Alexi was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, just across the border from the town he was mostly raised in, Maicao, Colombia, on the Caribbean coast of South America. His place of birth in Venezuela was solely for the utilization of the hospital for his birth which was located there, an hour’s drive from the family’s home in Maicao.
As Alexi relates the story, growing up in Maicao in the 1960’s was very simple, with dirt roads, outhouses outside of the homes and no electricity. Like in any other small town or big city, there were the poor, the middle class and the ones that had the most. In his case, looking back, he recalls that his family was on the side of the lower class but moving to the middle class in a very small economy.
He was the son of a single mother with seven kids. His mother held her own as a shop owner in Maicao’s bustling contraband business of that era, but she died very young and suddenly of an asthma attack. Her death caused a split of the family. Throughout his early childhood, Alexi’s grandmother had been highly involved in raising the children while his mother worked to provide the income for the family. His grandmother had taken them to a better environment, the city of Barranquilla, Colombia several hours away, while Alexi’s mother stayed in Maicao working hard to provide for her family and send resources to the grandmother.
After his mother’s death, his grandmother was not able to care for the children anymore. Due to her age, she did not feel strong enough to continue raising the younger children without the presence and support of his mother. His father, although nearby in Maracaibo, Venezuela, was not willing to take on the responsibility of the children, nor were any of the extended family members.
Before Alexi’s mother died, she had acquired a corner area of a block in Maicao with the financial help of his father, and the rent from this commercial building with an apartment upstairs was split among the seven siblings. It was just enough to pay for a place to live for each of them. Alexi, who was ten years old at the time, and his younger brother who was eight were put in a boarding school, while the four older siblings became independent, living alone. The youngest sister who was six was put into a convent.
Unfortunately, because of money mismanagement by his oldest brother, the boarding school didn’t last long, so Alexi had to fend for himself, living independently at age 13. His younger brother was lucky enough to be taken in by his friend’s family and raised by them. For this period of years as a young teenager, Alexi found lodging for himself by renting a room from some family who had other children. He routinely told the family he was older than he was to be seen as someone old enough to be living independently without family.
During this time, Alexi struggled to continue attending school because often he did not have enough to eat. With little nourishment it was next to impossible to muster the energy to attend school, let alone do well academically. The little money remaining from his mother’s property split among the siblings was only enough to pay for a room to rent with very little left over for other living expenses.
After a few years of living this way, he stumbled onto the opportunity to learn the skill of ballet in Colombia. A friend suggested going to the local ballet school as a way to meet girls. To his surprise, the ballet school opened up a whole world he became interested in. By chance, he had a natural talent for it. By his description of this encounter, it was sort of like the light of his destiny which he followed. After one year of ballet at age 17, he followed this light to the country next-door that had a professional ballet company and school sponsored by the government – Venezuela. He took quite a risk, as he didn’t have the proper papers to cross the border and was detained for a period of a few days, not knowing if he would make it there or be sent back to Colombia.
But, as he believed his destiny led him, the paperwork was ultimately approved, and he continued his journey to his destination of the ballet school and company in Venezuela. There, quickly, as he describes it, like a plant placed in the right soil, he matured into a full-blown dancer. Having started his career in the city of Caracas, Venezuela with the Ballet Internacional de Caracas, he had the opportunity to travel extensively around the world, allowing him to further see what opportunities could play out in the world for him.
After spending five years with the company honing his skills, he put in the hard work on top of his daily rehearsal and performance schedule to train for the International Ballet Competition being held that year in Jackson, Mississippi. He won the competition, resulting in being hired by a European Opera House, the Deutsche Oper Berlin as a soloist dancer, through the help of the competition and the connections of his manager at the time.
After dancing for three years with the prestigious Deutsche Oper Berlin, he took a six-month guest engagement with the Ballet National de Marseilles Roland Petit in Marseilles, France. At the end of this engagement, he decided his next move after Europe would be to come to the United States, chiefly because he had promised himself and his family that he would complete his academic education.
He made a conscious decision to look for a place that would allow him to both obtain an education and finish his career dancing professionally. He felt that the United States had better educational opportunities and its location was closer to his home in South America than Europe was. Also, culturally he felt more welcome in the U.S. than in Europe. He found from his experiences in Europe that it was more difficult being a person of color in the high elitist circles of the ballet world there.
He contacted the artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson, as well as the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre in New York, Mikhail Baryshnikov. After auditioning in New York and finding out that although he was qualified for the position, there were no openings at that time for a male dancer of his specific build and style, he accepted an offer of employment as a soloist dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. The move to this company was better aligned with his goal of obtaining a college education, as they toured very little, while American Ballet Theatre toured for much of the year, making attending college classes in person more difficult.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, Alexi didn’t know anyone, so he stayed at a hotel for a few days before finding an apartment through a newspaper ad and moving in. With a job waiting for him, he quickly found a social circle by becoming friends with the dancers in the company. He was already sufficiently skilled in conversational English by this time so making friends in an American company was not difficult. The dancers welcomed him, and he felt that his destiny was correct. He felt that everything aligned correctly for himself – where he was living, where the university was, and where the ballet was located all aligned very well. The university he hoped to attend, the University of San Francisco, was on the same street as the San Francisco Ballet building although some miles away, and the apartment he found was conveniently located along the same route as well.
