On the surface, Ramón Ruvalcaba and Agus Suyasa would seem to have little in common. Ruvalcaba, who is from Guadalajara, wears an earring and gels his hair but is a man of few words. Suyasa comes from the Indonesian island of Bali, cares little about fashion, and talks a mile a minute; he has the futuristic hobby of recording videos using his drone. But remarkably, the two men live parallel lives, as their pursuit of the American Dream has led them to a place entirely foreign to them: the Appalachian foothills of Western Pennsylvania.
Over the past decade, this part of Appalachia has been drawing workers from the American South to join energy companies taking on the exploration and extraction of natural gas trapped in the so-called Marcellus Shale. For local businesses and residents, the influx means new growth: new customers among the people who work for the energy companies and jobs as vendors and subcontractors for work outside the energy companies’ wheelhouse.
The result is a place that would be hardly recognizable to those who watched the decline of coal and steel a half-century ago in this part of the country—a region that is now bustling and being reinvented by people like Ramón and Agus.
For Ruvalcaba, who left Mexico in 1996, the American Dream led him to Uniontown, a small city that shares a birthday with the U.S. and whose claim to fame is being the first city to introduce the Big Mac. The 33-year-old first began pondering a move to Uniontown after driving through it with his wife one day in 2010. The two were surprised by how busy the small city seemed to be. They stopped and asked the locals why there were so many hotels being constructed and were told about the influx of natural gas workers.
Having worked at Mexican restaurants all his life, Ruvalcaba saw an opportunity; an area quickly filling up with workers from Texas and Oklahoma would have an appetite for the south-of-the-border dishes he specialized in, and the local Taco Bell was not going to cut it. Ruvalcaba had been saving up his money from working at Mexican restaurants in West Virginia and other parts of Pennsylvania in hopes of one day running his own. He saw this as his chance, so he gambled and relocated to the blossoming town, where he found a partner to open Fiesta Azteca Mexican Bar and Grill in 2012.
“It’s a really nice town with a lot of really nice people, and we researched how much is the average that people make here year-to-year,” Ruvalcaba said. “It’s a good payday here.”
Just as Ruvalcaba suspected, his restaurant has been a hot spot for the natural gas workers who head there after finishing up their days.
Besides giving the Texas and Oklahoma workers a taste of home, Fiesta Azteca provides Ruvalcaba, his wife, and their four children the means to lead the lives he hoped for when he left Mexico in 1996. All around the restaurant are businesses that have opened up in the last couple of years, including a Walmart, shopping centers, and all the hotels that had initially caught Ruvalcaba’s eye.
The story is the same in nearby Washington, Pa., where Agus Suyasa’s pursuit of the American Dream led him.
Suyasa, 37, left Bali in 1996 to come to America; he bounced around the country from Washington, D.C., to a couple of cities in Alabama, working at several restaurants. In 2008, he finally settled in Wheeling, West Virginia and joined his brother working as a chef at Fusion, a Japanese hibachi restaurant.
Fusion was good to Suyasa; there he met his wife, a server and bartender, and over time, he earned the trust of Fusion’s owner by proving himself a valuable and dependable employee. That rapport led the owner to ask Suyasa to head north to newly bustling Washington, PA to open another restaurant as its co-owner and manager. Suyasa agreed and began a new life with his family, opening his own Fusion in 2011. The Indonesian restaurateur had heard there were natural gas workers moving to Western Pennsylvania, but he never imagined they would become core patrons of the kind of eatery he was planning to soon open. Turns out, he was wrong.
“They work for a lot of hours, so they’re usually looking for something for fun and good food—they come here,” Suyasa said. “They’ve become our regular customers.”
Nearby, a fire went up at one of the hibachi tables where a chef performed a cooking trick Suyasa had mastered years before, when he first joined the Fusion family as a chef. The guests at the table erupted in a brief applause.
According to Suyasa, business is good. “Very good actually,” he said.
As a young man, finding his footing in a new country, Suyasa moved around quite a bit. But he’s found a stable home and steady career in Western Pennsylvania, where he’s been the beneficiary of a virtuous cycle in which new energy jobs pump local businesses with new money—which lead to new opportunities for people like him and Ramón Ruvalcaba.
Eighteen years earlier, the two men were living in countries nearly 10,000 miles apart, dreaming of a better life in America. Today, they’ve found it in the unlikeliest of places, an emerging land of opportunity within the Land of Opportunity, where they each run thriving restaurants and raise families within 50 miles of one another.
Their stories are unique in Western Pennsylvania, but not uncommon, as the natural resource-rich region has, once again, found itself as a destination for the hopeful.