport in Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Rojas-Caceres traveled to the United States from Trujillo, Peru at the age of 21. He eventually met his wife in Jefferson, Wisconsin and started a family.Benjamin Rojas-Caceres

“It was right after New Year’s, we got to the airport and they drove us straight to the office where we got our paperwork and then to the hotel. The next day I was working at McDonald’s,” Rojas-Caceres recalled. “It was complete culture shock, but I was excited to see snow for the first time ever.”

He eventually finished his stint in Pennsylvania and returned to Peru where he itched to return to the U.S. as soon as possible. In 2005, another work/tourism exchange program got him back, this time to the small town of Jefferson, Wisconsin where Rojas-Caceres stayed on even after his program ended.

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"I was even more excited then because back home I had still been in college studying mechanical engineering and I got the opportunity to work on assembly line,” Rojas-Caceres said. “After that, I overstayed my visa. I just never went back. I asked several people about fixing my paperwork and requirements to find a legal way to stay and at the time a couple thousand dollars was just a lot of money so I figured that if I kept working, I could save the money up.”

While it wasn’t easy – he had been lucky to find a job before his work permit had expired – Rojas-Caceres did successfully work, save his money and eventually got his documents in order. All just as his life was about to take a turn.

“My wife and I met in Jefferson, in 2005 when I had returned to work with the exchange program. We actually worked at the same place but didn’t really know each other well until I ended up moving to Madison. We didn’t start dating until 2008, then, life just happened,” said Rojas-Caceres.

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The two married and eventually had a son, now two years old. And their seven years of hard work and struggling in a blue-collar town whose state economy lost one-in-four manufacturing jobs in the wake of the Great Recession is finally paying off.

“We just bought a house this year,” said Rojas-Caceres, “and I’m starting school again.”

While the stresses of piecing together work, school and childcare for an inquisitive toddler are high, Rojas-Caceres is elated to be living the quintessential American Dream.

“Thanks to technology, we talk to my mom every weekend – we’ll do the video chat, but I want to go back and see my country,” said Rojas-Caceres. “Even when I was there I never had the opportunity to really see everything, like Machu Picchu or the Nazca Lines in the desert.”

“It hasn’t been easy and it’s not over yet,” Rojas-Caceres said. “I wish I could have a career, but I’m working toward that so I’m just really glad and thankful that my life is what it is right now, a lot of things have come together.”

Once he attains his goal of embarking on a career that will offer him a better paying job, Rojas-Caceres plans on finally taking his son and wife back to Peru to meet his mom and family, in person.

“Thanks to technology, we talk to my mom every weekend – we’ll do the video chat, but I want to go back and see my country,” said Rojas-Caceres. “Even when I was there I never had the opportunity to really see everything, like Machu Picchu or the Nazca Lines in the desert.”

Those eventual trips will help form a base for his son’s understanding of where dad came from.

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“I speak to him mostly in Spanish, but also English,” Rojas-Caceres said. “We’re lucky to live in a very diverse community so even though there aren’t many other Peruvians around me, there are plenty of friends around who speak Spanish.”

“I don’t really have a plan to get him to identify as Peruvian-American. As for now, you look at him – he’s a white kid,” Rojas-Caceres said, echoing the observations of so many Latinos who marry and have kids with Caucasians. “But I will probably find a way.”

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based nationally syndicated columnist and an NBC News Latino contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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