It’s as if Rubens Meza Henderson ’23 has lived two lives, both charmed. Now in his 50s, the Peruvian born-and-raised economics major at Stony Brook University enjoyed an idyllic boyhood in the rainforest near the banks of the Amazon River for the first 30 years of his life.
In 1997, Meza Henderson and his wife of four years, Amelia Salazar, arrived in New York with their first son, Renzo. He immediately got involved in the hospitality industry as a busboy at Pete’s Tavern — which claims to be the oldest bar in Manhattan — and later graduated to server before becoming the floor manager at Pampano’s Restaurant, owned by opera singer Placido Domingo, in 2004. His career took off, and he became a director of operations of three Mexican restaurants in Manhattan, but his success as a restaurant professional did not quiet the academic dreams that lay unfulfilled in the back of his mind.
“That dream is becoming a reality through Stony Brook University,” said Meza Henderson, who works as a server at Insignia Restaurant in Smithtown when not pursuing his economics degree. He said he thinks about getting involved in government, and cites teaching as a passion.
“I always had high academic aspirations,” he said. “My dream was to continue my studies in America, but that was not possible due to my family obligations. My dream finally came true in 2019 when I obtained my GED. Then Suffolk Community College opened the door for me to attend Stony Brook University.”
His American dream began as a boy when he listened to the radio program, “Voice of America,” which is broadcast widely overseas. “My father used to tune into it with news in Spanish, using a special short-band radio that he won as a prize,” Meza Henderson said. He especially became interested in the American political news of the day.
His father, Andrés Meza Padilla, was born in the “first city” founded by the Spaniards, Moyobamba, San Martín-Perú. Years later, in Iquitos, he met Sadith Henderson Díaz in Iquitos, Loreto-Perú, and the two got married.
“At the end of the 19th century, ‘the fever of the rubber’ attracted so many Europeans to the jungles of Brazil and Peru,” said Meza Henderson, whose maternal grandfather, Thomas Henderson, was English. “The reason I mention this is to understand the origin of my last name, Meza Henderson. Meza is Spanish and Henderson is English.”
Meza Henderson’s primary school was located at the edge of the city, which afforded a full vista of the rainforest, and groups of monkeys would congregate by the school. Surrounding the school were clean water wells where villagers drew their drinking water and washed their clothes.
Meza Henderson recalls playing soccer as a youth, and fishing in the Río Nanay, which is an inflowing river of the Amazon. “The first step was to collect worms from our backyards and place them in a metal can, then get a strong fishing rod from a tree and fashion a fishing line,” he said. “We spent hours by the river; it became a competition.”
His father was a police officer and his mother was a nurse’s assistant, and they would take their family on picnics beside the Itaya River. “The best part of those picnics was lunch, when my mother would give us ‘juanes’ — chicken, green rice, eggs and kalamata olives wrapped in special plant leaves,” he recalled. “Unbelievably delicious.”
When he turned 14, Meza Henderson attended military school in the north of Peru, where he completed high school at 17. He continued his studies in Lima and after he graduated from the Peruvian Institute of Business Administration, the college hired him to become an academic supervisor, which he did from 1994 to 1996. He met and married Amelia in 1993 and emigrated to New York four years later.
“The reason we emigrated to America was for a better life,” Meza Henderson explained. His wife’s mother and brothers were here and his mother-in-law filed a petition for the couple to become legal residents. “The cultural adjustment was so difficult that I thought about returning to Peru several times. We stayed, however, and adjusted to New York, and became American citizens. Now we have a sense of belonging to both New York and the United States.”
In 2009, he achieved another aspect of the American dream when he and his wife purchased their first home in Centereach. The dreams just kept unfolding.
Both of his children attended Suffolk County Community College and transferred to Stony Brook University. The oldest, Renzo, studied one semester at Stony Brook before changing his major to theology and Bible studies and enrolling at a Christian seminary in Nyack; he later graduated with a master’s degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Their younger son, Erick, is scheduled to graduate from Stony Brook with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering this coming December.
“America is the land of opportunity and I am a beneficiary of that,” Meza Henderson said. “In just 24 years we were able to buy a house, send our children to school and achieve a comfortable living standard, which would be impossible living in Peru.”
“Life is beautiful.”
— Glenn Jochum