Luis’s Immigration Story – Santiago, Chile to Morton, Mississippi


Luis grew up in one of Santiago’s old neighborhoods. His father was a carpenter who had a small shop that grew bigger as Luis grew older. Eventually, it turned into a full-size furniture factory that made wooden furniture for radios (standard in the 1950s). When plastic came onto the market, his father’s business collapsed. “Plastic changed everything.”

Luis went to the University of Chile to become an agricultural technician. He ended up staying in Santiago for five years working in and studying Fruticulture (Pomology) – the improvement of fruit growing.

Above: Luis holding a manual on Fruticulture that he wrote

Luis grew up Catholic, and as he got older, he started moving up in the church and even planned on becoming a priest.

“I was called by God. I almost entered the seminary to be a priest, but I fell in love with the woman who was going to be my wife. Wife or be a priest? I decided, wife.” (audio below)

United States

Luis wanted to further his studies, but this time in the Humanities. The only problem was that in 1973 when Luis was a student, the dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power. Pinochet thought that anyone studying the Humanities was against him, so the University of Chile made all Humanities students, like Luis, switch to History. 

Luis’s brother-in-law, a Chilean tennis champion, went on scholarship to Mississippi State. He returned to Chile with a degree in accounting and married Luis’s sister. She was the first to move to the US, then Luis’s parents moved too. Luis’ first time to Missississipi was to visit his sister in 1974. 

“Mississippi was unknown to me. I was living with the judgment that Mississippi equals slavery, prejudice, and a lot of bad things. I was scared at first.”

To Luis’s surprise that first visit to Mississippi was a positive experience. In 1983, Luis did not like the way Chile was going politically or economically and applied for a visa to join his sister in the US.

Poultry Company

In 1990, after seven years of waiting, Luis was the last member of his family to arrive in the US. Luis, his wife, their three daughters (and little doggy) moved to Mississippi.

His brother-in-law, the former tennis champion, was now the vice president at a poultry company. That’s where Luis started working in Mississippi – on the plant’s floor. The company needed workers, as the local population usually didn’t want those jobs. If they did work at the plant, they would only work a few months, then quit. The company needed people who would stay and work – and knew immigrants would do that. 

Soon Luis stopped working on the plant floor and became the coordinator for a new project, tasked with getting 300 new workers for the plant in less than a year. The company trained Luis on identifying proper documentation, and he would regularly go to Texas’s border to recruit. One major problem was they didn’t have anywhere for workers to live, and Luis had to find Morton’s empty houses to rent out for them. Luis worked on the project for more than a decade. He had hired almost five thousand workers by the time the poultry company was bought out by a massive conglomerate. When this happened, they laid-off Luis. 

Luis, however, fondly looks back on this experience and feels like he helped many people. 

I am well known by the old people here. There are still families from that time that are here in the area. I came to this country as a worker, and I finished in a company here as a manager!” 


After being laid off, Luis tried selling cars but didn’t like it, so he applied to be a janitor at the local school. He smiles, “They discovered that this janitor was educated!” 

The school’s administration encouraged Luis to become an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher, and he has been teaching now for more than a decade. He is the only bilingual teacher and currently teaches at three different schools in the district. Luis loves helping the area’s growing body of Hispanic students. (audio below)


After living in Morton for a while, he became involved in the local Catholic Church and eventually became a minister. He also started writing Christian columns in the local newspaper, something he has been doing for almost two decades. The more Luis learned about the Bible, the more he started to question some of the things the Catholic Church was teaching. 

After his first wife passed away, he ended up falling in love with a woman from outside the Catholic faith. She would go to the Catholic Church with him, but they also started going to a Baptist Church. This experience began Luis’s search for the right church. He left the Catholic Church and joined the local Church of God. On Sunday’s Luis attends an “American church” with 200 in the mostly white congregation. On Saturday nights, Luis delivers his Spanish language sermon out of a small trailer – his very own church [see the above photo].

“It doesn’t matter that we are very few. For me, what is most important is the mission. They don’t pay me as a pastor, but I accomplish the mission.” (audio below)

Above: Luis leading the congregants in a song during the Saturday night service


Luis points out how in Mississippi, there are different churches for the region’s different racial groups. He wishes Sundays could be less divided. 

“I personally believe we have to destroy these walls.” 

He likes living in a rural place with a population of less than four-thousand, like Morton. It’s quiet, things are cheap, and there is no violence. Luis is happy Morton elected its first black mayor, Gerald Keeton Sr.

“I don’t see any difference – people are people. I don’t care if you are black, white, yellow, or green – we are friends.”

Luis doesn’t like big cities like Chicago, where his daughters live.

“The north is not as friendly as we are. The environment there is pretty, the lake is fantastic, but all the time I am in Chicago, I’m missing Mississippi.” (audio below)

Above: Chilean art in Luis’s home

The Chilean community in Morton is tiny – just Luis, his sister, brother-in-law, and a few other people. He misses the deep friendships he had in Chile that he hasn’t found in Mississippi. 

