In the early months of 2000, a young man exited a plane in Washington, D.C. with two friends after a 17-hour flight from their previous home in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Their ride never showed up.
Javier Calleja, now an adjunct professor in JMU’s Spanish department, had embarked on a journey that changed his life.
Calleja said that he’ll never forget that moment. Left with $247 and a suitcase, he and his friends ended up in an expensive hotel. He said he immediately realized he could only afford two nights.
Soon, his friends left and Calleja was on his own — and homeless.
“There was a rough time, but I guess … I gained strength,” Calleja said. “I think it taught me a lot, a lot about myself.”
Calleja said he used the last of his money for a bus ride to Harrisonburg. Then, he was homeless for three months. After leaving Uruguay, the bitter cold of Harrisonburg was a shock, and he said that winter was the first time he experienced snow.
Being homeless was a difficult transition, but Calleja said he learned to make the best of everything.
“During that time, I ate from the trash can,” Calleja said. “The first day that I ate from the trash can, I cried … But the second day that I ate from the trash can, I remember being happy, and I prayed before I ate, and I thanked God that I was able to find food in the trash can.”
Calleja said that at the time, he wasn’t aware of the Salvation Army or other homeless shelters in the area. At one point, he slept in a treehouse in someone’s front yard because his only other option was the side of the road.
Soon, Calleja found what he called a mix between a crawl space and a basement. He said the “underground, unfinished structure” had a concrete floor, brick walls and a broken door that didn’t stand a chance against the frigid winter wind.
During this time, Calleja worked as a housekeeper, then in fast food service and construction. He said he wanted to go to JMU, but he couldn’t afford it — he needed to work.
After having many low-paying and time-demanding jobs, Calleja was hired to work at a local bank. There, he saved enough money to begin school and got his Bachelor of Arts at Eastern Mennonite University and earned his masters and Ph.D. at Jaén University in Spain. Now, he teaches Spanish at JMU. He married his girlfriend — Brenda Calleja, a JMU alumna — who he met when he was homeless, and he now has four kids. He said he’s grateful for all the possibilities and everyone who helped him along the way.
“I think it was the country, that it gives opportunity to everyone, in my opinion,” Calleja said. “And I know that it is hard, and we have to work hard. And sometimes, even for people who work hard, it doesn’t happen … But the opportunity is given, you know, whereby members of the community … opened their doors to me.”
Justin Larabee, a senior theatre major, recently took Calleja’s SPAN 232 class. He said that Calleja was “down-to-earth” and helpful, and he could tell Calleja truly wanted his students to learn, no matter what.
Larabee said Calleja would often spend the last few minutes of class telling students his life stories and about the people who helped him throughout his life. He said he feels that Calleja would do anything to help his students.
“I feel like he’s a very empowered person,” Larabee said. “He just wants, like, everyone else in this world, they want to feel validated. So I think he does that in his teaching. He’s very considerate.”
Calleja said there are many people in the Spanish department who’ve helped him throughout his life. However, Hugo Moreira, another Spanish instructor, has been “like a father” to him.
Moreira, who also used to live in Uruguay, never met Calleja until they both came to America. They came close, though, when Calleja attended a Mennonite church in Uruguay, but Moreira, then a Mennonite pastor, worked in a different town.
The two friends only met about three years ago — in a McDonald’s.
“I was sitting there eating a hamburger,” Moreira said. “I recognized him, and he recognized me.”
They’d previously met in passing at EMU, where Calleja was a student and Moreira was attending a workshop. Moreira encouraged Calleja, who was teaching at a high school at the time, to apply to work at JMU. Since then, they’ve grown close. Moreira said they share many of the same values.
“He’s a dedicated teacher,” Moreira said. “He cares about everyone … You can be, you know, like, a teacher, you know, only teaching a lesson in Spanish, but you’re also communicating values. You’re communicating values of honesty, you know, you’re communicating values of friendship and understanding … You’re shaping the character of people.”
Calleja said he hopes his story can help people who feel hopeless or like life is too difficult. He said he wants people to know there’s always a way out if they work hard.
“You just need to keep fighting and working and mobilizing and organizing and participating in every aspect that you can in the society,” Calleja said. “And you will prevail.”
Calleja said he couldn’t have endured homelessness without his faith. Without God, he said, he thinks it’d be difficult for anyone to find success, which he personally defines as his four children. He also said experiencing those hardships changed his perspective in ways he can’t begin to understand and that it’s led him to appreciate every single thing in life.
“I felt that being homeless, it brought challenges to me,” Calleja said. “I was worried. I was scared. I was nervous, and I was very sad … But man, I appreciate so much the laughter of my kids now,” Calleja said. “You know, the times that I get to play with them. I appreciate so much my students, everyone that comes through my life.”
Contact Charlotte Matherly at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.