The bold, delectable flavors of Lotus of Siam are no secret. On any given night, the taxi line outside the Thai restaurant’s doors almost rivals McCarran International Airport’s. The lively restaurant brims with chatter, the hot-pot sizzle of tom yum soup, clinking wineglasses and forks scraping up the last few grains of pineapple fried rice. Despite being hidden in the shadow of the Strip in a seemingly seedy location, Lotus boasts numerous accolades, from being listed on every city dining guide to chef-owner Saipin Chutima winning the coveted James Beard Award in 2011. It’s an unlikely success story, especially considering Chutima doesn’t even speak English and never took a formal cooking class. Born to a poor family, the 62-year-old restaurateur lived her life as a servant—cooking, cleaning and answering every beck and call of those she waited on until she finally gathered the courage to flee Thailand for a better life. Thirty years and one of the most successful Las Vegas dining institutions later, that mission is well accomplished.
But as remarkable as her story is, Saipin is just one of more than 548,000 immigrants in Nevada, who’ve made similar sacrifices and faced untold challenges.
According to business coalition New American Economy, about one in five Nevadans is foreign-born. Unsurprisingly, that population has been an economic boon for the state, with immigrants possessing $10.3 billion in spending power in 2014. The American Immigration Council also reports that in 2010, more than 20 percent of Nevada business owners were foreign-born, comprising a net business income of $1.1 billion (which makes up 16.8 percent of all net business income in the state).
“[Immigrants] help run this city,” says Bethany Khan, a spokesperson for Culinary Union 226, the largest immigrant organization in Nevada, which represents 57,000 members from 167 countries. “We work really hard. We just want the opportunity to provide for our families.”
As unique as the mob tales, world-class entertainers and neon lights that make up Las Vegas are these uncelebrated stories; those who’ve uprooted their lives to give their families better ones; those who’ve fled turmoil, crossed oceans and defied odds for happiness and freedom. While many visit Las Vegas casinos with the hope of hitting triple 7s on the slots, for many immigrants, just being here is the jackpot. Their names may have more syllables than Frank or Dean, but their impact is just as important.
A Dreamer in a Nightmare
Astrid Silva’s earliest memory is from when she was 4. She was going to see her father for the first time and was dressed for the grand occasion: a pouffy white dress with a purple sash and bow. He had sent over a Minnie Mouse T-shirt and acid-washed jean shorts for Astrid to wear, because that’s how Americans dressed, but her mother wanted her to look nice for her dad. Silva was afraid of getting her patent leather shoes muddy because her mother had always taught her to keep things tidy, but it was nearly impossible to do as she stood timidly on a riverbank. Her mother picked her up and laid her down on a makeshift raft—a giant rubber inner tube with a piece of plywood on top. Someone across the river pulled a rope attached to it.
The 4-year-old thought she was on a water park ride. “I think about it now and I’m sure it was dangerous. I’m sure it was scary,” Silva, now 29, reflects with a laugh. “I got off and I guess I was like, ‘Let’s do it again,’ because it was fun.” Her mother, however, was terrified. Had Silva known what she knows now, she would have been, too.
The truth was that Silva and her mother were crossing the Rio Grande and migrating to the U.S. illegally—something she didn’t learn until she was a teenager. She grew up American, went to a predominantly white school, dreamed of becoming an architect and was obsessed with norteño band Los Tigres del Norte’s socially aware ballads, which struck closer to home than Silva had realized at the time. “They talk about people dying in the desert and people not getting to see their kids grow up and leaving behind their parents. I was like, ‘That’s so sad.’ I remember being 6 and 7 and I’d cry.”
Aside from cruel classmates teasing her about her lunch, she didn’t feel different from them. But she had a different type of boogeyman: la migra, who didn’t wait until dark to snatch up children and their families. “They knock on your door, and that was the big fear,” Silva says.
It wasn’t until Silva was almost 16 that her undocumented status hit her. She couldn’t get a driver’s license or a Nevada ID because she didn’t have a social security card. When she graduated from Advanced Technologies Academy and tried to apply for UNLV, she panicked when she was asked to jot down her SSN. “I was like, ‘My dad has it.’ I left and didn’t come back.”
Her bright future was dimmed. “I withdrew from everybody because all my friends went off to UNLV. They joined sororities and fraternities and were driving. I couldn’t even go to the movie theater because I didn’t have an ID,” Silva says.
