E.J.’s Immigration Story – Pasay, the Philippines to Anchorage, Alaska

“Our people have proved our resilience over and over again throughout history. The issue is not our resilience – the issue is oppression. Our resiliency is not permission for others to keep oppressing us.”


One of E.J.’s earliest memories is of his dad driving a jeepney in Manila. Jeepneys are remnants of America’s military presence in the Philippines. They were left by Americans, modified by Filipinos, and are now the country’s primary form of public transportation. Starting at three years of age, E.J. worked as his father’s “barker” (the person sitting up front in the jeepney barking out to possible passengers on the street where they’re headed). He specifically remembers yelling out ‘highway, highway, highway!’.” (audio below)

E.J., his older sister, and their parents lived in a little shack with a bathroom, a kitchen, and a bedroom, where they all slept in one bed. But when E.J. turned four, his father moved to the United States to find work. By the time E.J. turned six, his family built a house in Las Piñas, a nice suburb of Manila, with the money his father sent home.

A lot changed in E.J.’s life at age nine when his parents divorced.

“A lot of the responsibility for trying to better my family fell onto me because it was my dad who left. I took that to heart, and I wanted to help my mom.”

USA is Better

From an early age, E.J. learned that the United States is a better country than the Philippines. E.J’s mother used to take him once a month to buy an action figure from the toy store. The price of almost every toy was negotiable, but his favorite, the American G.I. Joe was not. E.J says his mother, “the best bargainer in the world,” would try each month to bargain down the G.I Joe price, but she never won. All the sellers had to tell her was that the toy came from the USA. (audio below)

The idea stuck with E.J. – everywhere else has a lower value than the United States.

“The message I received as a kid is that anything made in the USA is more valuable, more precious, and better than anything made in the Philippines.”

Pizza & Honey Buckets

After leaving the Philippines, E.J.’s father settled in Barrow (as of 2016 it is Utqiagvik), Alaska, remarried, and started a second family. He worked at the post office, as a cab driver, and at a pizza place. E.J. remembers that job because whenever his father returned to visit them, he would make delicious pizza. After that job, his father drove the town truck that retrieved “honey buckets” (sewage). 

“Disposing of human waste was the job that helped my family a lot.

Carrying Crucifixes

At 14, E.J.’s parents decided to send him and his little brother to Barrow to join their father. E.J. remembers feeling excited – especially about a trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios – but he was also unhappy to leave his mother behind. 

“My mom put her two very young children on a plane to cross the Pacific Ocean and go to a place she had never seen before. She didn’t even know if she would ever see it! She did this just because life would be better for my brother and me. That was a big sacrifice for my mother. In the back of my mind, I didn’t know when I would see my mom again, if ever?”

Aside from their checked bags, E.J. and his brother each carried a four-foot-tall crucifix as carry-on luggage. His dad had requested these from Pampanga, his home province – one for his house and one for the local Catholic Church in Alaska. 

 “We were walking in airports and onto airplanes carrying crucifixes all the way to Barrow, Alaska. It’s funny, but also symbolic. We were literally carrying crosses on our backs.” (audio below)

Los Angeles vs. Barrow

E.J. and his brother first arrived in Los Angeles, where their aunt lived. Even though their stay was short, she took them to Disneyland and Universal Studios. This initial experience set the bar high for what E.J. expected from this new life in the United States. 

Barrow, Alaska contrasted drastically with Los Angeles, California – no paved roads and wooden buildings that sat on stilts to avoid melting the permafrost. E.J.’s dad took him for a drive around the remote town of about four thousand people. E.J. asked to go to the city to get some clothes. His father informed him that the only way in and out of Barrow is by plane! 

Above: E.J. wearing #34, the jersey of Pamiuq, his late best friend.


E.J.’s dream growing up in the Philippines was to one day become a professional basketball player. He believed it was the one way he could make enough money to help his mom. Luckily, basketball is popular in Barrow, and this helped E.J. adjust to life in the United States. 

