May 26th, 2013
12:15 PM ET

From migrant worker to neurosurgeon

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

(CNN) - Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa insists, "I just think of myself as a regular guy."

It's an incredible statement from someone who grew up in an impoverished Mexican village, illegally hopped the fence into California, attended Harvard Medical School and now works at Johns Hopkins Medicine as a neurosurgeon.

"I've never been one who declines adventure," he says.

Early life

The oldest of five children, Quinones-Hinojosa as a child had nightmares that he had to save his mother and siblings from fires, floods, avalanches, says his memoir, "Becoming Dr. Q," which he co-authored.

His interest in medicine may have stemmed from this sense of responsibility, along with his baby sister's death from colitis (the memoir is dedicated to her). At 6, though, he wanted to be an astronaut.

His father owned a gas station, and Quinones-Hinojosa worked there at age 5; his family lived in an apartment in the back. But as Mexico's economy took a dive, the business collapsed, along with the family's livelihood. Quinones-Hinojosa's father had to sell it for almost no profit. They later learned that gasoline had been leaking out of holes in the underground tanks.

The family used to eat meat once a week, but that became a luxury of the past. After the station was sold, they had to make do with flour tortillas and homemade salsa, he wrote.

Short visits to California's San Joaquin Valley, where Quinones-Hinojosa's uncle Fausto was a foreman at a ranch, gave Quinones-Hinojosa a glimpse into the United States - and the American dream. At age 14, he spent two months there pulling weeds, making money to bring back to his family.

That hard-earned cash proved that people like me were not helpless or powerless," he wrote.

As a teenager, Quinones-Hinojosa thought he would become an elementary school teacher. Despite his excellent grades at a teacher-training college, however, he was assigned a position in a remote, rural area; only politically-connected, wealthy kids got jobs in cities, he wrote. Quinones-Hinojosa's salary would be paltry.

His uncle agreed to let him work a short stint again at the California ranch to supplement his income, as doubts began to accumulate about his future as a teacher. A plan began to form in his mind.

Life's work: Mom's death inspires doctor's life work

Passage into the United States

Quinones-Hinojosa had $65 in his pocket when, the day before his 19th birthday in 1987, he decided to cross into the United States for a longer stay. He wasn't thinking about laws, he just wanted to escape poverty so that he could go back and feed his family, he says.

Risking arrest, deportation and even death, Quinones-Hinojosa had a plan: He would cross the border in a "Spider-man climb" up an 18-foot-fence, hop over the barbed wire and make a leap into California, he wrote.

Just when he made it across, border agents picked him up and sent him back to Mexico.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Clovis

    " A prophet is never accepted in his home country "

    Prophet being someone who promotes change due to their messages and actions rather than a religious intermediary. Obviously someone will use the violent Mohammad image to challenge this comment. Immigrants will always do better than locals in any country in the world, but left wing policies will limit their potential.

    June 2, 2013 at 2:49 am | Report abuse |
  2. no illegal

    How many times are they going to rehash this story? With 25 million illegal invaders squatting on our soil, we should at least have more than this one doctor we have to read about every three months.

    May 29, 2013 at 3:36 am | Report abuse |
    • steve

      Jealous aren't you....hahahah. Why don't you stop working for McDonald's and educate yourself instead of trying to hate because he made something of his life.

      May 31, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |

    Stop being jealous. It's all in how BAD you want things. If he did it, coming from a completely different country where they have little to nothing, then why can't we? Stop complaining, because we have waaaay more advantages as natural born citizens of this country, yet a lot of us don't take advantage of the opportunities we have and then have the audacity to sit here and hate an complain on others who actually GET UP and do something to change their lives and the lives of other for the better......

    May 28, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. m12

    Only CNN and it's Obama drone sister news orgs would harp this as a success story.
    Congratulations, you have proved you hate Americans, good job CNN

    May 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve

      All Americans except native Indians are immigrants, you dummy.

      May 31, 2013 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
      • ....fail

        No, we killed the Indians and took their land, that is not an immigrant. Mexicans are just walking over and we are giving everything to them for free.

        June 3, 2013 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      Not enough to WANT a college diploma or six-figure salary because you're "Murrican" and have pretty blue eyes, you have to bust your co-jo-nes for it when you're coming up from the bottom if you want it bad enough. The world is full of whining, cantankerous half-deads who WANT stuff because in their minds, "I am me".

      June 2, 2013 at 1:21 am | Report abuse |