I am friends with my neighbor – we talk, but all the time we keep limits.”


Luis is not a fan of the current president and thinks he is a millionaire only concerned about other millionaires.

“In my opinion, Trump is destroying a lot of things in the United States. He is a negative, racist liar. He is the worst leader. I am not satisfied with everything that is happening now. I have problems even in my church because here, the people are saying, ‘oh, Trump is the hero because they are ignorant and don’t know what is going on. The people believed all the lies he was telling them.” (audio below)

Luis thinks the situation in America will likely worsen before it improves.

“If I didn’t have my daughters and grandchildren here, I would go back to my country. See you later, Trump! For me, as a Christian, he is not a Christian at all.” (audio below)

Armed Congregants

Luis is especially concerned about the prevalence of guns in the US and the power of the National Rifle Association. Luis prays that the youth will continue to push for change.

“You don’t need a military rifle unless you have in your mind to kill people. We believe we are in the Christian ‘Bible Belt’. What kind of ‘Bible Belt’ is this when people are just arming themselves?” 

In the church Luis attends, they now have two armed congregants – one was a police officer, and the other was in the army. These men carry concealed weapons under their jackets for every service. (audio below)


Luis, twice a widower, is now in his 70s. 

“I’ve been living alone for the last… I forget…12 years? It’s okay. I accept my reality.” (audio below)

He has been teaching for over a decade and a pastor for almost two decades. Luis believes that being a Christian is a 24/7 responsibility, not a few hours a week, and he tries to live that way.

“I’m worried about the future because I don’t see people committed to what Christ teaches us. That’s just a pastor’s opinion.”


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.

Abi’s Immigration Story – Mexico City, Mexico to New Albany, Mississippi


“I don’t have many memories of Mexico.”

Abi’s memories of life in Mexico are vague – it’s hard to tell what is a memory and what is from the stories her mom has told her. She knows they were poor, and eating from the street vendors was a luxury. This one lady would always come by on a bicycle selling tamales and hot chocolate. Abi would run out to her. The lady would have a huge smile and she never expected Abi to pay her anything – she could see that Abi was poor and hungry. That woman’s kindness, Abi has never forgotten, and it inspired her to want to do good for others too. (audio below)

Abi remembers how close-knit her family was in Mexico and has memories from the day they left. It had been almost two years since they last saw Abi’s father, who was already in the US. Leaving felt spontaneous – Abi had no idea her last day in Mexico, was her last day. She left wearing a black Bart Simpson backpack, with a cardigan, a coloring book, and crayons inside. (audio below)


She remembers how sad leaving Mexico was for her mom. Abi was put on a bus which took her close to the border, then she got in the van of her mom’s friend, and this woman brought Abi across the border, saying Abi was one of her daughters. (audio below)

Abi’s mom tried to cross on her own and got caught and sent back to Mexico by border patrol the first time. This meant that Abi, four years old, had to stay two weeks in a hotel room with this stranger who crossed her and her own three kids. Abi remembers the smell of cigarettes and combing the lice from the children’s hair. For these two weeks, her parents didn’t know where Abi was and they were “freaking out”. Then one day, the woman told Abi to get dressed and get in the van. That was the day Abi finally got to see her dad for the first time in almost two years. Three weeks later, her mom crossed the border without getting caught and met up with them.

They stayed in Colorado for a few months, where an aunt was living. Adjusting to the United States was hard for Abi’s mom, and job opportunities were scarce. An uncle had a construction business down in Mississippi, so they headed there to try it out. Abi’s dad was a welder in Mexico, but in America, he worked in construction and for a furniture business. Her mom, the daughter of a seamstress, had always worked office jobs in Mexico. She always said she would never sew like her mom did but a factory in Mississippi was hiring, and she has been sewing for them ever since. Both of Abi’s parents had to work night shifts. 

Abi’s mom, in particular, has endured a lot being away from her family.

“To be able to fight as hard as my mom has to raise my sister and me is incredible. We are family people, and she didn’t have support.”


It wasn’t easy for Abi to adapt to school in Mississippi. She started kindergarten in New Albany, and only three other Hispanic families had kids at that school. She always felt like she was bringing weird-smelling foods or weird-looking drinks to school.

“We don’t stop being Mexicans just because we moved to a different country. It was hard to find friends that wouldn’t look at you weird. It’s really close-minded here. The Hispanic community is large now, but back then, it was small, so we were ‘foreigners.’”

There also wasn’t an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at her school to help her.

“I remember for two years, all they did was stick us Hispanics in a room and let us draw on the board.”

But Abi will never forget one teacher, Ms. Tammy Hill, who would try her best to help despite the language barrier. It was because of Ms. Hill that she learned English in nine months. (audio below)

Abi always felt excluded due to religious differences. Most of the people in this part of Mississippi are Baptists, whereas her family is Catholic. She felt like people were always asking her questions about the bible, and she couldn’t believe they do “bible drills”. (audio below)


“I’ve always been a loner.”