“Basketball kept me straight, away from trouble, and it gave me something to dream about. Basketball forced me to stay in school. To do well enough in my classes that I could remain eligible to play ball. In the process, I ended up doing pretty good in school!” (audio below)

Above: Junior year with his basketball teammates


E.J. had been going to an all-boys school in the Philippines, but when he started middle school in Barrow, he had girls in his class. It didn’t take long before he noticed Margaret, who is Koyukon Athabascan (indigenous to Alaska). E.J. knows that Margaret’s fair-skin increased his initial attraction to her. 

“I thought I was going to marry her, and we were going to have light-skinned kids together, and I could show them off to my Filipino family.”

Today E.J. recognizes the problematic origins of where the attraction to pale skins comes from.

“I grew up in the Philippines in a context where anything American is better than anything Filipino and being American is equated to being white, and anyone who is lighter skin is more attractive than dark skin folks. I grew up in a context when people were using skin whitening products – soap and bleach. People tell you not to go in the sun, and skin whitening clinics are everywhere.” (audio below)

They talked for the first time when E.J. asked to walk Margaret home. She let him walk her to the corner of the street, but no farther. E.J. reflects and laughs, “She didn’t want me to know where she lived!” E.J. and Margaret dated for a few years, broke up, then got back together in their senior year of high school. They’ve been together ever since.

The Santo Niño

Two years after arriving in the United States, E.J. and his brother went to the Philippines to visit their mother. His brother decided he didn’t want to leave. The Santo Niño (Santo Niño de Palaboy) has always been important to E.J.’s mother. She prayed to it for a child, and then became pregnant with E.J. Then before E.J. left the Philippines the second time, she gave him a Santo Niño de Palaboy (known to watch over the homeless and those with nowhere to go) [see the above photo]. She hoped it would take care of her 16-year-old son, who was leaving her again, but this time without his brother. (audio below)


E.J found it hard to live in his father’s house in Barrow, with his stepmom and step-siblings. He felt a lot of anger towards his father and consequently only went home when he had nowhere else to go.

“I ran away a lot and slept in friends’ homes and on couches. I spent my entire senior year of high school sleeping on my friends’ floorI really didn’t have a home. Basketball was my home.”

 Above: E.J.’s birthday with his dad and two of his three half-siblings in Barrow


After arriving in Barrow, E.J. tried to become as American as possible. He watched a lot of Boy Meets World and Saved By the Bell  – where he got a lot of ideas about how an American teenager should be. But Barrow, due to the Utqiagvik indigenous community, was different than the America depicted on these shows. Ironically, while watching this proud community resist the erasure of their language and culture, E.J. was trying to rid himself of his.

“Not only did I literally leave my country, but now that I’m here, trying to erase or hide the little bits or pieces that are hanging on to me. It got to the point where I was discriminating against other Filipinos.” (audio below)

In his junior year of high school, someone left an anonymous message on his locker: “You are Filipino. Act like it!” E.J. knew that they had a point and started to reflect on his behavior towards other Filipinos. He realized he was trying to lose his “Filipino-ness” when most of his family and friends lived in the Philippines.

“Have I abandoned them? Have I forgotten them? Why was I trying so hard to get rid of my accent and be ‘American’?” (audio below)

Without the questions that this note spawned, E.J. wouldn’t be doing the academic work he does today. 

Alaskan Myths

E.J. knows that there are a lot of myths about Alaska. 

“We don’t live in igloos, or swim with whales, or hang out with polar bears!” 

One predominant myth E.J. often comes across is that Alaska isn’t a multicultural state. He explains how it is diverse not only because of immigrants but also because of the different indigenous groups in Alaska. Anchorage is exceptionally diverse. Some studies say the most diverse neighborhood in the country is in East Side, Anchorage.

Filipinos are the largest immigrant group in Alaska, and also the largest undocumented population in Alaska. E.J. explains how Filipinos have an expression for their undocumented population – “TNT” (Tago Ng Tago) – which translates to “always hiding.” 

