Opinion: What immigrating to Utah taught me about gratitude

Because of my parents, my hard work, a ton of blessings from on high, and the generosity of so many people who have helped me, I am who I am — and where I am — today.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sun dances across Mount Timpanogos as storm clouds move in on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

I learned how to speak English through various aspects of American pop culture. My favorite show was, and still is, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” A tall, dark and handsome teenager from a not-so-well-off place moves away from home in hopes of a better life. Along the way, he is helped by a whole lot of folks who just love his big personality. Sounds familiar to me.

I immigrated to the United States from Brazil when I was 16 years old. My parents sacrificed everything they could to give me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come to America to study and play basketball in the hopes of earning a college scholarship. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. Thank you isn’t enough to express what their sacrifice has meant to me and my family.

Around Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think about gratitude.

I was actually all alone during my first Thanksgiving in the U.S. The family I lived with went on vacation, but I had a basketball tournament and stayed home. My first Thanksgiving dinner was a frozen meal after a couple of workouts. And you know what? I thought I was in heaven. Because to me, that was part of my American Dream.

I love the American Dream and am so grateful for what it’s done for me. It is embedded in the foundations of this country: The harder you work, the more chances to be rewarded you have. The more effort is given, the greater the opportunity to better your situation.

But the American Dream isn’t only the pursuit of achieving your own goals — it is also about helping others achieve theirs. I’ve experienced that help firsthand and, for that, I am beyond grateful. Thanks to the love, kindness and selflessness of countless people, I get to live in Utah.

Utah is where I spent my formative teenage years, growing from a Brazilian boy to an American adult. Utah is where I graduated from college, it’s where I met my eternal companion and it’s where my children were born. During the decade I played professionally in Europe, our family spent most of our off-seasons in Utah. It is where my family and I have lived since retiring from hoops. It is where I became an American citizen. It is where I vote. It is where I call home.

Utah is my Ellis Island. The Rocky Mountains, my Lady Liberty. The welcoming love Utahns have shown me ever since arriving here in 2004 has been surreal.

There are times, like right now, where the amount of tears in my eyes and gratitude I feel in my heart make me want to go to the top of Timpanogos and shout, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I want to go find everyone who has helped me and hug them. I want to tell them how thankful I am, how filled with gratitude my soul is for the opportunity to live in Utah.

I often think of our state’s pioneer ancestors fighting through the hardships of crossing the plains, braving through the West, in search of a better life. I think of the millions of immigrants seeing the Statue of Liberty as they arrived in the New York port, hearts filled with excitement and even a bit of fear and doubt — but mostly with hope that, with hard work, a better life is possible.

Today, as I look at the mountains and am surrounded by family, I feel gratitude. Because of my parents, my hard work, a ton of blessings from on high, and the generosity of so many people who have helped me, I am who I am — and where I am — today.

And to that, I say, thank you, Utah. I appreciate you allowing me to call this place home.

Jonathan Tavernari

Jonathan Tavernari, 36, is from São Paulo, Brazil. After attending Bishop Gorman High School, he graduated from BYU’s Marriott School of Business, where he set records for the basketball program. After 10 years of professional basketball and representing Team Brazil, he now lives in South Jordan with his wife, Kiri, and sons, Xander and Zion.

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