I’m originally from Mexico City and I always knew I wanted to go abroad. I started learning English when I was in kindergarten. My generation in Mexico is the first generation who were actively taught English.
Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world and even if we have the Americans next door we haven’t actually liked them much. Until the 1980s Mexicans were very worried about the Americans; there wasn’t much of a relationship and we just tried to get along with our neighbour. Finland and Mexico both have big, potentially difficult neighbours. Finland has managed to handle its very well. Mexico was rapidly industrialising and the natural market was the US. Then in the 1990s, after NAFTA, kids would actively learn English if their family had the means.
I was not really interested in going to the US, so I started to think about Europe. I sent some applications to German universities. They have programmes in English as well – very good ones. I was going for IT or Mathematics, then a family friend of ours who was Finnish, suggested Finland. With the support of my family I first arrived here in 2000.
Luis: “I went from a little bit pampered middle-class kid to ‘mamu’”
It was the dawn of the Internet age then. I was ‘googling’ a little bit – I mean Nokia, Linux, IRC, this was in 1999. I thought Finland made sense. I didn’t know it at that time, but Finland is probably the only place in the world where being a geek is cool. Back then the polytechnics had something in English so I thought I wouldn’t have to learn Finnish right away; I could just go and start studying in English and get going.
My dream was to go to Finland and work for Nokia and already in my first summer I got a traineeship with Nokia. It was pure gold dust. In those days they couldn’t get good people fast enough, the business was growing like foam. For me to graduate I needed to have some hours of relevant work experience and so after the summer I took their offer to continue; eventually I ended up working for Nokia 11 years. During the last couple of years it meant studying and working at the same time. I was basically either at the university or the office. I wanted to get my career and to graduate well. Back then I had the stamina and drive to do that. I felt like a pioneer because there were so few foreigners in Finland; people didn’t use to come here.
It was funny, in Mexico I was middle class and then I came here and lived in a student flat in Kontula. It was not really middle class, and not only that, but people looked at you like you were beneath them – especially because I look a bit different. So I went from a little bit pampered middle-class kid to ‘mamu’. I mean, you know you are screwed when even other marginalised foreigners look at you weirdly.
There was one time we were in Oittaa with a Hispanic friend from Venezuela. We were doing 20 km and talking in Spanish about family and work and other stuff – in the middle of the forest, where you probably shouldn’t have two people being so loud. I remember the guys coming towards us looking at us, and then even the Somali skiers were looking at us funny. I don’t have too much of an accent in Finnish anymore and nowadays people would look at me funny because I sound a bit more local but don’t look local.
Luis: “Nowadays people would look at me funny because I sound a bit more local, but don’t look local”
Back in the day there were not that many foreigners around and people kept on asking, “Why are you here?” Well because I wanna be here. I don’t find it offensive anymore, but sometimes I don’t feel like telling my life story to strangers. So when people ask me, “Mistä sä oot kotosin? I would reply “Täältä” – from here – to get them to shut up. I mean, this is a bit of bullshit on my part, but logically at this point my body has renewed its cells in such a way that all my cells are now of Finnish produce. After all, I became an adult here and I’ve lived most of my adult life here. It’s home.
I met my wife at the university, almost immediately after I came – it was really weird. We took it really slowly before deciding to be together. That was the other thing, I was raised to be a gentleman and I felt quite uncomfortable with the straightforward approach here. A couple of times I even felt harassed by Finnish girls. It was like, “Yeah, you are hot, but I’m not interested.” My friends always thought I was being strange.
In 2006 I took one year to go to Belgium to study. I was tired of Finland; it weighs heavily on you. I had not seen that much of Europe by that time and I went to study business. At that point my career at Nokia had gone from slightly technical to not technical at all. I ended up going from digital products to sales. I was in Brussels and it was amazing, it’s the best-kept secret of Europe. It’s a lot of fun. Their sense of humour is very absurd, they laugh at absurdity. After that year I wanted to stay in Belgium, but there was nothing to fit me there. I would’ve needed to know French and Dutch. I learned both, but not on a level that was enough. I had a job waiting at Nokia anyway, so I thought I would just go back to Finland.
Luis: “I left Nokia in 2012; it was basically that the last one turns off the lights”
I had already proposed to my girlfriend and I came back from Belgium to get married and start a life together. The important thing for us is that we can have civil discussion, not drama or silence. It does not always work and you might be handling some level of stress or you had a bad day with the kids or a bad day at work. We know how to apologise and we know the lines not to cross. Now we have two kids together, they are 6 and 4, it’s awesome. The thing with multicultural couples is that if you don’t know how you want to raise your kids before you get them then you are in for a surprise. You have to share as equally as possible the workload of house and kids and stuff, if you don’t it easily goes downhill. This is something I see with Finnish couples. Through my wife’s family, I have got a lot of insight. They are great and I love them.
I left Nokia in 2012; it was basically that the last one turns off the lights. It was just before the Microsoft sale, and they gave me a package because I had been there for so long. After Nokia the Finnish economy was a black hole. I was a little surprised at how difficult it was to find a position in circles outside of my own, especially with a foreign background, but thankfully things worked out. Since I couldn’t really find something I liked, and we wanted to go on the next adventure, I took a job offer in Dubai and lived there almost 4 years with my family. Eventually that ran its course and it was time to return, so I told an old colleague to let me know if he heard of anything that would fit my profile. He said he knew some guys and so I contacted them. I had heard that they were just starting up, but they were cool and serious about what they were doing. After I came back I took two weeks off and I had a new job.
I think one of the harder things for me is that in Finland you are not supposed to have ambition, you are supposed to know your place. And you can’t think that you are better than anybody else. It’s not that I think I’m better than anyone else, but I will give things a try. For a long time at Nokia I was the youngest person in the team but I wanted to work, learn and develop professionally. I think it has changed a bit now, but I think there is still a little bit of a glass ceiling if you don’t speak Finnish. Everyone knows that Finland has a lot going for it, but we need to work to keep it. I also think that Finns need to learn to express their happiness. You don’t always know when a Finn is happy. It’s like “Okay man, you can let go. You can say if you need a hug.”
Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Luis’s story.