“Filipinos are virtually invisible when it comes to the national conversation about immigration and undocumented immigration.” (audio below)

E.J. believes many Filipinos aren’t vocal about this situation because they want to remain under the radar. Their priority is to continue being in the United States and supporting their family – not change laws.

Above: E.J. wearing the uniform of his best friend Pamiuq. E.J. put it on, thinking he would have a uniform of his own soon.

Lucky Timing

E.J. didn’t grow up with a plan to go to college. As his dreams of playing professional basketball faded, and he found himself needing money, he enlisted in the U.S. Army after his junior year in high school. He planned to fly to Alabama and start basic training after graduation. 

In E.J’s senior year, Alaska started a program where full scholarships to the University of Alaska were offered to the top ten percent of the state’s graduating class. E.J. found himself in that top ten percent and in a position he could never have imagined. He decided not to attend basic training, as planned, and instead started studying psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“I fell in love with psychology because it was helping me with my personal struggles. In eight years, I went from not going to college, to having a Ph.D.!”


E.J. works as an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His focus is on the effect colonialism has on how people think about themselves, their culture, and their mental health. 

“I turned my personal experience into a career.”

Internalized oppression” is central to E.J.’s research. When groups of people are repeatedly told that their language, worldview, traditions, skin color, etc. aren’t good enough, these messages eventually seep into their minds. You don’t need to tell them these oppressive messages anymore because they start telling themselves those oppressive messages. They start believing it.”

“I see [internalized oppression] with my people. Skin whitening products are all over the Philippines, and nobody questions it anymore. The English language is the language used in all of our schools in the Philippines. The message is that English is the language of education. In this case, the idea that American things are better than anything Filipino has been internalized and institutionalized. We have built institutions that reflect this oppression.” (audio below)

E.J. has published four books so far [see the above photo]. His most recent, We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018), is a series of letters to his Filipino-Athabascan family highlighting issues around colonialism, sexism, racism, and internalized oppression. 

“Oppression is redundant; it is nothing new. Be ready, but please don’t get used to it. Don’t habituate to it, don’t put up with it, and don’t accept it. Be fed up with oppression. Be sick and tired of it, be angry, be outraged, be devastated by it. It’s natural to be distressed by something so violent and wrong. I have been devastated by it many times, in fact, I am even permanently damaged by it.” (audio below)

Above: E.J.’s tattoo of his family that he keeps adding to


E.J. explains how Alaska is a “very red state” (that produced Sarah Palin) and the 2016 presidential election heightened E.J.’s fear and paranoia. At any time, he may be feet away from people who don’t want people like him around.  

“Bigotry and racist ideologies and anti-immigrant sentiments have always been a part of America. These are stolen lands – especially here in Alaska. We are aware that those things have always been a part of this country – colonialism, racism, and cultural genocide. 

On the positive side, E.J. believes the 2016 election encouraged more people to fight back and resist oppression.

Audio: An election focused reading from his book We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018)


E.J. thinks it is essential to include America’s indigenous peoples in the national immigration conversation. He feels like his mixed indigenous-Filipino family is at the intersection of the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between indigeneity and those trying to immigrate. 

“As immigrants, we need to acknowledge the indigenous peoples of this land and work with them. Until this day, they are still fighting the oppression of their culture. As immigrants, it is our responsibility to pay respect to the people and respect the lands. The most important way we can respect indigenous people is to work with them to make sure these lands stay welcoming, and that injustice and oppression do not happen here.” (audio below)

E.J. believes people should be careful when repeating statements like “immigrants make America great” or “America is the land of immigrants.” 

We cannot advocate for immigrant rights at the expense of further erasing indigenous people.” (audio below)

Beyond Economics

E.J. also thinks it is problematic how society often judges immigrants solely on their economic value.

“We shouldn’t put a price tag on people’s humanity and dignity. We play into this system that says we are only valuable because we contribute this much money. Are immigrants any less of humans? We don’t do that with the native-born, so why are we doing that to the immigrants?” (audio below)

Above: Margaret works as a midwife, focused on intergenerational healing and wellbeing. She is holding an Athabaskan baby belt, used to carry babies on one’s back


E.J. thinks it is important to question why people immigrate, and why life is better in one country and worse in another. A lot of answers lie in colonialism and exploitation. Unlike how a salmon instinctually swims upstream, humans aren’t naturally inclined to migrate. 

