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I Came to America to Cook. Now, I’m Here to Stay.

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Chef José Andrés on how immigrants like himself make up America's DNA

Illustration by Vance Lump

I grew up watching Hollywood movies. John Wayne, for me, was that guy who was always trying to do the right thing. From a distance, a western movie could make a young guy like me fall in love with America. To me, the American flag represented this ideal, fighting for anything that represents goodness in humanity.

I became a sailor in the Spanish navy. I was cooking for the general of Spain on the ship called Juan Sebastián de Elcano, a training ship. Here I am, a young kid, sailing into the world: the Ivory Coast, Brazil, the Caribbean. The navy also brought me to America.

I first arrived in Florida, which has so much to do with the history of Spain and the history of America. Seeing the Spanish flag in Pensacola's annual Fiesta of Five Flags celebration reassured me that actually, in a very strange way, I already belonged in America. That somebody before me came from the same place I was born and was already part of the history of this new land I was discovering.

I've always been very aware that certain moments in my life were important and would somehow have a big influence on the person I am or will become. As a sailor, coming under the Verrazano Bridge with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, being high up the mast, saluting our entrance into New York Harbor, and the big welcome we had with hundreds of boats flying the American flag surrounding us everywhere — that was an image that really had an impact on me, in more ways than one.

As a young Hispanic guy, I grew up studying all the Spanish conquistadors, Cristóbal Colón, and all the people that sacrificed their lives to try to discover a new world. I felt for a moment that I was one of those guys who centuries before had sailed into the open ocean not knowing what would lie ahead, but knowing that something new and amazing was going to be part of their lives. Manhattan, with its Twin Towers, gave me the most amazing welcome that anybody could have after being thirty days at sea.

I thought, back in the day, that the stars on the American flag equaled the stars in the sky — stars that, for sailors like me, were somehow guiding you forward, so you would not get lost in the ocean, you would not get lost in life. To me, America's flag is a symbol of a country trying to become a beacon of liberty, of freedom, of hope, a fighter for what is right in the world.

I finished my military service and came to America in '91 with an E2 visa, and worked as a cook at a restaurant from Spain called Paradise Barcelona. I came just to be one more cook in a restaurant, bringing the traditions of the country I was born into. I didn't realize I was about to start working hard to earn the right to belong.

I got the opportunity in the mid-to-late ‘90s to become American if I wanted. But by then I was married to my wife, who was working in the Spanish embassy. I had my green card, she had her visa at the Spanish embassy, and we didn't need to do anything else. It was very beneficial for my wife to be on the Spanish visa, but I was dreaming of getting an American passport. This desire slowly grew deeper and deeper in me as I realized having one daughter, having two daughters, having three daughters, that I couldn't fight it: I was becoming an American.

Inside my heart, I needed to apply for my citizenship. It was a very conscious decision. I was waiting for my wife to finish her time in the embassy and then we could do it together. For me, it was important to wait for my wife to do it alongside me.

We did it together, and it was a very special moment. We went to Baltimore for the citizenship ceremony and it was like a movie. We got to pose with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and we were with family, friends who came from Spain, and American friends who had seen me become part of America over the years. I felt so proud.

But sometimes we forget. We think a passport or a legal document gives you the right to claim that you are somebody, that you belong to someone. But a document is a document. I've learned that passports and official papers are not what really makes you belong somewhere. What makes you belong is the hard work, the desire, the happiness that you bring to yourself, your loved ones, and to others, working hard to improve your community, to improve the lives of the people around you, to say, "I am here to make a difference." You are not giving me the right to be part of something. I am working hard to earn my right to belong to something.

It's my firm belief that, documents or not, we have people in America working hard, taking care of their families, taking care of farms, taking care of fishing boats, taking care of the many things that have to happen to keep moving America forward as one. Even if those people aren't documented, I believe at night they look at those stars and say, "I've been here many years. I have sons and daughters already born here. I am paying my taxes." Many of those people, in percentage, pay more taxes than even Donald Trump himself. There are people who by working the farms, working the land, working in the restaurants, working in the wineries, are helping move America forward in ways that we can't even imagine.

Undocumented or not, people, with their hard work, have earned their right to belong. As a society, we cannot be lying to ourselves: If we are using those people, undocumented, it is because we are benefiting from their hard work. It's almost a form of slavery in the 21st century. I know that America has always improved its democracy, the laws of the land — America has always ended up making the right decision and showing everybody that democracy is something that forever and ever improves, whether in regards to slavery, to women's rights, to civil rights.

This is the first presidential election where I could cast a vote. I went to vote early, with my wife — the same way we became Americans together. It gave me a big sense of pride, a feeling that my vote was more than just putting a piece of paper into a computer: that I was letting my voice be heard. Casting a vote is one of the biggest feelings of freedom we can experience as humans.

My wife and I have our points of view. I believe that those points of view should be freely expressed with dignity, with pragmatism, and with the understanding that nothing is written in stone. We should all be able to change, in our lifetime, what we think about things like education, abortion, war, taxes, and the many things that make running a country very complex.

I've been in Washington D.C. living under Republicans and Democrats. You may like one party more than another. I've watched senators and congressmen trying to make it to the Hill. Always I've seen respect, a sense that we all belong under one flag — that we are all, even with different points of view, trying to move America forward.

What I see in this election is someone trying to point towards the worst the human species has: degrading women; calling people, including senators and prisoners of war, names; attacking an entire religion for the small percentage of people doing harm; saying Mexicans are rapists. We have somebody that aims to be called the leader of the free world that does not have the decency to offer a simple apology. In this election, we have somebody trying to bring in the worst that humanity has been trying so hard to fight against. We have a siren, tempting sailors, like I was, with a very dangerous song. My body as a human activated in a way I never imagined.

When I became a citizen, the officiant told us that America expects us to bring the best of who we are from the countries we came from, and to make that part of the American DNA. The officiant told us that to become an American was to become an active citizen: improving our democracy, and speaking up, not being silenced. Those words really stuck with me.

I'm still going through litigation with the Trump Organization. All I can say right now is that my decision to pull out of the D.C. hotel project was, above all, a business decision. Whatever the judge rules, I will obey and I will abide. But in this election, I am not doing anything more than the mandate I was given as a new American: to be an active citizen of our democracy. I'm only one more American, with my actions and words declaring what I believe America stands for.

I believe the future of immigrants in America looks better than ever. I believe the best is to come. Everybody in America is a son of an immigrant, with all the due respect to Native Americans, who were here before all of us. I am an immigrant at heart, and I feel the value of immigrants like me: We are bridges, we are not walls, walls that humanity has been working centuries to bring down.

I believe we will pass immigration reform. And when we do, I believe that everyone will see how these currently undocumented people have been, for many, many years, helping to move America forward. It will show the world that America is always that democracy, that country, that keeps fighting for the rights of those that have no voice.

I remember Steinbeck's words in Grapes of Wrath: "Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there." For me as a chef, the word "eat" is very personal. I want to be a chef, I want to be a cook, I want to create jobs, I want to feed people. I've always loved the notion that America is the melting pot. This is what makes America stand out as the most fascinating country in the rich history of humanity. We only need to make sure that this pot is what keeps making America rich, not just in the economic sense, but also spiritually and socially, so that we all may come from different backgrounds and be happy here, sitting around the same table, enjoying this same pot that we all are working so hard to make.

José Andrés is a chef and restaurant owner living in Washington, DC.
Vance Lump is a freelance illustrator based in the Pacific Northwest.
As told to Hillary Dixler. Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.