Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa insists, "I just think of myself as a regular guy."
It's an incredible statement from someone who grew up in an impoverished Mexican village, illegally hopped the fence into California, attended Harvard Medical School and now works at Johns Hopkins Medicine as a neurosurgeon.
"I've never been one who declines adventure," he says.
The oldest of five children, Quinones-Hinojosa as a child had nightmares that he had to save his mother and siblings from fires, floods, avalanches, says his memoir, "Becoming Dr. Q," which he co-authored.
His interest in medicine may have stemmed from this sense of responsibility, along with his baby sister's death from colitis (the memoir is dedicated to her). At 6, though, he wanted to be an astronaut.
His father owned a gas station, and Quinones-Hinojosa worked there at age 5; his family lived in an apartment in the back. But as Mexico's economy took a dive, the business collapsed, along with the family's livelihood. Quinones-Hinojosa's father had to sell it for almost no profit. They later learned that gasoline had been leaking out of holes in the underground tanks.
The family used to eat meat once a week, but that became a luxury of the past. After the station was sold, they had to make do with flour tortillas and homemade salsa, he wrote.
Short visits to California's San Joaquin Valley, where Quinones-Hinojosa's uncle Fausto was a foreman at a ranch, gave Quinones-Hinojosa a glimpse into the United States -- and the American dream. At age 14, he spent two months there pulling weeds, making money to bring back to his family.
"That hard-earned cash proved that people like me were not helpless or powerless," he wrote.
As a teenager, Quinones-Hinojosa thought he would become an elementary school teacher. Despite his excellent grades at a teacher-training college, however, he was assigned a position in a remote, rural area; only politically-connected, wealthy kids got jobs in cities, he wrote. Quinones-Hinojosa's salary would be paltry.
His uncle agreed to let him work a short stint again at the California ranch to supplement his income, as doubts began to accumulate about his future as a teacher. A plan began to form in his mind.
Passage into the United States
Quinones-Hinojosa had $65 in his pocket when, the day before his 19th birthday in 1987, he decided to cross into the United States for a longer stay. He wasn't thinking about laws, he just wanted to escape poverty so that he could go back and feed his family, he says.
Risking arrest, deportation and even death, Quinones-Hinojosa had a plan: He would cross the border in a "Spider-man climb" up an 18-foot-fence, hop over the barbed wire and make a leap into California, he wrote.
Just when he made it across, border agents picked him up and sent him back to Mexico.
Someone else might have just gone home -- but not Quinones. An hour after his attempt, he went back to the very same place to try the exact maneuver again, only faster. This time, he was successful.
With his uncle's assistance, Quinones-Hinojosa ended up back in the fields in the San Joaquin Valley. The vast farming terrain was teeming with corn, grapes, tomato, cotton, cantaloupe, broccoli, cauliflower. He lived in a trailer.
"There's a lot of sentiment against immigration nowadays, but at the time, when I came, the U.S. welcomed me," Quinones says. "They needed my labor and I needed them. "
Quinones-Hinojosa remembers driving a tractor and seeing agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service pass by. They would take other workers away, but somehow, he avoided being caught.
Had he been picked up right then, he might not be a neurosurgeon in the United States today. He lets out a laugh at this -- "It's crazy. I never thought about it that way, to be honest with you, but you're absolutely right."
Quinones-Hinojosa had wanted to make enough money for food for his parents and siblings -- who later came to the United States as well -- and intended to go back to Mexico after saving money. "When you're making $3.35 an hour, you realize that that dream is going to take a lot longer," he says.
Next he got a job as a welder for a railroad company. An incident at age 21 almost cost him his life. He was repairing a valve on a tank which previously carried liquified petroleum and, ignoring warnings, went in after a metal nut that tumbled inside.
He was unconscious by the time workers, including his father and brother-in-law, got him out, and woke up later in a hospital. A doctor told him he would have died had he stayed there two minutes longer.
"As if transformed, I no longer cared about the trappings of wealth or dreams of riches that had motivated me before," he wrote in his memoir.