Living the American dream
Ilesh Patel of Jamestown Wine and Spirits is a first-generation American. The soft-spoken Patel seized the opportunity to emigrate from India to the United States in 1991. His tale combines a leap of faith with a trust in love.
Patel grew up in Gujarat, the westernmost state of India, "where Mahatma Gandhi was from." Patel had finished a master's degree in business in the late 1980s when he met his soonto be wife, Varsha. She was living and studying in New Jersey at the time. They fell in love, and she persuaded him to follow her to America.
Patel arrived in New Jersey in 1991, the same year his wife graduated from Rutgers University. His wife's family had settled on the East Coast, and they welcomed him into the family. Entering a family fold helped to soften the transition from East to West, Patel notes.
A recession festered in the early 1990s, however, and neither of them could find a job. "Even the consulate tried to help us, but with no luck," Patel recalls.
He took a few courses to further his education and improve his English. "I couldn't get a management level job then because I couldn't speak English well," he says.
After a few months of married life in New Jersey, they ventured out again to make a home independent of in-laws. His wife, with a degree in economics, traced a job lead to Fleet Bank in Rhode Island and was hired. Patel continued the job hunt locally, and was hired by Texas Instruments. He kept his higher education a secret to get the job, though.
"I was over-qualified," he chuckles. The work lasted three months before he was laid off, a victim of the sluggish economy.
Patel went to work for his brother-in-law who owned a 7-Eleven convenience store. He and his wife bought their own convenience store in Johnston, "in 1993, on July 15," he remembers with a smile.
Despite the economic hardships the two of them faced, Patel speaks highly of New England. "Government-wise, everyone is helpful and makes it easy to get what you need." He mentions the kindness he experienced at the local department of motor vehicles, as well as other government offices.
Patel appreciated help from various people as he worked his way through the legal process of a green card, and through the steps of obtaining American citizenship. As he talks about his naturalization into this country, Patel discloses a hint of frustration with immigrants who have not followed the proper steps of registration. Nevertheless, he quickly points out, "The problem is very complicated." He sees the issue from both sides, as a recognized legal American and as an immigrant who has left behind his homeland. "It was a difficult decision to give up my Indian citizenship," he says.
A customer walks into Patel's liquor store on Southwest Avenue, and throws him a friendly tease. "Do you like America? Make sure your green card is in order," he says with a wink.
With a banter that reveals an established humor, Patel reminds him, "I don't have one anymore. I'm a citizen now."
Jamestown Wine and Spirits is a business dream come true for the Patels. They will soon sell their convenience store in Johnston and move to Jamestown with their two children before the summer begins.
Patel says he admires this diverse island community, and trusts the Jamestown school system. "This is the first school where I got the information we needed (for enrollment) right away. Other schools made us wait for paperwork, and made us set up an appointment. Everyone is so nice here," he said.
Patel will welcome his sisters and their families to Rhode Island this spring. His father also lives here with the Patel family. He anticipates a reunion that will herald a new beginning for all. "I am happy to do for my family what my in-laws did for me when I first came here," he says.
Extended family members from both his side and his wife's side have settled here. The secondgeneration children and cousins growing up here know America as their homeland.
Patel admits he misses his native India, but says he calls Rhode Island his home now. Often spending as many as 14 hours a day at his business, Patel has earned himself the title of a hard-working American.