Her mom thought Abi needed friends and signed her up for Girl Scouts. The leader, Miss Kareen, was the first white person Abi remembers truly accepting her and the other Hispanic kids. Her first friends, her age, were Miss Kareen’s daughter and niece.

“They were the first American family that accepted us for who we were. They didn’t question why we weren’t speaking English or why we couldn’t afford this or that. Girl Scouts will always hold a special place in my heart. It gave me the confidence I never had as a kid. We were all the weird kids, and we bonded over our weirdness.” (audio below)

Stokes is a general store off the highway that’s been around for many years. It’s where Abi’s parents would go to cash their work checks. They couldn’t cash them at most places without ID, but Mr. Stokes would cash them. He asked her family what they missed from home, and they said tortillas.

“There was nowhere here that you could find tortillas. Mr. Stokes said ‘give me a list,’ and he would order Mexican products to bring into the store. He was one of the few people who supported immigrants in this community. He always told me I could take one candy that I wanted when my parents cashed their checks.” (audio below)

Like Miss Kareen, Mr. Stokes, who passed away recently, treated Abi’s family with respect and kindness.


From an early age, Abi knew she wanted to be a medical surgeon. With her high school counselor’s help, she took all the classes she would need to get accepted, and made excellent grades by “working [her] butt off.” It was two months before she graduated high school in 2013, and many universities had sent her letters of acceptance (including her dream university, Stanford), when Abi came to realize that because she didn’t have a social insurance number, so she wouldn’t qualify for any scholarships. Abi wasn’t going to be able to afford university, which was one of the hardest realizations she has ever had.

“You spend your entire senior year planning out your life and I wanted to go to Stanford so bad. That’s all I ever talked about.”

She settled for community college, and because she was undocumented, she was paying out-of-state tuition. After the first semester, she dropped out.

“I couldn’t get it out of my mind the fact that I had failed myself.” (audio below)

Medical school wasn’t in the cards for Abi. She thought about studying criminal science, and then joining the police force – and then found out she couldn’t do that since she wasn’t a US citizen.

“I went into a depressed state. I always knew something was off about me but I used to be one of those people who said, ‘just think happy thoughts, and it will go away.’”

She didn’t know what to do with her life, felt very alone, and was hopping from job to job. Then she met her partner, he helped her a lot, and she started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.


If there is one person who has inspired Abi the most, it would be her grandma. She was orphaned at a young age, married young to an abusive husband, and got divorced (which was highly unusual at the time).

“My grandma is the epitome of strength and resilience. She put all her kids through school as a single mother. She would find ways to have fun and never focus on the negative.(audio below)

When Abi left Mexico she thought she would never see her grandma again. Luckily, one decade after she arrived in the US, her grandma got a tourist visa to come to Mississippi and attend Abi’s graduation. Her grandma makes a green mole from scratch and snuck in some spices to make sure Abi got to eat her favorite dish.

“When I see her, it is like we haven’t missed a day. She’s just the light in my world. If I can be half the woman she is I’m doing something good. She forgets a lot of things because of her age, but she never forgets someone’s birthday.”

Although Abi couldn’t go to medical school, she still managed to find employment in the medical field. It started with a job in 2014 at the hospital doing newborn photography. Finding a passion and love for photography helped her get out of her depression. 

After the hospital, she started working at a dental office. Two Italian American dentist twins, Ronnie and Donnie, really believed in her.

“I didn’t know anything about being a dental assistant, and they hired me.”


Abi feels like she is at a bit of a fork in the road and isn’t exactly sure what she is going to do next. She’d like to go to dental school, ideally at Ole Miss.

Even though Abi’s been in Mississippi for almost two decades, the fact that she isn’t from there is something she is reminded of regularly.

“To me, this is my home. New Albany is the first place I made my memories in the US. It doesn’t matter how excluded they make me feel; this is always going to be my home.”

Still, Abi believes that her generation is changing a lot of things here and thinks the future is bright.

“Here in Mississippi, we need to learn how to accept immigrants. We came here because we wanted a better life. If Mississippian people were to open up their doors and listen to our stories, they could start to understand that we aren’t here to invade or take jobs. We are all just people, and we are trying to make life happen for us too. I hope and pray that everyone learns to respect others, who may not look alike, sound alike, or pray alike. We are in the “bible belt,” and if we really are Christians, then we need to act like it. Immigrants should be included.” (audio below)

Abi hopes more people like herself will share their stories.

“I don’t think my story is particularly special from anyone else that has come to the United States to try and make a new life.”

Abi also thinks too many people either try to forget that they came from somewhere else. She doesn’t want to forget her roots.

“Even though I was four years old when I came here, Mexico is still a part of who I am.”


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.