When Mexican native Ruben Montalvo first came to the United States at age 24, he was so sure his visit was temporary that he kept an open return ticket home. As valedictorian from his university, where he had received an engineering degree, he’d been reluctant to leave his cushy job in Mexico City with General Motors, along with his company car, secretary, and travel budget.
But America kept giving him reasons to stay: Gillette had offered him a job at its Boston headquarters finding environmental alternatives to aerosols. Harvard University wanted him, too. He studied marketing and accounting, and Gillette paid the tuition. “It was an amazing time. I was working alongside some of the best engineers in the country,” says Montalvo, now in his 50s. “But I still wasn’t sure I would stay.”
He did, though, after meeting his wife, an immigrant who had moved from Mexico when she was a child, and settling in Greenville, SC. Once there, he noticed a hole in the local food scene. There were Mexican restaurants, but nothing for vegetarians. So Montalvo and his wife started the vegetarian Mexican restaurant Cantinflas, which eventually expanded to three locations. They also started a healthy fast-food spin-off called Senor Wraps, which had four stores.
I couldn’t imagine doing business anywhere else. It’s just so easy here.
Montalvo knew he’d made the right decision to remain in the United States when he received the “Best Minority Business” award from the City of Greenville. “I was so proud of that day,” he says. “Now I couldn’t imagine doing business anywhere else. It’s just so easy here. It’s very pro-business with little red tape. You can open a bank account and get a business license all in an afternoon.” Montalvo would eventually close the fast-food chain and all but one Cantinflas restaurant. He has since expanded into commercial real estate and “fell into” a transportation company called Four Daughters Worldwide Investor Corp., named in honor of his children. Today he employs 30 people, 26 of whom are American citizens.
Montalvo knows his immigration journey was relatively easy compared to others. Watching the struggles of undocumented immigrants in Greenville has made him a strong advocate of immigration reform. “The U.S. is the only country I know of where the pursuit of happiness is a right,” he says. “But that right should be for everyone – not just the people who were born here or people like me who were lucky to become citizens.” He’d like to see policies that avoid splitting up families and make it easier to obtain working permits, so that immigrants can get driver’s licenses and car insurance, go to college, and contribute to society.
Now Montalvo regards the United States as his home: “The U.S. is my adopted country, and I love it. It’s the only passport I hold. It’s the flag I defend,” he says.