I wasn’t born with a ‘go to the United States instinct’ – to leave my family behind, and my culture. Nobody is born with an instinct to sacrifice everything you are familiar with. Why did I develop this dream along with so many others?”

E.J. explains how it becomes easier to understand why people want to leave the Philippines and move to the U.S. after one studies the Philippines’ complex history of resource and labor exploitation.

I’m here because America went there first.” (audio below)

Creating Superheroes

E.J. & Margaret want their kids to grow up understanding their Koyukon Athabascan and Filipino heritage. While E.J. tries to share Filipino culture, Margaret shares her language, food, and the stories her parents told her growing about her people’s history. These stories grounded her, and she hopes they do the same for her kids. 

“We try to tell stories, read stories, and talk about our family. They have the privilege of these different heritages. Along with that, they have this responsibility of figuring out how they want to help our community.” 

E.J. wants them to see their own diversity as a privilege. 

“I want my kids to use their roots and see them as their superpowers. Just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean you are a superhero. You have to use your superpowers for good, otherwise, you are a villain. I want my kids to be superheroes.” (audio below)

*Update: Since the interview, E.J. and Margaret have welcomed the newest member of their family, Tala Raine Nodoyedee’onh.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Chompoo’s Immigration Story – Bangkok, Thailand to Anchorage, Alaska

Family History

Chompoo’s grandparents arrived in Thailand as refugees from China in the early 1930s. The story Chompoo grew up hearing is that they came with “one pillow and one mat.” Her grandparents arrived in the north of Thailand, worked in agriculture, and that is where Chompoo’s mother was born – the youngest in a family of four children and the only one born in Thailand. When WWII started, the family moved to Thailand’s capital city, Bangkok. 

Chompoo’s mother was working at a hair salon in Bangkok when her father spotted her. He started regularly visiting to get his haircut. When Chompoo’s mother opened her first restaurant, Chompoo’s father started eating there. He was persistent. Shortly after that, he asked Chompoo’s mom to marry him. 

Above: Chompoo’s father working at the Ford Motor Company plant in Thailand


Chompoo was born with the name Nuanta. Chompoo, her nickname, actually means rose apple (a fruit common in Southeast Asia) and it’s the name she goes by in the US. In Thailand, her father worked as a mechanic for Ford Motors, and after work, he would help her mother with the restaurant. Chompoo says they “worked hard and were fighters” but neither of them had much education.

“My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but the treasure that they gave to their children is education. That is something you can have until you die.” (audio below)

A significant event in Chompoo’s early memories was when her father became a Buddhist monk. She was seven years old, and Chompoo remembers helping shave his head as part of the ceremony [see the photo below].  Despite being exciting, this meant that her father would be away from the family for three months and Chompoo couldn’t touch him since women are not supposed to touch monks.


Her mother started two restaurants – one fast food and one fine dining called “Guarantee” – which started small and grew to almost forty employees. They served recipes passed down by their ancestors. Chompoo and all of her siblings learned to cook from their mother. 

Above: “We have her in our memories. My mom is my role model.”

After high school, Chompoo did a bachelor’s degree in accounting, taking classes at night or in the morning. During the day, she would help her parents run the restaurant. When their parents’ health declined, Chompoo and her brothers decided to get out of the restaurant business. Together they created an import/export business. 

Growing up, Chompoo never thought about moving to the United States. 

“The USA was too far from me. It is the other side of the world. In Thailand, when we were young, we used to joke about drilling tunnels through the globe we would end up in California. I never thought about coming to visit America. I knew Disneyland, Mickey Mouse, and cartoons.” (audio below)


Chompoo had no idea how much her life was about to change.

