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Panamanian immigrant, on road to American citizenship, shares life story

Andrew W. Griffin
Jose Solis, a native of Panama, works and lives in Oklahoma and operates the Jose Solis Project to help immigrants in need.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Jose Solis prides himself on being an
independently-minded man. But when it comes to Oklahoma City’s monolithic “Hispanic
community,” the Panamanian native says he isn’t a particularly popular guy.

It’s not as if he isn’t helping fellow Hispanics who are
struggling, particularly new immigrants. Solis has a heart for those from Latin America who now find themselves in a land of plenty. He was once in their shoes.

Solis, 25,  has quite
an amazing and inspiring story. Coming to the United States from Panama City,
Panama with his music professor father over a decade ago, Solis found himself
in Oklahoma City, where his father had contacts.

“I didn’t cross the border illegally,” Solis said. “I came
here with my father." Solis had a student visa.

These days Solis is a permanent resident, having begun the
long process of becoming an American citizen, which his ultimate goal. Grabbing ahold of the American dream, like so many immigrants, Solis is working, legally, at the American
Federation of Teachers (AFT) office in Oklahoma City.

But before he got to that point, a successful stage in his
life where he is playing music with his Spanish-language pop-rock band and in
the middle of writing a book – “Confessions of an Immigrant Student” – Solis was
living the life of an illegal immigrant, after his father’s visa expired.

Still, Solis made the most of his time in America. While in
Oklahoma City Solis would make many friends, work on his music and attend
Northwest Classen High School where he would graduate in 2004.

“It’s not easy to be an immigrant,” says Solis. “Well, I
tell people who ask me why is just try to get a social security number. You
have to have it to get a car, for instance. Most who are here illegally will
end up getting one at some sh*tty dealership. What if you want to get an
apartment? What if you want to get utilities, and so on, Solis says.

“I have become Americanized,” Solis says with pride. “People
don’t known how much they should appreciate what they have here in America.”

Solis inherited his father’s love of music and took up
guitar, piano and singing. And when he wasn’t attending classes at Oklahoma
City Community College he was playing guitar with Oklahoma City-based
alternative rock band Fear the Clown.

“I grew up playing music in Panama,” he said. “I play
Spanish pop and Spanish rock.”

He also grew up on the Goo Goo Dolls and Third Eye Blind and
incorporates those guitar-focused sounds, with keyboard overlays, in his
current music as heard on “Songs of an Immigrant,” by his band The Jose Solis
Project. One of the first songs he would write was “Mas Que Solo Un Sueno (More
Than Just  a Dream).”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. While Fear the Clown
was getting some increased popularity, once Solis and the band moved to Los
Angeles to make it big, it was decided by the label people that Solis did not
fit the image of the band. He said he returned to Oklahoma disappointed.
Meanwhile, Fear the Clown, led by Andrew West, changed their name to Aurora Sky
and continue to perform.

But that experience turned out to be one of the many stops
along Solis’s path in life. Recognizing Solis’s Spanish skills, he worked for a
time with American Fidelity before realizing that was not where he wanted to
be. He also worked within the Oklahoma City Public Schools system, offering his
bilingual skills in inner-city schools.

It was during this time that Solis began to recognize he had
a lot to offer and his skills as both an ambitious musician and singer, plus
his bilingual skills and desire to help fellow Hispanics was taking him towards
a place that was not being fully addressed by Hispanic leaders.

It was as his band was getting increased attention, playing
shows in Oklahoma and Texas and selling over 10,000 albums, when “the Hispanic
leadership wanted a piece of the band.” He said this included the local LULAC
chapter, the Greater Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Oklahoma
City Latino Community Development Agency.

“They said, ‘Hey, be a part of us,’” recalled Solis, adding
that he told them he did not agree with their actions and “poor leaders.”

He notes how after The Jose Solis Project – more than just
the band – was established in 2010 and began offering scholarship money to
immigrant students who want to attend any Oklahoma college or vocational or
technical school. He said he gives speeches about what his project does and how
he hopes it helps those who need it.

“In fact, I just gave a family a $200 gift card from
Walmart. You’re the only one who knows that,” he tells Red Dirt Report.

It’s that sort of independence and initiative, he says, that
irks the Hispanic leadership.

“They think that no Hispanic project in Oklahoma will work
unless they give you the green light,” he said, “I asked, ‘who told you that?’”

Solis said they suggested he was “taking advantage of the
immigrants.” Eventually, he said, the Hispanic leadership chose to ignore the “rebellious
son.” As a result, his band has struggled getting gigs, because Solis claims, “the
Hispanic leadership has blocked us.”

Solis said that in the African-American community, they
support one another. His observation is that it is different in the Hispanic

“We’re not united like the African-Americans,” he said. “We
won’t get together.” He then goes on to says that while there is some good
Hispanic leadership here and there, it is going to take a “Hispanic MLK” to
further unite this growing segment of America. Solis admits that he has spoken
to people who have suggested he may be that unifier.

But only in his mid-20’s, he knows he still has a lot to do

Continuing about his life, Solis said he initially was
involved in progressive causes and his band played in support of Brittany
Novotny, a transgendered Democrat who was running against controversial incumbent
legislator Sally Kern. He was against Rep. Randy Terrill, who spearheaded
anti-illegal immigration legislation.

But Solis admits his views were evolving during this time.

In fact, while he was initially supportive of the efforts of
the DREAM Act – which would give illegal alien students permanent residency if
they graduated from high school and kept out of trouble -  and offered his support through donation of CD’s,
to be sold in Washington for a DREAM Act march, the more he thought about it,
he told them he had a change of heart on the issue. He even came out supporting
the strict immigration law in Arizona.

“I told them I changed my mind,” Solis said. “I told them
immigration reform and immigration law is a good thing.”

And education is a good thing. He said he has seen too many
immigrants, many Hispanic, who have gone to school and dropped out. He also
said the laws are necessary to keep the “rapers and killers” out of the

But despite these obstacles within his own cultural
community, Solis forges ahead with The Jose Solis Project and its goals of
helping students achieve their dreams.

And with his work at AFT he says that it was the first time
the agency had a Hispanic representative.

On a personal level, Solis says he is currently single, with
some girlfriends overwhelmed by his “rock star” status as a singer, musician,
speaker and now author.

His family back in Panama is supportive of what he is doing
in the states. And Solis says he is looking to get some gigs for his new band
lineup and continue to spread his positive, personal message to young people
out there, people who can look to Solis as an example.

And he has every intention of staying in Oklahoma and
helping immigrants here, for he too was once in their position.

“I love Oklahoma,” he says with a smile. “It’s given me
everything. I grew up here and I became an adult in Oklahoma.”

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Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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