Migrating Neurons

José Ángel N. Publicado 2015-05-01 04:49:49

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa


During a study session at Harvard, one of his classmates suggested that he change his last name. The clunky and exotic Quinones would allegedly get in his way. Instead of heeding the well-meaning advice, however, Quinones reclaimed the ‘ñ’ of his last name and then added a hyphen and his mother’s surname, thus becoming Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa.

Quiñones-Hinojosa knew well that he was a misfit and delighted in his uniqueness. On a previous occasion, after listening to his peers exchange stories of how they had all ended up at Harvard Medical School (some of which included mention of pedigrees and ancient lines of nobility), Quiñones-Hinojosa simply said, “I hopped the fence.”

There is nobility of blood, and then there is nobility of spirit.

Many years earlier, as a stargazing child in rural Mexico who did not know that his fate was to probe a more intimate universe, Quiñones-Hinojosa announced to his family that he wanted to be an astronaut and explore space. At 20 years of age, he crossed the border without documentation to work in the California fields. Now, he is an acclaimed neuroscientist unraveling the mysteries of the human brain.

How does one go from toiling under the sun picking tomatoes to directing cutting-edge brain cancer research? How does one go from being an undocumented immigrant to becoming a sought-after neurosurgeon at what is allegedly the most prestigious hospital in the world?

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, who grew up reading Mexican comics and is now head of the brain tumor surgery program at Johns Hopkins, would probably say: a la Kalimán.

It was, after all, with a Kalimán maneuver how it all started for Quiñones-Hinojosa. At twenty years old, not knowing a word of English and not having enough money to pay for a coyote to smuggle him across the border, he devised his own plan — emulating his superhero’s moves, he’d leap over the fence between Mexicali and Calexico.

Even then, when the ideas in his head were only slightly removed from childish fantasies, they were already endowed with scientific precision. After making the jump and landing “majestically” on his feet, he realized that the timing of his maneuver had been slightly off — bythirtyseconds! And this carelessness, he tells us, was responsible for his getting caught right after by the border patrol.

Something that surprises about Quiñones-Hinojosa is just how energetic he is, how eager to both fully embrace his present circumstances and be prepared for what lies ahead. Minutes after being sent back to Mexico, he returned to the very spot of his first jump, hopped over the fence again, and made it successfully on his second attempt.

Two of his other most notable qualities are his persistence and his humility. From his memoir, one learns that throughout his life he has been as ready to pick cauliflower heads in the fields as to work his way through college, as willing to drive a tractor as to remove a brain tumor in the O.R., as ready to fly across the country to fix his parents’ leaky roof as he is to attend a gala event at the White House.

Still, our questions remain: How does one go from being a manual laborer to joining the exclusive circle of the world’s elite scientists? How does one make the leap from campesino to brain surgeon?

Farfetched though it might seem, the Kalimán maneuver is, again, a good starting point. After all, to fully grasp the extraordinary journey of Quiñones-Hinojosa, first one must have faith in the impossible. This way, we can read his biography as what it is: almost fiction.



Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s story begins in an impoverished family in rural Mexico. At the age of six, he is already working alongside his father. He is an observant child, taking in profound common-sense lessons from his parents and grandparents, lessons that he will, in due time, turn into ethical principles. He is a child who harbors dreams and ambitions precluded by his social class. As a young adult, he feels frustrated when the elitist system in which he is immersed truncates his desires. He knows that, if he is to realize his potential, he will have to make his way north in the future.

Thus far, there is nothing unusual about Quiñones-Hinojosa’s story. In fact, he is in many ways the embodiment of an average Mexican young man with limited options. However, during his teenage years he has a chance to visit his relatives in California on a “laser visa,” a type of visa that allows Mexican citizens residing on the proximity of the border to cross into the U.S. but which forbids them from working. During his visit, he persuades his uncle to let him work with him in the fields picking crops. A few months later, he returns to Mexico bearing the riches of the north, money enough to support his entire family for one year.

The good fortune to come and go across the border will last a few years. On his way back to Mexico after one working season in the fields, however, immigration agents become suspicious of how long he has been in the US, frisk him, and discover paystubs in his wallet bearing his name. He has abused his visa and has it confiscated. Now, his only recourse for crossing the border in the future is that of creativity and magic.

Like most people from his social background, he dreams of crossing the border again, working hard, saving every penny of his wages, going back home, and resuming his education. He is also a Mexican young man infatuated with American culture — he has long curly hair, listens to Guns N’ Roses, and dreams of owning a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. In a formal family portrait, he appears showing off his muscular bare chest.

Following his second Kalimán move, Quiñones-Hinojosa finds himself working in the fields of California once again. He is relegated to the lowest rung of the migrant farm worker occupation. But, in an early display of stoic wisdom, he welcomes the challenge, just the same way that he accepts his precarious living conditions in a rusty, leaky old trailer where he spends the cold nights of the San Joaquin Valley. We gather that he is happy but not content. He quickly rises through the ranks. He goes from the most basic of positions, switching irrigation lines (sinking his bare feet into the muddy furrows in order to finish his work faster), to operating a tractor, which is, among his peers, as high a position as any they can hope to achieve. It is a position he inevitably loses once work with that particular employer is over and the time comes to move on and find a new boss.

