FAIRBANKS — Johnny Mendez was first bitten by Alaska while selling posters one summer in Michigan. “There was this poster of Alaska that said ‘The Midnight Sun’ with big pretty mountains, Prince William Sound, a whale’s tail and sunshine. I said, ‘I need to go there some time.’”
So when he arrived in less scenically dramatic Fairbanks to attend grad school, he was initially disappointed. “I thought, ‘This isn’t what I expected.’ But I didn’t have much time to dwell on it. Two days later I was sent to the North Slope to start working on my thesis project. When I came back, I appreciated Fairbanks more.”
Although raised in Venezuela where his father is from, Mendez has a bicultural background. “My dad was studying in the former Soviet Union to become a doctor,” he said. “He met my mom on one of his vacation trips to the southern part of the Soviet Union.”
Mendez’s mother is Armenian. She and his father married, and Mendez was born in Moscow in 1973. At age 3 he was sent to live with relatives in Venezuela. By the time his parents rejoined him, he said, “I had learned Spanish but forgotten Russian. My mom was trying to talk to me. I had no clue what she was saying. I had to relearn Russian.”
He added, “I don’t remember anything of Russia. I was so young.”
The Mendez family lived in Valencia, a large industrial city in Venezuela’s north with access to beaches and mountains. “I would go hiking, go to the beach. Sometimes I would skip school and go climb in the mountains with my buddies. Go into the rivers. I always had this love of nature.”
Mendez attended fourth through sixth grade in Canada while his father did post-doc studies in Kingston, Ontario. There he learned English and became enamored with the North. A few years later an opportunity arose that ultimately led him to Alaska.
“When I was about to finish high school, there was this new program the Venezuelan government put together called the Galileo Program,” he explained. “The idea was to send some of the best students to study abroad, and the government would pay for it.”
Mendez was accepted and arrived in the United States in 1990. After a year in Columbia, South Carolina, he said, “I ended up going to University of Michigan and did my four year degree there in electrical engineering. That’s where I met my wife.”
Mendez met Kelly Alexander in 1992, and they married in 1995. They relocated to Fairbanks after Mendez enrolled at the University of Alaska for graduate work at the Water and Environmental Research Center.
“We lived in a cabin off of Farmers Loop, experienced the really cold winters. It got to minus 60. We had to have help getting our car started. We didn’t have a garage. The wheels were all square. You could feel it going boink, boink, boink. It was all new to me, but exciting and I really enjoyed it. It didn’t make me want to go back to Venezuela.”
However, when Mendez graduated in 1997 his student visa ran out and the couple moved to Valencia. Jobs there were scarce and the pay paltry. So when Kelly was accepted into graduate school at UAF in 2000, the couple happily returned to Fairbanks.
After finishing, Kelly landed a job with the School of Education. Meanwhile, Mendez was hired by the Department of Environmental Conservation where he now works as an engineer in the drinking water program. They have two children, Logan and Brianna, and are active in the community. In 2008 Mendez became a U.S. citizen, a status he values deeply. On an unsuccessful attempt to climb Denali that same year he even brought a copy of the United States Constitution for reading material.
Comparing his adopted country with Venezuela, Mendez said, “I like how things are a lot better organized in the U.S. If you work hard you can make a decent living for yourself and your family and not just survive like in Venezuela. The economy is good and there’s less corruption, so a lot less is wasted overall. In Venezuela there’s tons of resources but a lot of waste.”
The over-reliance on oil to drive the economy and fund the government is something he sees as similar between Venezuela and Alaska, and it concerns him. While he doesn’t see the level of corruption here that plagues Venezuela, he still cautions that “If Alaskans were to look at Venezuela I think they could see what could happen here. The worst case scenario, if we keep relying on oil so much for our state income. We’re not that bad yet, but I wouldn’t want to see it going down that route.”
One way he sees of avoiding that fate is education, which Mendez considers far superior in Alaska. “In Venezuela, public schools were very lean. You just go, sit in a classroom, learn whatever you need to learn and you’re out of there.”
He also values America’s universities. “That’s a good edge that I think the U.S. should keep up.”
Mendez shares Venezuelan music, the Spanish language, and Armenian food with his kids, but he considers himself primarily American at this point, and especially Alaskan. “When people say, ‘Are you from the United States,’ I say ‘No, I’m from Alaska.’ Because I feel more connected to the lifestyle here than somewhere in the Lower 48.”
Having experienced the gritty streets of Valencia, the family-oriented Mendez treasures the safe environment Fairbanks offers his kids and the outdoor lifestyle Alaska provides his whole family. “I wish that other people had a similar opportunity to what we have here in Alaska. I think we’re really lucky to live in such a great state with such abundance of natural beauty and we should take care of it as much as we can. I think I’ve lucked out coming here and I wouldn’t change it.”
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Becoming Alaskan is an ongoing series documenting the lives of immigrants in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.