(a second version by Elaina Weber follows)
By Alex Mold
Julio Bernal was born in Bogota, Colombia and wanted to leave Colombia from the time he turned nine years old. After attending elementary school under the train tracks, he learned accounting, and found a living.
He wanted to leave the country because he feared organized drug cartels that he and neighbors saw as controlling the government. It was widely accepted that Pablo Escobar “owned” politicians and maintained his power.
Julio was 19 years old when he became an accountant for one of the national banks – specifically someone involved in currency change.
This career became part of his plan to come to America. First he tried to ask his manager for money for his vacation, permanent, to America but they denied him. For a Colombian, Julio was paid well and could afford luxury goods like a motorcycle and saving for a plane ticket.
As an accountant, he found he had access to the funds of people’s account information including when they received money. He noticed one account, which had a large sum of money, was scheduled to receive $8,000 as a payment. Julio told a group of Fordham students and a classroom of fellow immigrants that he took the money and placed it into his account and corrected his “mistake” on the official bank transfer papers to make it look like an accounting error. With $8,000, Julio had 30 days to leave the country before the “mistake” could be noticed, presumably generating a complaint to the the bank. As it turned out, the bank did not care about this $8,000 loss because all the money was insured (by a national fund) up to $2,000,000 and was described as “a drop in the bucket.”
His first destination was Miami. Julio was interrogated by customs because of his Colombian background – customs wanted to prevent illegal immigration. The customs officer asked him where he was staying and Julio then realized he had nowhere to go. The customs officer then gave Julio the name of an expensive hotel and called a cab to take Julio there.
Instead he went to a hotel that charged $87 per week and he stayed there until he found a job working in a restaurant for two to three days as a dishwasher. Eventually, he became a valet parking attendant and enjoyed the job because he received gratuity.
At some point, he felt he had to move to stay ahead of immigrations officials so he took a Greyhound bus to New York City from Miami.
Upon arrival at Times Square, he took the 7 train to Queens where he heard everyone on the subway speaking Spanish and felt at home. He began to walk around Queens to try to find his friends’ house, and then he called them and moved into their apartment.
His friend suggested that Julio go to bartending school to make more money; the only problem was Julio did not drink. After two months he learned bartending and easily passed the class before the Waldorf Astoria hired him as a bartender.
As he was still an illegal immigrant, the Waldorf Astoria, through the union called Local 6 for bartenders, helped Julio receive a green card. As a good worker, who always knows how to make drinks and like to make piña colada, the Waldorf Astoria then backed him for citizenship that he received.
After receiving his citizenship he applied for a passport and asked the Colombian consulate if he could return to Colombia after his dramatic exit. After the consulate’s initial shock, he looked in the bank records at the time and found no mention of the incident in the computer. The consular then called him a liar but then said that if Julio actually did do this then the banks would not care because this was a drop in the bucket for what they received in insurance.
Subsequently he was allowed to leave for Colombia and see his parents again.
As a member of the union called Local 6, he receives several benefits he did not receive back in Colombia including healthccare. One other benefit, he wished he could have learned earlier, was the bartending lessons they provide for interested people. Julio has to mind the three-strike policy, where he would lose union membership if he received three strike.
by Elaina Weber
Julio Bernal, who talked about his coming to the United States as part of an English as a Second Language class at the Consortium for Worker Education, first started planning to get to America when he heard “you find the money on the ground, in the street,” that the streets of America were literally paved with gold.
Working in a bank in Colombia, he had an average job and a quality of life better than many of his fellow Colombians. Yet he dreamed of something more for himself.
Julio wasn’t chasing family, or attempting to build one in America. His small family is spread out between England, Venezuela, Colombia, and the U.S., and they happen to be very close to a religion Julio inherited a hatred for from his father.
Julio’s grandparents raised his father and aunt for only a short time before “giving his two children to God” by way of sending them to the seminary and nunnery. Every day of his life, Julio’s father hated the seminary, the priests, the religion, and God even more. At the age of 20, he took a leap of faith and made a break for it. He disappeared from the seminary and resurfaced in a quiet town in Colombia, where people wouldn’t talk and he could hide away.
Eventually, Julio’s grandparents were told where his father had been hiding. Shortly after, the plane that carried Julio’s grandparents and aunt fell from the sky en route to come to Julio’s father.
No one survived.
Julio’s father tells the story “using very strong words” that ends with God smiting the family and damning them for the wrong they did to him, trying to force him into priesthood. The story goes that Julio’s father immediately married his wife. By the time she was 17, Julio, her first child, was walking in the streets with her. This new family was founded on his father’s recent experience with the church.
“My father hated religions forever,” Julio recounted, “and I never enjoyed them either.”
Julio was raised on a farm with his parents until he was 13 years old, when they moved into a city and Julio continued his education. At 16, Julio went to trade school to learn to make wallets, design shoes, and work in a factory.
“My practice in factory which was very elegant,” Julio described, using his hands in a fanciful manner. “But my next job was the most elegant.”
It was also where he plotted for and made his big break into the U.S..
Julio soon found himself working as an accountant after three years of cutting leather. In this bank, Republican Bank, it was common for clients to come in to exchange Colombian currency for American dollars.
“It was the bank of the banks,” Julio said through a crooked smile, “and the transaction was very easy to do. Every day, people go to Japan, go to Europe, go to the U.S., go to Australia … ”
So, on the first day of the month, Julio “borrowed” $8,000 American by opening an account, transferring the money into his own account, and closing the account quickly.
“They check the records only at the end of the month,” Julio snickered, “so nobody knows for 30 days. I ordered the money, and the money came, like it did every day, and then I flew to the U.S. in a very elegant plane, first class; I think it was a small plane just for first-class people.”
Since then, Julio has been regarded as nothing but a first-class person. His big heart and lively spirit are contagious, and he doesn’t plan to change any time soon.
After sharing his story, reached into his bag and pulled out a small flash drive. He turned to me and said, “This will get me into the finances at the hotel I work at. Guess what,” he said, with wild eyes.
“I’ll do the same here to fly to Australia!”