By now, ambition and the idea of achieving the improbable have already seized his imagination. What if I worked two, three, four times as hard, the young Alfredo seems to ask himself. So one day, in addition to working in the fields, he agrees to clean his new boss’s house. After he knocks insistently at the door for many minutes, an annoyed teenager opens and, without so much as looking at him in the eye, lifts an index finger to the cleaning supplies that await him. Quiñones-Hinojosa is no stranger to hard work, but rudeness is something he cannot tolerate. His reaction to lack of faith is similar. When one of his peers ridicules him for wanting to go to school to learn English, he realizes that his tenure as a migrant farm worker has come to an end. Toiling under the scorching California sun will not be his only fate.

As a child, while waiting hungrily for his father to come home and bring his family pan dulce, Quiñones-Hinojosa used to climb to the roof of his house and look at the stars. Now, with his nourishment secured, he feels the open fields of California inhibiting his imagination.

It is at this point that his exponential rise begins. After leaving the fields, he goes on to work as a welder, which frees his mornings to learn English and, eventually, pursue a college education. Starting then, everything he does is done in haste, and this is both his blessing and his doom.

On one occasion, after losing patience in slow moving traffic, an SUV catches up with Quiñones-Hinojosa and the barrel of gun emerges from its tinted windows, warning him not to ever fucking cutting him off again. Another time, working as a welder, he is rescued from a tanker train car filled with toxic fumes and depleted of oxygen. Two more minutes in there, the doctor tells him, and you would’ve died. Years later, during his medical residency, an infected HIV needle pokes him directly in a vein, unleashing a year of uncertainty and fear. And yet another time, having virtually secured a position at Johns Hopkins, he accepts a job interview in a different city where he arrives under inclement winter weather and where the car that’s transporting him gets into a crash and spins out of control on black ice…

The fact that Quiñones-Hinojosa has had his share of brushes with death might in part explain his affable nature and why he is so driven. Considering his achievements, one imagines that his time and responsibilities must be orchestrated such that it would have been difficult even for Benjamin Franklin to keep up. Otherwise, his astronomical ascent is impossible to explain: anyone who, in a matter of three short years, can transition from picking tomatoes to roaming the mystic halls of the Ivy League (first Berkeley, then Harvard) must either be possessed or a bit of a genius.

Quiñones-Hinojosa’s professional life is not without hardships either. As a professional, he experiences poverty, a home invasion, overextended hours on a second job, and, more importantly, the death of his brother-in-law who had rescued him from the tanker train car. After achieving his dream of owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Gus gets into an accident and dies. Quiñones-Hinojosa laments not being able to be there and operate on Gus’s head injuries and possibly save his life.

What Quiñones-Hinojosa could not do for his brother-in-law, he has been able to do for others. Toward the end of the book, we learn that doctor Quiñones-Hinojosa, who doesn’t ever slow down, once takes time off his hectic schedule to pay a visit to one of his patients in a different state. Mr. Z. is a terminal patient, and his bodily functions are declining steadily. At one point during the visit, Mr. Z. confesses that he is embarrassed, but that he feels the urge to use the bathroom. With moving humility, doctor Quiñones-Hinojosa helps him walk to the bathroom and patiently holds him up, waiting for the urine that will not come.

In the end, ownership of the full name he once so adamantly defended is no longer important. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, MD, is now better known as Dr. Q. Not a stranger to irony, one must imagine that Quiñones-Hinojosa simply shrugs it off. The defense of his name might have been a powerful political statement at some point, but now his patients are his priority. One must imagine that he shrugs at irony in the same way that he shrugs off adversity and poverty and skepticism and discrimination. Just as he did, for instance, when a TA at Berkeley told him he was too smart to be from Mexico. Or when he was told to his face that the only reason he was at Harvard was because of a quota. Or the time when, already the director of his world-renowned institution, he learned from his distraught assistant that a patient he was supposed to operate on explicitly said he didn’t want “the dirty Mexican” opening up his head. One must imagine that Quiñones-Hinojosa takes such comments with a grain of salt. He knows that the very hands that once picked the tomatoes that fed this bigot are the same hands that must now save his life, and he is okay with that.

Once I read somewhere that one of the problems of the Mexican immigrant is that he lacks a coherent narrative. The author might have been right. But if there ever were a saga of the undocumented Mexican immigrant in the U.S., Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa would necessarily be its main character. Except that he is no longer a reason for Mexicans to take pride — he has become a story of tenacity for the whole world to celebrate.



José Ángel N., author of Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant


De interés



Ruido Fest 2018, A Series of Impressions: the Good, the Bad, and the Sexist

Esmirna García - 2018-06-27

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018), An Appreciation

Juan Mora-Torres - 2018-06-12


Find Us On Facebook