To some people of the US, Jorge Muñoz is a hero. To the homeless hoards that he has been feeding every single night for nearly 10 years, he is an angel. To Colombia, the man who left his native country as a young boy to enter the States as one of millions of illegal immigrants in search of opportunity, could very well be Congress’ next representative of expatriates all over the world.
Far from home, those caught up in the struggle have relied on him countless times as a pillar for the community, a devotion for which President Barack Obama presented him with a Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian honor, in 2010.
Nevertheless, the time may soon come for him to hand the reins, or steering wheel, of his charitable food truck to his sister, as his aspirations for a seat representing the diaspora — Colombians living abroad — in Colombian Congress mean that he will be the lead candidate for the evangelical MIRA party (Independent Movement of Absolute Renovation) in the upcoming elections.
To Colombia Reports, Muñoz talks of the on-going difficulties Colombian immigrants must deal with day-by-day in an often unforgiving environment, and what he wants to do to support them.
The migration of Colombians to the US in particular is no recent phenomenon, as since the 1960s there has been a steady flow into the home of the “American Dream,” be it down to economic, political, or armed conflict-related reasons.
“We have seen how the Colombian has found him/herself forgotten by the[ir] government,” Muñoz tells us. “In many situations they have had to leave our country and look for a future in other nations.”
As Muñoz recalls his past as an illegal immigrant, brought to the US when a road accident left his mother a widow and made life in the small Colombian town in which he was raised a daily struggle, he relates the unfortunate yet universal conditions that push so many people to flee their country for distant lands.
“Us Colombians are like any other immigrant here in the US,” he says. “We come to work, to work for our families, to form a future for ourselves and get our children ahead in life, considering that there are so many opportunities in this country.”
Muñoz offers an optimistic vision of those Colombians who make it to the US. The exemplary work ethic of the Colombian immigrant, both old and new, he claims, allows them to persevere despite inevitable difficulties.
“In whichever part of the world we are, Colombians are going through hardships, but we receive opportunities and we make the most of them, because we don’t want to be a burden on any nation … There are many challenges but I think that the Colombian has a lot of drive, vigor, and they pull themselves through. They always scrape out a living in some way.
“Colombians are enterpreneurs.”
Muñoz’s faith lies especially in his co-nationals’ inherent unity, and ability to support one another.
“We are a group, a nation, that is very unified and family-orientated, we take care of one another.”
The result, according to him, has been positive progress in a foreign society, in which the majority of Colombians belong to the middle-working class. Having established roots, he says, they now live a comfortable life in their new home.
“Those who arrived here 30 to 40 years ago have a very good life financially,” Muñoz assures me. “They have their businesses, they have stability.”
In fact, the Colombian Foreign Ministry asserts that, perhaps in contrast to the majority of migrants making the journey to the “land of opportunity,” most migrants “are characterized by their high level of education, good knowledge of English, and a significant number of middle to high class migrants.”
This is not the case for all arrivals, however, as the social issues associated with this trend stem as far back as its beginnings. Now, the growing amount of Colombian nationals living abroad stresses the need to improve these people’s quality of life.
The 49-year-old knows first-hand what the main challenges are for Colombians arriving to a non-Spanish speaking country: the language barrier is high, the culture shock is overwhelming at times, and leaving behind the family for which they will spend the next few years working hard to support is distressing at the very least.
Despite the strength with which many Colombians have set up home in the States, the undeniable problems faced by most immigrants in a new land are still a pertinent issue for the candidate for Congress, who hopes to eradicate them to the best of his ability if he is indeed elected into office.
“There are many immigrants who are suffering. There are many immigrants who are living in darkness, and these millions of immigrants need to come into the light. They have to come out of anonymity.”
Muñoz considers himself to be among the lucky ones. While he always had a family and a plate of warm food to go home to at night, he soon noticed that for many, this was not the case.
“There are so many immigrants who, although they find themselves in this great nation, are needy, are going hungry.”
Since that moment nearly 10 years ago, Muñoz has been a true beacon to the foreign community. He started giving out hot food at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, where starving workers would gather every night in wait of what was often their only cooked meal of the day.
The day before our interview, Muñoz had served 112 steaming plates to those braving, or enduring, the biting winter cold of New York’s streets. Over the nine and a half years that the founder of what is now called the “Angel in Queens” organization has been serving Brooklyn’s most deprived, he estimates that he has distributed a total of 230,000 hot meals to the people that politics forgot.
Muñoz’s dreams of entering Parliament in his home country began amidst the growing desire for the Colombians residing in NY, which he had gotten to know partly through his extensive charity work, “to take their needs into their own hands.” He was encouraged to be an ambassador to the community and represent the Colombian diaspora all over the world, a mission which led him to reach second place in the 2010 Congress elections as candidate for the political party MIRA.
Despite a few hiccups in the past elections, he believes that this year will see a positive outcome for his candidacy.
Muñoz doesn’t like to criticize. Still, he does believe that not enough has been done in the past to fully support the foreign community which he is a part of, and that the socio-political situation “could definitely improve.”
“You have to remember that politics is not bad. That which is bad is the human being that uses politics wrongly.”
“One of our mottos is that we (MIRA) can marry politics with honesty.”
To Muñoz, one of the most important issues currently is the reformation of the nation’s immigration policies. He believes that divisions within US politics have delayed for far too long a move which needs to take place in order for the nation’s politics to complement its increasingly multi-cultural society.
Deportation is a major cause for concern, he states, as the separation of families goes against the US constitution itself.
“This has to stop. The reform has to happen. It’s hard, but it can happen.”
The 49-year-old’s plans for improvement also focus heavily on the small-scale and the day-to-day — issues which have caused, in his experience, the most cause for concern among his co-foreign nationals.
The main issues that he would aim to address are improving the accessibility of services for foreign citizens, as well as providing information and job-seekers assistance for women and youths. Furthermore, Muñoz is looking to promote investment into Colombia by its expatriates, an initiative that could greatly benefit their native country.
“There are Colombians who have for a long time looked to other nations to invest their capital. To invest in Colombia would mean jobs and development for those who remain in Colombia.”
As the conversation comes to a close, the medal-holder for his services to humanity humbly tells us how, despite becoming a national star following a New York Times special report on his food program in 2007, he has no desire for fame.
“I’ll tell you something. It’s not about popularity. It’s simply how to try and change the dignity of a human being a 9:50 at night, to hand them a plate of food and say ‘look, you can count on me tomorrow if you don’t find a job, because I’ll give you a free plate of food.’
“I do it because it’s necessary.”
The same is true for his high political ambitions, which he promises to confront with the same spirit of devotion that makes him a Colombian through and through.
“The challenges will always be there. But us Colombians have determination. We will always go forward.”
- Interview with Jorge Muñoz
- The Chicken and Rice Man (The New York Times)
- Obama honors CNN Hero who cooks meals for homeless people (CNN)
- An Angel In Queens Official Website
- Migración Colombiana (Cancillería)