An American story: Citizenship comes with hard work, patience

Cortez restaurant owner earns citizenship after 15 years of work

Gustavo Casillas poses outside his restaurant on Main Street. He recently became a United States citizen. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/The Journal

Gustavo Casillas poses outside his restaurant on Main Street. He recently became a United States citizen.

Gustavo A. Casillas’ journey to Cortez is an American success story.

The owner of Gustavo’s Mexican Restaurant and Bar in Cortez immigrated to the U.S. in 2002 from the small town of Juchitlan, Mexico, on a work visa.

After 15 years of hard work that included learning English and the restaurant business under a resident green card, he became a U.S. citizen in May.

“It is a dream come true, and I have many more dreams that I want to achieve,” Casillas, 33, said during an interview in his restaurant at 125 E. Main St. “I had a lot of help and support along the way, and kept focused on my goal.”

It wasn’t easy.

When he arrived in Salida as an 18-year-old, Casillas enrolled in high school and was soon overwhelmed.

“I was taking biology, math, history, geography, and trying to learn English. It was a lot!” he said. “Math I could do because it’s numbers, the rest I spent endless hours translating, doing homework, and I was working too.”

He credits his parents, a supportive language teacher and the good advice of his uncle for his success in America.

“My parents grew up poor in large families, and became successful teachers,” he said. “They taught me nothing is free or easy, you have to earn everything. They passed that lesson down to me.”

He got started in the restaurant business in Page, Arizona, working different positions for his uncle Victor.

“My uncle told me, ‘In this country, to be successful you have to learn English and go to school,’ and he was right,” Casillas said. “When you come into a country that is not yours, you have to respect their laws and rules, learn the language and get socialized in school and on the job.”

When he realized the difficulty of learning English, he found a good tutor, Maggie Falconi, who guided the young man toward success.

“She really helped me a lot, told me to fight for my dream to open a restaurant, and I’ll always remember that. From her I learned when you surround yourself with positive people, your life will become positive,” he said.

The paperwork, costs and testing to become a citizen took a lot of work as well.

“You have to have patience, follow all the rules, keep track of everything, stay out of trouble. If you get a speeding ticket, pay it, keep working hard,” he said. “It took me 15 years and cost many thousands of dollars, but it is worth it.”

In October, he applied for citizenship online and was a good candidate because he had followed all the procedures and had a clean record. His fingerprints were printed, and he passed a background check. Then in October, he was told that the final step was the citizenship test – 100 questions about American history, culture, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

“I studied quite a bit, and because I learned English and went to high school, it went well,” he said. “When I passed in April, I almost cried, but I didn’t. I’m very proud, very grateful for the opportunities of this country.”

In his studies, Casillas was especially impressed with the Article I of the Declaration of Independence, and its nod toward immigrants: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights . . . among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The phrase is a pillar of the American story, Casillas said.

“It is beautiful and specific language, and is very much about taking an oath to respect and cherish everyone, not just people of the United States,” he said. “In that time, it was edited and accepted by only a handful of leaders, not like the huge Congress we have today. Over time, it changed the whole world, not just the U.S.”

Taking the oath of citizenship at a ceremony in Denver in May was another a big moment.

“There were 50 other people like me, seeking a better life in the U.S. They were from Africa, Thailand, El Salvador, China, France,” he said.

In 2011, after touring the state looking for a business location, he decided that Cortez was the place to open his dream restaurant.

“It’s a small town like where I grew up, and I like that. It’s been good. A lot of people have been supporting me and helping since Day 1. It was a long way to get here,” he said. “We focus on quality here, and treat our staff and customers like family. Our motto is work smart, work hard.”

Many of the recipes come from his home state of Jalisco, Mexico, and were created by his grandmother and passed down over generations.

To celebrate his achievements of becoming a restaurant owner and U.S. citizen, he recently renamed his restaurant Gustavo’s, which has a nice ring to it, and surely will continue as a mainstay of the Cortez dining scene.

“This restaurant is my hobby, my life, and I’m doing what I love to do,” he said. “I just love the community here.”

Gustavo’s recently relocated to a larger building at 125 E. Main St.

Gustavo Casillas proudly displays his citizenship papers and passport on July 6 after becoming a U.S. citizen. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/The Journal

Gustavo Casillas proudly displays his citizenship papers and passport on July 6 after becoming a U.S. citizen.