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Pedro Salazar on ambition and curiosity: an American story

When did you move to the U.S.?

I moved to the U.S. from Arequipa, Peru, in 2000 for the first time. I was a Rotary exchange student in Mount Vernon, a small Iowa town. I was 17 years old.

It takes a lot of courage to move to another country without family, especially at a young age. Have you always been adventurous?

Yes, although more than being adventurous, I’d say that I am a very curious person. For a long time, I’ve said that people need to expose their mind to new ideas by learning from people who think differently than them. Moving to a different country, to me, was the perfect experience to get out of my Peruvian bubble and live a different experience.

Sometimes when we make a big decision we are guided by our gut. Did your head ever try to talk you out of making a decision?

My head is always trying to talk to me out of things. For example, before I became an exchange student, I had doubts because I couldn’t speak the language and I didn’t know much about Iowa. When I became an international student in college, I didn’t have the financial means to finish school, and I had serious doubts about my future. Both times my head tried to tell me to take a different direction, by my gut (and my heart) told me to keep going, that I would make it work.

What was the most challenging, unexpected hurdle you faced. Or were there many?

When I moved to the U.S. for the first time, I didn’t know how to speak English. Imagine going to a world where everyone speaks a language you don’t understand. I was an outgoing teenager, so I felt extremely lonely at times. Although I was surrounded by people all the time, I could barely communicate with anyone.

Also, as an exchange student, I experienced discrimination because of my accent and the color of my skin. I had never faced any type of discrimination until I moved to the U.S. Although it did not make much sense to me at first, I quickly realized that I was different.

After my exchange year, I came back to the U.S. for college with a rather small college fund. Let’s just say that I barely had enough money to pay for my first semester of tuition at a community college in Iowa. I received no additional help from my parents, could not get student loans, and could only work 20 hours a week due to work limitations of my international student visa. I worked washing dishes at the school cafeteria three times a day, got a small scholarship playing soccer, and “talked” my way into getting any financial aid I could get. I did a fundraiser and asked strangers for any help they could give me so I could finish school. I know what it means to go to bed hungry, and I understand what it means to navigate through the complex, and rather frustrating immigration system. I made it work though.

Prior to moving to Charlotte, you lived in other cities. Why did you decide to call Charlotte home?

I lived in Iowa for thirteen years. I went to college, business school, and law school in the “Field of Dreams.” Then, I practiced law in Nebraska for about three years. In 2015, I accepted a position at Wells Fargo as in-house counsel here in Charlotte.

When I decided to move to Charlotte, my mother was visiting me in Omaha from Peru. When I told her that I was moving to Charlotte, her eyes lit up and she said, “Charlotte is Arequipa’s sister city.”

Maybe it is just a big coincidence, but the fact that I ended up in my hometown’s sister city was a sign to me. A sign that this was the place where I needed to be.

Two and a half years after I moved to Charlotte, I got married, bought a house, and planted my roots here. So, I call Charlotte home because I think it’s meant to be that way.

How do you think Charlotte can grow from a mindset? Do people here ever make you feel like an outsider?

I think that Charlotte can grow by having people from different backgrounds share their stories and learn from each other. We need to learn to listen. The more people who can learn from and begin to accept others as part of our community, the better our city will be.

I’m aware of the issues the city faces from a diversity and inclusion perspective, but if we start any dialogue about those issues from an adversarial position and we refuse to listen to each other, it will be an uphill battle from the start.

I don’t feel as an outsider in Charlotte, but I have been discriminated against. Luckily, I have found a family who loves me and protects me. I have a good group of friends who don’t see the fact that I am from Latin America or that I have an accent as an issue. They find that our differences enrich each other’s lives.

Sounds like the book you published was cathartic. What does your writing explore and what can we expect in the next book?

It’s about my year as an exchange student and how that year changed my view of the world. It’s the story of two host families and of the many Americans who changed my life and had their lives changed by my time among them. It’s the story of an immigrant, of a brown boy living in white America for the first time. And since I proudly chose to become a United States citizen later in life, it’s also an American story. Through my experiences and opinions, readers will see the United States from the perspective of a young student from Peru. A Spanish-speaking immigrant. A dream-seeker eager to live his dream.

The second book will be a sequel. It will be about my college years. More to come on that one.

When did you know you had to write your story into a book and how long did it take?

Writing this book started as a personal project. A few years ago, while attending law school at Drake University in Des Moines, I read some cases about immigrants moving to the United States. They all had a different, unique story. As I chatted with other law students about their heritage, I realized that I did not know much about my family story in Peru.

I decided, then, that I would write a series of articles about my experience in the United States, so when I am long gone, my family could have a record of how I came to the United States.

The more I wrote, however, the more I realized that this project was bigger than just a few articles. It was not just a story about how I moved to the United States, but it is the story of how a year of living abroad changed the course of my life. I realized that the experience I lived in Mount Vernon prepared me for the rest of my life and that I needed to share that experience with other people.

Writing the book took me about a year and a half. In the last few months of the process, I worked with a professional editor from Iowa City to get it ready for publication.

Any funny stories from your experience?

Too many to tell! But I can share a couple of stories from my book:

I grew up in a city, surrounded by concrete structures and with no real understanding about “farm living.” When I moved to the U.S., I moved to Mount Vernon, a small Iowa town. On top of that, my home was in the middle of a farm. When my Host Mom showed me my room, to my surprise, I noticed two big deer heads hanging on the walls of my bedroom. When I opened the closet, it was full of hunting rifles. Then, when I opened one of the drawers of a cabinet, I found ammo. I remember taking a step back thinking, “Wait a second, my room not only has the head of two dead animals, but also the guns and bullets that killed them. I hope my head doesn’t end up on one of those walls.”

On my first day of school, when my host sister introduced me to her girlfriends, I’d try to kiss every girl on the cheek, like I did in Peru. Some of them were somewhat OK with it, some were not. I probably kissed about 10 girls on my first day at the high school. Frankly, I could not understand why I was being rejected, so I started to think that my breath smelled badly, or that I needed a stronger deodorant. Later that day my host sister told me, in broken Spanish, to stop kissing girls. “People don’t do that here, you dork,” she said.

One night, a friend of my host family needed some help at 3:00am at his barn. I didn’t know what was going on but I jumped out of bed to help. When I arrived at the barn, a cow was laying on the ground and it looked like it was struggling to deliver its calf. So, the neighbor looked at me, pointed to the legs of the little calf which were coming out of the cow, and told me to pull. That day I helped an Iowa farmer deliver a calf.

Lastly, any favorite places/events/people/things in Charlotte?

I love spending time at the Whitewater Center; I enjoy riding my bike at any of the many mountain biking trails the city and area have to offer; I appreciate that there are many breweries in town (Wooden Robot, OMB, Sycamore); and I have learned to love the Panther’s. I like going to Hornet’s games, and having a drink at Fahrenheit or Merchant and Trade, enjoying a good view of the city. I love reading with kids at Sedgefield Elementary for a program called For the Love of Reading, which is sponsored by Myers Park United Methodist Church

Although I love to cook Peruvian food at home, my wife and have a few favorites: O’Ku, Rusan, Paco’s Tacos, Owen’s Bagel, Amelie’s, Papi Queso, The Dumpling Lady (I am obsessed with that food truck), Viva Chicken (where I get my Peruvian food fix), Soul Gastrolounge, Good Food on Montford, Basil, Crepe Cellar, and the Wooden Vine (where my wife and I met).

Connect to Pedro through his blog, website, and Instagram!



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