Rob moved from California to Alaska in the early 1970s when he was 19. He married, had a family, got divorced, and eventually ended up a content bachelor. One day in 2004, while out shoveling his Anchorage driveway, he got talking to his neighbor, who was from Thailand. She told Rob that she knew someone she would like him to meet. The neighbor passed along Chompoo’s email address. Rob thought it could be fun, talking to someone from a country he knew little about.

When Chompoo found out about Rob, she felt unsure about the whole thing. Her mom and brothers encouraged her, saying, “at least you can practice English.”

On February 5th, 2004, Rob emailed and introduced himself. Chompoo took a while to respond as she wasn’t confident at writing in English. Between using the dictionary and asking her brother for help, she managed to reply. After emailing, Rob sent his picture by mail, and when Chompoo sent him a photo, it was of her whole family. She asked him to guess who in the image was her! They used Yahoo Messenger and Skype – and despite the 15-16 hour time difference, they managed to keep up the communication. Rob would go into work early so he could catch her before his day started.

A lot of Rob’s friends wondered if this Thai woman just wanted to be with him for money or American citizenship. They also doubted that she would ever want to live in Alaska.

“When I went to visit her the first time we had drivers. They have maids. Every morning my clothes were freshly laundered. It was a big step down for her to come live with me!” (audio below)

Meeting in Person

Rob decided to visit Chompoo in November of 2004. Chompoo went to the airport with her mom to meet him. He said he would be wearing a blue shirt, and she said she would wear a butterfly blouse. Rob hadn’t traveled a lot before, and going to Thailand for the first time was quite the adventure. 

“Thailand has a proud culture and national identity. I was learning left and right, which was exciting. It is truly an amazing place. I have never been around people (including my wife) who try and maintain a big smile in their life. It really helps me to look at life through a different set of glasses. It’s been a good journey for me, and I’m still on it.”

Chompoo had the whole vacation planned and was excited to take him to all the beautiful places you go to “impress the foreigner”. It also happened to be during the Loi Krathong Festival. It didn’t take long until Chompoo’s mother grew to love Rob like a son. The next time he visited, they took a boat ride and Rob asked Chompoo to marry him. 

In 2005 Chompoo and her mother traveled to California to visit Rob’s family in Los Gatos, California. They went to Disneyland [see the photo below] and then Alaska – it was April, so it wasn’t that cold. 


Rob started reading about Thai weddings, but he didn’t realize that she was Thai Chinese, so the cultural traditions would be a bit different. 

I was nervous. Not only was I getting married, but I was also getting married in a culture I didn’t know, around a lot of people who didn’t speak my language.”

One of the traditions is that the groom arrives at the house to “claim his wife” [see the above photo on the left]. The children enjoy this as they take strings and put them across the doorway to block the groom from entering. To enter, the groom has to give the children tokens or treats. It’s a time of lots of laughter and giggling. Rob will never forget when he first saw Chompoo sitting there with her mother and how beautiful she looked. (audio below)

Their wedding was at a hotel on the Chao Phraya River in 2006.

“I was supposed to give money to her mother – ‘for her mother’s milk’ – a dowry. So I was nervous about if I give too little, is it going to be an insult and if I give too much can I afford that? I wanted to make a good impression but not say I’m rich.”

Bodhi Leaf

Rob was raised in the Episcopal church and was even a choir boy and an acolyte. Today he considers himself spiritual and Unitarian. Rob would also say he has become Buddhist in his own way, as he has bought into the enlightened philosophy of Buddha. 

At every temple, you will find a bodhi tree that is said to be an offshoot of the original bodhi tree under which Buddha became enlightened. When Rob went to Thailand, they went to a temple and made a special request to take a bodhi leaf back with them to America (usually if you have a bodhi leaf you are supposed to bring it back to the tree). They now have a bodhi leaf in Alaska that they cherish [see the above photo].

After the wedding, as a sort of honeymoon, they went to Seattle so Chompoo could meet Rob’s son.


After Seattle, they went to Alaska. She will never forget landing in Alaska and seeing everything covered in snow. It was both exciting, and she also found herself asking, “how am I going to live in this?” She realized that all of the clothes she had packed from Thailand would be useless in Alaska.

