From undocumented worker to popular dentist, Metzger's Ahumada-Alaniz has compelling story

Ahumada-Alaniz When Abel Ahumada-Alaniz first came to Oregon in 1985, it was in the back of a van with 30 other undocumented workers.

Lined up like cigarettes, the men and women weren’t allowed to sit up, lest they be spotted by the authorities.

Picking berries, he lived in a house with 80 to 100 other workers.

The pay was lousy, the living conditions worse, and eventually Ahumada-Alaniz escaped, moving to Hillsboro where he enrolled at Portland Community College.

Today, Ahumada-Alaniz lives in Metzger. He is a U.S. citizen and started his own dental practice in Southeast Portland.

“It has been quite the adventure,” Ahumada-Alaniz said. “I am not your typical dentist.”

This week, Ahumada-Alaniz was named a winner of PCC’s Diamond Alum Award.

The award recognizes former students who have gone on to do incredible things and serve their community.

Ahumada-Alaniz and four other recipients are being honored as part of PCC’s “Founders’ Week,” which runs through Saturday, and the recipients come together again for a special lunch before PCC’s graduation in June.

“These five graduates exhibit the qualities of which the college is so proud,” said PCC President Jeremy Brown. “Each demonstrates a strong work ethic, a positive outlook on life and a desire to give back to the community at large. We are delighted to honor them this year, to showcase their efforts and the inspiration they offer to others.”

Something more

Ahumada-Alaniz sneaked across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, in 1985 to help raise money for his family back home in Nayarit.

“I came to work and support my family,” Ahumada-Alaniz said. “I said I would stay for one year, or until I had earned $1,000, then I would go back and go back to school.”

His mother and father lived in a small two-bedroom house with Ahumada-Alaniz’s nine brothers and sisters. They often didn’t have enough money to put food on the table, he said.

“We lived one day at a time,” Ahumada-Alaniz said. “There were days that my dad would not eat so that we could eat. That never sat well with me. I didn’t want to see my dad pretty much die doing that.”

Ahumada-Alaniz worked in odd jobs to raise money. He learned to speak English and sent money home to his parents. As his English improved, he began taking courses through Chemeketa Community College and PCC and eventually earned his GED and U.S. citizenship.

“I didn’t know how to read and write in English,” Ahumada-Alaniz said. “I could talk, but not read or write. They were teaching us the alphabet, and I had never put together that the word ‘OK’ was really the letters ‘O’ and ‘K.’ That was how limited my English was.”

But Ahumada-Alaniz dreamed of something more.

“I wanted to work in a place where I could dress up and look nice,” he said.

He wanted to become a dentist.

One day at a time

Getting his doctorate wasn’t something Ahumada-Alaniz had even dreamed of before, but he knew he could do it if he tried hard enough, he said.

“In Spanish, we have a saying that you have an Angel. You don’t give up easily,” Ahumada-Alaniz said. “To become a doctor is a lot of work. You have to do some things that are beyond the comfort level of a lot of people. To me, it was part of the job. Coming here at 15, if that didn’t prove that I wanted to get out of the hole I was in, I don’t know what would.”

He took it one day at a time, earning his associate’s degree from PCC, before moving on to Portland State University and Oregon Health & Science University’s school of dentistry, which he graduated from in 2005.

He opened Alaniz Dental in Southeast Portland the following year. Now, he said he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I love it,” he said, “I am so blessed with this profession. I’m not happy when I’m not working.”

Many of Ahumada-Alaniz’s patients are Hispanic and travel long distances to see him.

“They come from Cornelius and Hillsboro. Some come from Astoria, Tillamook, Madras, Bend. Eureka, Calif. I think, ‘Don’t you have somebody down there that you can see?’” Ahumada-Alaniz said.

He regularly speaks at PCC, Mt. Hood Community College, Portland State University and OHSU about his story and the importance of education. He also invites aspiring dentists to job shadow him in his office.

He said he would never have been able to accomplish so much without the support of people who believed in him, including his wife Robyn, who nominated him for PCC’s award.

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said. “Doing this, it makes me feel good, and I don’t expect anything in return. I had a lot of negative people tell me that I can’t do this. There has been a lot of negative things, but I kept focused on my goal, and here we are.”

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