She eventually rose out of her slump, attending College of Southern Nevada (and, later, Nevada State College) where she got involved in politics.
After hearing Sen. Harry Reid at an immigration reform rally, Silva found a new purpose: helping others in the same plight as her. Silva began volunteering for Reid’s campaign, which pushed her into the national spotlight and got the attention of former President Barack Obama, whom she introduced during a 2014 Las Vegas visit. She even spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Following Donald Trump’s divisive joint session address on February 28, Silva was chosen to give a rebuttal on behalf of Democrats, which she delivered in Spanish.
“In this country, there is no space for discrimination, racial profiling or persecution,” she said during the televised speech.
Now, after working for a nonprofit for three years, she’s forming her own: DREAM Big Nevada, which provides guidance to others. It’s vital now more than ever, given the current administration’s stance toward immigration.
Silva’s own future is in question again. She remains in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a policy passed under the Obama administration that grants certain undocumented immigrants who grew up here a stay from deportation. “It could be taken away,” she says.
Now she’s back at square one, once again fearing “the knock.”
“I’m trying to make sure that people understand what their rights are,” Silva says. “The most important part for me is that I don’t want other people to go through what I went through.”
No Risk, No Award
Foodies know Saipin Chutima for her Northern Thai cuisine at Lotus of Siam. Few know the odyssey she embarked on to put those spicy garlic prawns on your plate. Hers is a Cinderella story of love and triumph.
Born into poverty, Saipin worked as a maid and servant for a higher-class family in Chiang Mai since early adolescence. She and Bill Chutima, one of the boys she served, fell in love, but their relationship was forbidden. Bill left for the U.S. in 1976 to study and work. He planned to return home but saw the freedom and opportunity his new country offered, including starting a family with Saipin, who was determined to join him, social classes be damned. Although they tried, Bill’s family couldn’t stop her from leaving. She saved her money for 10 years.
In 1986, with little knowledge of the world outside of Chiang Mai, Saipin gathered the few belongings she owned and boarded her first airplane, flying more than 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean for a new start.
“If any other person were to do it, they would not have gotten here on their own,” says Saipin’s daughter Penny, who acts as her mother’s translator and helps manage the restaurant. “She doesn’t give up no matter what. All hell was thrown at her, and she made it through.”
Getting here was only half of it. “Making it” was the other.
While it’s clear as glass noodles that Saipin has a gift for cooking, she never intended to open a restaurant. When Bill fell ill with kidney stones and couldn’t work, Saipin took matters into her own hands once again, opening her first restaurant in Northridge, California, in 1990. Although she had the same award-winning menu that she has today, customers only wanted the staples: pad thai and fried rice. It wasn’t until the family relocated to Las Vegas in 1999 to take over Lotus of Siam that people became more receptive to unfamiliar dishes.
You can check Lotus of Siam’s 4.7 Zagat rating—the dining guide’s highest-rated Thai restaurant in Las Vegas—its more than 3,500 Yelp reviews or Saipin’s aforementioned James Beard Foundation award for being the best chef in the Southwest in 2011 to see how the rest played out for the Chutimas.
Even with all the success, Saipin remains humble and dedicated. She still comes to the restaurant every day. Each morning, she heads straight to the Buddha altar at the back of the restaurant and prays. Then she makes many of the sauces for the dishes so they’re ready for the lunchtime rush. She rarely, if ever, takes a day off.
“She’s 62 and she’s still in the kitchen,” Penny says.
Glowing From Within
Walla Dabbagh is so fair-skinned her friends call her “glow in the dark.” Because of that and the fact that she doesn’t wear a hijab, many assume she’s a typical Caucasian. It’s almost like a cloak for the 28-year-old Syrian-American immigrant, freeing her from the ridicule that many Muslims in the United States have faced since 9/11.
“I’ve never experienced that because I don’t think I look like a typical Arab or Muslim,” she says.
Born in Al-Hasakah in the northeast corner of Syria, her parents came to the U.S. when she was 10 to give their three children a better education and future.
Dabbagh, the oldest, is currently working on her master’s in health care administration at UNLV, and she wants to pursue a Ph.D. after. “I followed the brown dream,” she jokes. “My brother’s in med school. I said I won’t be a doctor; I’ll just boss him around.”