Chompoo arrived on a K-1 fiancée visa, so she spent a lot of time at home, waiting for legal documents. They had delayed the legal marriage for three months, as Rob wanted to make sure Chompoo liked Alaska.

Above: “Teeruk” means “my love” or “my darling or honey” in Thai. (audio below)

Middle Way Cafe

While Chompoo was waiting for her legal documents to work, she joined a gym. Her usual routine was to walk to the gym and then have lunch at the Middle Way Cafe. She started thinking about how she would like to work there. Chompoo didn’t want to work at a Thai restaurant because she wanted to improve her English so she could communicate better with local people and her husband. She wanted to challenge herself and be outside of her comfort zone. Chompoo applied in 2007 and started as the cook. After that, she managed “front of house”, and then, she became the general manager.

The experience Chompoo gained managing her family’s Thai restaurant, helps her in her current job managing an American restaurant. One area she lacked knowledge in and needed to educate herself about quickly was cheese.

“I didn’t know about American food – cheddar, provolone. In Thailand, we didn’t have avocado. Tomatoes have varieties!? In Thailand, we just had one kind of tomato! Here you have heirloom, roma, hothouse. Different kinds of olives? Oh my god!” (audio below)

Chompoo likes how anchorage has an Asian market where she can find all the Thai ingredients she needs to cook her mother’s recipes. 

“I get tired of sandwiches, so I bring something to warm up for lunch. When we have a party at work, they always ask me to cook pad thai, chicken curry, tom yam, or green papaya salad.”


The temple Chompoo attends [see the above photos] is a center that brings the Thai community together in Alaska. For a while, she can speak Thai and perform some Buddhist rituals. They have fundraisers biennially that Chompoo volunteers at where everyone gets together for food, karaoke, and Thai dance. 

Many of the Thai people who attend the temple are still learning English and need help with legal documents. Rob has been a massive asset to the community – helping if someone wants to open a franchise, bring a family member to the US, or if anyone has tax issues. 

“The Thai community here is strong. We help support each other.”

Immigrants & America

Rob says words can’t describe how enriched his life has been by having Chompoo in it – not only his life but the life of so many Americans she has come in contact with since moving there. 

He feels incredibly disappointed, saddened, and ashamed of his country, specifically in regards to the current administration, “shutting down immigration and talking nasty about people that are of different origins. It hurts me. I’m from California, and Mexican Americans are an important part of our culture.” 

Rob knows first hand how hard immigrants work. He worked picking beans in California as a teenager alongside immigrant farmworkers.

“They are working 18 hour days, and you want to call them lazy. These people are the American protestant work ethic!

Rob is trying to keep a positive outlook on the future, but it is hard.

“[The 2016 election] uncovered the dirt under the rug – what I thought was a beautiful rug. To find out what is under the rug is racism and prejudice. I try not to let it get me down. Chompoo keeps me cheerful.” (audio below)


In the future, Chompoo dreams of having a house in Thailand. She already has the home next door to her brother picked out. 

Above: Chompoo holding her parent’s wedding photo

Rob and Chompoo have been going to Thailand every year, something he promised her when they married. Rob knows how important family is in Thai culture, and how Chompoo would never have left her family if it wasn’t for their relationship. 

Chompoo would also like to move to a warmer climate than Alaska. Rob has a lot of roots in Alaska, so moving would be hard. If they did move, Chompoo doesn’t know what she would do work-wise – probably open a restaurant.

“Don’t take me the wrong way; Alaska is really beautiful. In the summertime, you have 20 hours to enjoy the day, but during wintertime, you get 20 hours of darkness. It feels sad. I like to see the northern lights but seven or eight months of winter and cold! I don’t want to be old and walking on ice.”