During his first few months in San Francisco, Alexi got around on public transportation quite a bit. Because the locations were along the same bus line, going from home to the ballet building was an easy routine. However, he preferred having the independence of a car, so he was lucky enough to have a new friend, a fellow company dancer, co-sign for him to buy a new car.
Although the ballet company arranged for him to come from Europe and so were inclined to sponsor his work visa, there was no additional help from the staff in moving or adjusting to living in a new county. Fortunately, the fellow dancers helped with any advice and information he needed to navigate the logistics of living somewhere new.
Later on as he thought things were going well and he liked the area where he was, he applied for residency. He felt that in San Francisco he had the opportunity to grow intellectually and artistically. He sponsored himself for residency – the company only fulfilled some of the legal obligations connected to it. Several years later, in the late “90’s he went on to obtain U.S. citizenship.
The moment Alexi arrived in San Francisco, he decided to take the GED, the high school equivalency exam, to be able to enter college. With his dire living situation as a teenager, he was never able to complete high school in Colombia and with the launching of his ballet career in Venezuela, there had never been time to return to school. Taking the GED required him to take a few self-guided courses. Although he could communicate well in English, Alexi found that to pursue a college education, he would have to first improve his English grammar skills.
He got the GED and began attending community college, City College of San Francisco. The first classes assigned were English as a Second Language: ESL levels 1 through 4. After completing these ESL courses, he was able to enroll in college-level English 1. In the beginning of his college journey, he took these ESL classes very early in the morning at 6am before heading to the SF Ballet to work.
Something that helped Alexi feel a sense of community in San Francisco other than his fellow dancer friends was his introduction to the Bermejo family. The Bermejos, immigrants from Mexico, were the owners of a long-standing family business in the Richmond District of San Francisco – Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. In his first year in San Francisco, the company dancers had a tradition of going to Tommy’s after work, which was located near the old location of the SF Ballet. The ballet had recently relocated to a new building in the Civic Center neighborhood of SF across the street from the War Memorial Opera House where they performed. The dancers took him to Tommy’s and upon learning that Alexi was from Latin America and new in town, the Bermejo family – the owners and their young adult children – became close friends. They spent many, many years celebrating many of the holidays and birthdays together.
In Alexi’s second year of living in San Francisco, his younger sister Yolima, the one who had been raised in a convent, reached out to him, and expressed interest in coming to San Francisco to pursue her college education. He invited her to come and stay in his apartment with him until she found her own place, which ended up being about six months. Yolima, who was living in Venezuela at the time, was able to obtain a visa to go to college here. In contrast to Alexi, she had already been able to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Venezuela. She did have to repeat part of her degree here before going on to get a masters, as the Bachelor’s degree from Venezuela didn’t fully translate into a degree in the U.S.
In coming to the United States, Alexi feels that two of his biggest opportunities stand out as the most meaningful: one was being able to acquire an education in the U.S. in the sciences. By ultimately obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of San Francisco, it opened up the world of technology to him, and he was able to work in the industry of IT (Internet Technology) after retiring from his ballet career in 1994.
The timing of this transition was good because he only needed to take a couple of years off between careers before he found his first job in the sciences. In the interim period he made a living by taking seasonal guest dance engagements in ballet schools and companies throughout the country. By the time he obtained his degree, he had paid for and put in eight years of attending college part-time while working at the San Francisco Ballet full-time.
The other big opportunity was furthering his artistic career when he had the opportunity to lead a small ballet school in Mountain View, CA. Beginning in 2007, over the past fourteen years he was able to turn the business around four times fold, while still maintaining his full-time job in technology.
When asked about the biggest obstacles he faced as an immigrant to the United States, Alexi’s one reply was the social classes. He feels that it probably has to do with the differences in wealth and power between members of the different communities. He felt for example, artistically, being a person of color in an arts community that wasn’t used to diversity on stage at that time, it was a little harder being in those circles.
In his experiences in California, generally he felt like an outsider. He was hoping to be more noticed and acknowledged for his skills and achievements, but instead, what he has, he was able to make for himself. Nothing was given to him. He continues to operate like that, with his two current fulfilling careers. He does hope for a brighter future for his family – the children of an immigrant – and he feels that he gave his three children the opportunity he didn’t have, so they can quickly rise socially and thrive.
The interview and narrative were done by Eileen Zubiria, the wife of Alexi. Besides their marriage of over 20 years, Eileen is a student at Foothill Community College.