From Migrant Worker To Doctor: An Immigrant’s Journey

By Memsy Price

On an average workday, Dr. Ana Benitez-Graham sees between forty and fifty patients. She begins work at 7:00 a.m. at her dermatology practice in Mebane, North Carolina, a small town located about midway between Greensboro and Durham. After her early start, she often works through lunch and then heads home in the evening to have supper with her family. Her life — that of a successful American doctor, wife and mother — isn’t one she ever imagined for herself as a child.

It’s a long way from Mexico to North Carolina. And the journey from teenage migrant worker to doctor is even longer.

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Benitez-Graham, her mother and three of her siblings arrived in Austin, Texas, in 1983. She and the other kids rode in the trunk of a coyote’s — a smuggler’s — car. At 13 years old, she was an adult by the standards of her village back in Bejucos, Mexico. But when she got to America, she reasoned, she’d still be considered a child and could attend school. She knew it was her right, even though she and the rest of her family were undocumented.

She did go to school, but she didn’t speak English and was placed two grades behind where she’d been in Mexico. And school was complicated because Benitez-Graham had responsibilities beyond her studies. Her parents wanted — and needed — their children to work. The family’s first job was the same as many in their situation. They became migrant farmworkers, picking tomatoes, apples, peppers and cotton in the searing southwestern sun.

“There was always a goal, that wide-open hope, that it’s going to get better, so you’re willing to pick apples for three weeks straight. It was horrible, but I thought that next month we’re going to be at school; it’s going to be okay. And it was,” she explained.

Benitez-Graham continued to go to school when she could. But when she moved on to working long hours at a commercial laundry facility — her shift changed from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. — school proved impossible.

She never gave up, though.

“I really liked learning,” said Benitez-Graham, matter-of-factly. “I was able to keep that part of me going because I wanted it.”

ana in the middle with cousin, uncle, sister
Ana in the middle in a white dress with her uncle, cousin and sister. Photo courtesy of Ana Benitez-Graham.

In a 2007 American Public Media interview on “The Story,” she described going to the public library every day, even after she dropped out of school. In her spare time, “one by one,” she devoured the books she saw on a list of the titles everyone should read before high school graduation.

She worked her way up through a series of restaurant jobs and met her future husband, who encouraged her to start community college. At the time, she could enroll without a high school diploma. Benitez-Graham returned to school and continued to work. She eventually entered the University of Texas at Austin — completing a pharmacy degree in five and a half years — and forged a path to citizenship.

In her last semester at UT, she was assigned to a rural hospital in El Paso to complete a pharmacy rotation. Benitez-Graham was part of a team working under the supervision of Dr. Abraham Verghese, an immigrant physician and internal medicine specialist. Verghese, an Ethiopian national of Indian descent, is also a best-selling author whose first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, recounted his days confronting the AIDS epidemic in Johnson City, Tennessee.

In her 1994 New York Times review of Verghese’s memoir, Perri Klass, herself a physician, wrote: “Another strand in Dr. Verghese’s narrative is his own personal niche within American medicine and its hospitals: the story of the Indian F.M.G.’s (foreign medical graduates, as they are called, often disparagingly) who have found their professional opportunities in places where the supply of home-grown doctors has not been sufficient, and have spread out through the rural South.”

This observation about immigrant doctors in the rural South seems apt when considering Benitez-Graham’s work in Mebane. And it’s not surprising to learn that Verghese inspired her to be a physician.

“He had a really good bedside manner,” she said. “For every patient, he had their story, and it was very impressive. I hadn’t seen medicine up close but then seeing it with someone like that was a whole new experience. After that I decided I wanted to be a doctor.”

After self-financing her pharmacy degree, Benitez-Graham went on to complete her medical degree at Duke and her residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, schools renowned for their large research hospitals and top-notch dermatology departments. During her medical studies, she received a prestigious Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Benitez-Graham was recruited by the hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, adjacent to Mebane, in 2010, when she was ready to open her own practice. Mebane is a small factory and agricultural town whose entire population could fit into a high-school football stadium.

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Dr. Ana Benitez-Graham in her office. Photo by Tasha Thomas.

“Whenever you look at places to go and practice as a dermatologist,” Benitez-Graham remembered, “the numbers are something like one dermatologist needs 50,000 people to support them. Mebane has about 11,000 people, so I was wondering if I was going to make it.”

The county hospital had spent almost a decade trying to recruit a dermatologist when it persuaded Benitez-Graham to open her practice. “Dermatologists really have their pick of where they want to go,” she said. “Going to a small place to practice rural medicine is not their thing, even though it’s really exciting because you get to see everything.”

When she first opened her doors, Benitez-Graham wasn’t sure how she would be accepted as a newcomer — and a foreigner — in such an insular, small town.

“Moving here, I became Mexican,” she observed. “I wasn’t Mexican before — I was just a person. Coming here all of a sudden my features were very prominent. People would look at me and try to figure out, ‘Where are you from?’ It was kind of daunting because I do have an accent, and I do look Hispanic, and I wasn’t sure how they would accept me, but they did.”

Mebane is in some ways emblematic of the urban-rural divide playing out across the nation. Conversation around this divide touches on issues including income, education and immigration. Reflecting on the current rhetoric around immigration, Benitez-Graham noted that politicians in particular use it “to divide people so the immigrant debate is always divided between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.”

Although she’d long experienced acceptance from her patients, she was concerned about whether they’d continue to treat her so warmly after Alamance County, where Mebane is located, turned out for Donald Trump. After all, he had made his opinions on those who arrived in the country like Benitez-Graham did clear with his plans to “build a wall” as well as his “bad hombres” applause line and other statements like it.

Voting statistics show evidence of the divide between Mebane and neighboring cities like Durham and Chapel Hill. The North Carolina Board of Elections’ data from the November elections shows that Trump won Alamance County by 54.55% to 41.93% over Clinton. (In contrast, neighboring Durham County, where Benitez-Graham lives with her family, went 77.66% for Clinton and 18.16% for Trump.)

But between Benitez-Graham and her patients, the feeling of acceptance hasn’t changed. She’s had a positive experience thus far: “I haven’t had a single person come in and say, ‘I don’t want you to be my doctor.’ They have been very welcoming…it’s been a very eye-opening experience.”

Dr. Alvis Dunn, a native of rural North Carolina and an assistant professor in the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, specializes in the history of Latin America and the American South. “North Carolina history isn’t necessarily predictable,” he said. “We are a series of enclave communities, and now there’s a Hispanic side of town. We’ve been content to wall ourselves off from one another, but it’s not a high wall — you can look over it.”

This virtual wall, Dunn said, has become especially important in rural North Carolina, where, as he put it, “the enclaves all touch each other.” When Benitez-Graham noted the disparity between how the Mebane area voted in the presidential election and how her patients treat her, she observed a “disconnect between what people vote for and what they accept in their lives.”  

Dunn explained one way to look at the disconnect is the historical dynamics of the group vs. the individual. Perceptions can change when abstract concepts hit home, i.e., when immigration becomes personal, fewer people support deportation. “The more an issue can be humanized,” Dunn said, “the less people support it.”

Benitez-Graham said about sharing her journey from migrant worker to dermatologist, “I think this is a really good way of trying to fight it off — bring it back to us and to, ‘Who’s your doctor?’ Who’s your neighbor?’ Showing faces shows we’re all much closer than we really are.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Memsy Price is a writer and editor based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has worked at Algonquin Books and “The Rough South” series of films about Southern writers. She completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.

Cover photo: Ana (in a red dress) pictured with her cousin and sister in 1979.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.