No matter where Rob and Chompoo end up living, they know they will have each other.  (audio below)


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Kakiko’s Immigration Story – Autlán, Mexico to Anchorage, Alaska


Kakiko and his two siblings grew up in Autlán, a small Mexican town in an agricultural valley. As a child, he regularly played with his cousins, but then they migrated north. When he was a teen, his mom and dad divorced, and his dad, like his cousins, migrated north too. Their migrations had a significant effect on Kakiko’s happiness. He found that physical activities like biking and mountain climbing could distract him from life’s worries.


At birth, Kakiko was named Jose Ricardo. As a child, he struggled at having people understand his name, and when he told them “Ricardito”, for some reason, they heard “Kakiko” – so that name stuck. In Alaska, people know him as Kakiko and think it’s his birth name.


Kakiko’s mother was a school teacher and she also ran a shoe store. When he left his hometown for college, his mother’s best friend gave Kakiko this photo [above], and he takes it with him every time he moves somewhere new.

“I have a really strong connection with my mom. I was a big support for her, and she came to me with any problem she had. When I moved, it was a big deal for her – although she was happy that I was doing what I wanted to do, she was also sad that she was going to be so far from me.”


“I remember being a kid and going to climb a mountain with cousins. I wanted to go to the peak, but they said it was too dangerous. That’s when I was like, ‘Why can’t I climb mountains?’ That started my ‘climbing-mountain bug.’”

In high school, Kakiko made friends with other people who like the outdoors and got really into mountain biking. Kakiko’s first trip to the United States was in 2003 to visit a biking friend who had moved to the East Coast.

Kakiko moved from his town to Guadalajara to study electronic engineering at university. While there, Kakiko joined the Alpine Club: Club Alpino De Instituto De Ciencias, which was started by a priest who loved to climb mountains. Older experienced mountain climbers in the club impart knowledge and skills to the younger generation, and together they climbed challenging mountains.


Kakiko always dreamed of going to Alaska to climb Denali, and in 2005 he fulfilled this dream – an experience that left him longing to return. Kakiko loved the mountains and the snow, and he was very impressed with how the United States manages its resources through its national parks. 

After graduating in 2006, the Alpine Club did a massive road trip from Guadalajara, through Canada and into Alaska. They drove during the night and went sightseeing during the day.

“It was a wakeup call. I really wanted to be up north. The more north we drove, the friendlier people were.” 

Desk Job

Kakiko tried working in electronic manufacturing for five years in Mexico. The whole five years he dreamed of moving to Alaska and climbing. Friends he used to climb always asked him when he was leaving. Girlfriends he had at that time, knew that moving to Alaska was always on his mind. He became sick of his stressful job and asked his boss to fire him, hoping to get some severance. He didn’t, so Kakiko kept working.

Moving to Alaska

Finally, in 2010, at age 27, a Mexican consulate opened in Alaska and was looking for someone good with computers, so Kakiko applied. They were surprised that he wanted to move to Alaska and hired him.

“I really like the snow. I don’t know why I like to climb mountains? It’s like a suffer-fest but it’s really appealing. I feel safe and more stable there.” (audio below)

Kakiko chose to get a tattoo of the snow – a symbol of both his inspiration and his passion. He shared his idea of snowflakes combined with a person snowboarding through snowy trees with an artist in Guadalajara who did the tattoo.

“It’s funny because a lot of people ask me, ‘Where did you get the snowflakes?’, and I’m like, ‘a guy in Mexico did it.” (audio below)


Kakiko found the formal work environment at the Mexican consulate in Alaska challenging. It was strange to be working for a government he wasn’t in favor of while growing up.

“It required a big change of mentality. I’m an idealistic person, and I try to follow my ideals. If I don’t like something, I try to change it.”

He found the process of adapting to this new culture to be an adventure, but hard lacking friends and English skills. Before arriving in Alaska, Kakiko thought he was proficient in English, but when he tried to speak with people after arriving, that wasn’t the case. Working at the Mexican consulate and speaking Spanish all day didn’t help Kakiko in learning English.

“It wasn’t until I started skiing, snowboarding, dating people, and socializing more with native speakers, that I became more comfortable with speaking English. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable, but I’m getting there.” 


A lot of people don’t understand what life in Alaska is like.

“There are people who think I live in an igloo or ride polar bears to work. Everything is extreme up here – the weather changes a lot, people change a lot, accidents can be really extreme too. Everybody thinks I moved up here and I’m living the dream. No. I still have personal problems, life situation problems – I am just living in a colder place. It’s still tough; I still have to work a lot, get sick, worry about bills and taxes.”

Since 2015, when he got his first green card and left his job at the consulate, Kakiko has been doing seasonal work so he can have the summers off to explore the Alaskan Range. He is working three jobs: bartending at one restaurant, bussing tables at another, and working in the office at the Alaska Avalanche School which provides certification in avalanche safety.

Knowing little about avalanches before moving to Alaska – Kakiko has seen them while driving, skiing, and climbing the Alaskan Range.

“It’s not just playing in the snow, so I need to be aware. I try to be as safe as possible.”


Kakiko and his friend Daniel started climbing together at Club Alpino De Instituto De Ciencias, and together in 2006, they climbed Wyoming’s Grand Teton. Daniel’s skills progressed rapidly. According to Kakiko, he became “the best complete climber in Mexico in the last 20 years. He was a great alpinist, strong rock climber and a great human being, who was following his passions”.  In 2012 Daniel and another friend came to Alaska to climb Denali. Kakiko hosted them and got a celebratory beer with them when they finished. “They gave me this photo [above] of them getting to the summit. I always keep it with me.”

In the summer of 2018, Daniel came to climb the Cassian Ridge in Denali. Kakiko saw him in the 14th camp, and when he got sick, Kakiko gave him some medicine. That was the last time he saw Daniel.

“I got the news that he died in a rappel in Artisan Ratu Mountain in Peru. They were rappelling, and a serac fell from the mountain and hit him. He was a really good friend of mine.” (audio below)


“It’s a tradition in climbing that you mark your gear with something so when you climb with other people, and the gear mixes, you know what gear is yours. I put three tapes on my gear – the colors of the Mexican flag [photo above].” 

Kakiko misses Mexico’s food, his close circle of friends, and his mom. She came once to visit in 2011, but “she never came back because it’s too cold for her.” Kakiko has seen her a few times since then in warm California. 

“I always try to uphold the stereotype that people have over here. I have really dry humor. The wrestling culture is fun in Mexico. Everybody thinks that all wrestling in México is like ‘Nacho Libre.’ I try to exaggerate sometimes, so I keep a wrestling mask around. I find it funny.” (audio below)

Kakiko keeps this necklace [above] he bought from an indigenous community in Mexico with him in Alaska, a place where he feels like the indigenous people have a stronger voice.  

I feel like some of the art and the native cultures in Mexico are being isolated. When I moved up here, the native communities are stronger, and they fight for their rights and culture. It would be a highlight for Mexico to keep those cultures alive.” (audio below)


Kakiko wishes more people understood how complicated the process is to immigrate to the US, in particular, Alaska.

It takes a lot of time and effort if you want to do things correctly. When you try to get jobs, it’s really hard. In a place like Alaska, the priority is the locals, and if you are a minority, it’s harder to find jobs.” 

Since the 2016 election, Kakiko has noticed when it comes to the bureaucracy around immigration, “everything is taking longer, and they are making it harder.”

“I started my renewal process for my green card two years ago, and it’s taking a lot of time and effort to get it. I’m still getting letters and extensions and more requests for more evidence and all of that.”

Kakiko’s first green card came through his previous marriage. The immigration officials now want him to prove that the marriage was legitimate – and since they didn’t have any kids or a house, that is proving complicated.

“If you want to do things ‘the right way’, you can spend a lot of time doing that. I have been here for eight years, and I don’t feel a lot of stability in my life. It’s unstable, and you have to plan your life accordingly. Try to move forward, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. (audio below)


In the future, Kakiko wants to become an American citizen, join the park service to train others, do search-and-rescues, and help preserve Alaska’s natural beauty. When he isn’t working, Kakiko would like to be outdoors in the mountains, guiding others.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.