In her 18 years in the U.S., she’s never been as perturbed about what’s happening in the country as she is now.
“I never grew up worried about Muslims. We never grew up thinking that Christians are not the same as us. It’s shocking to me that, now, stuff like that is brought up. You’d think that in 2017, we’d be more open-minded,” she says.
Regardless of the hysteria in the U.S., Dabbagh is hopeful that we’ll emerge a stronger, more united nation.
“I see more positivity coming out of this, like a few weeks ago when we had the protest at the airport [and saw] people uniting together,” she says. “The majority of them were not Muslim. They were not Middle Eastern, they were not affected by the ban, but they were standing there defending their brothers and sisters.”
Dabbagh felt compelled to attend the gathering at McCarran International Airport in late January and let her voice be heard.
“Maybe it won’t change anything by being there, but at least I’m expressing my freedom of speech and the freedom of being a citizen, which is why my dad brought me to America.”
If you’d bet against Vital Germaine as a child, you’d have had great odds.
He was sexually abused by his father. His mother was an alcoholic. At 7, he and his two brothers were placed in a group home.
“It was not as bad as Oliver Twist. We were allowed second helpings of porridge. It wasn’t much more glamorous than that,” says Germaine, who was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and raised in London and Belgium. “It was a very cold, sterile way to grow up. There were some very dysfunctional kids that lived there. I witnessed teenage prostitution, attempted stabbings, a lot of verbal and physical violence.”
Despite the hurricane of hardships, Germaine, now a youthful 52, endured by keeping a positive mindset. “Regardless of what you encounter, regardless of what you’re going through, whatever you’ve experienced, you have to dig deep and set the right attitude in order to overcome,” he says. “It’s easier said than done, but it can be done by anybody.”
Germaine is living proof. With a passion for theater and music, in 1991 he left Europe for New York City and the dream of dancing in Michael Jackson music videos. The King of Pop never came calling. Instead, a friend tipped him off to an audition for some sort of circus that was looking for ethnic dancers with acrobatic experience.
“She couldn’t pronounce it; nobody could,” Germaine says of Cirque du Soleil. Unfamiliar with the production company, he thought, “A circus? Are you kidding me? I don’t want to clean up elephant dung and watch a midget be shot out of a cannon.”
He didn’t have anything to lose, either. During the audition, he was asked to perform weird, abstract movements. “‘Show me what a smiling seaweed is. How does the moon dance?’ Just some really absurd things.”
He nailed it but passed on the offer, certain it was a traditional circus. “I didn’t come to America to wear a red nose,” he thought. That same weekend, he witnessed his first Cirque production. “It literally was a spiritual revelation. It just made me feel so much,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve just messed up the best opportunity ever.’”
Fortunately for Germaine, as he was about to return to Belgium defeated, he received another call from Cirque with an even better offer: a new show in Las Vegas called Mystère.
Germaine performed in Mystère for five years as an aerial acrobat, followed by a year with touring production Quidam before an injury halted his high-flying career at 37. Not one to wallow, he channeled his positivity again and now uses his story to motivate others. He’s written two memoirs—Flying Without a Net in 2014 and Flying Without a Net 2.0 last year—and gives speeches around the world.
Hearing Germaine speak is a shot of vitality. His words captivate and enrapture. His story pains and inspires. Overcoming the adversities he faced wasn’t easy, but it was a destiny he created for himself at an early age.
“Even as a child, I felt I had a sense of purpose,” he says. “As a child you always have a choice in the sense that you can get love and attention by being disruptive and dysfunctional, or you can get love and attention by becoming good at something and gaining respect. I think I made the better choice.”
Someone needs to tell Tsvetelina Stefanova to slow down.
The 30-year-old Boulder City badass plays the keys and sings in indie-rock quintet Same Sex Mary, organizes concerts throughout the Valley via her Bad Moon Booking agency, serves as the entertainment director for Boulder City restaurant and bar The Dillinger and manages sponsorships for the Dam Short Film Festival. She also runs the social media accounts and assists with marketing for all of the above.
Despite obtaining a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Northern Arizona University, Stefanova went a more bohemian route. “Now’s my time to try and be a rock star,” she told herself after college.
While she may not be selling out arenas, Las Vegas is a hell of a lot better because of her presence. But the Varna, Bulgaria, native’s contributions to the local arts community may not have happened if it wasn’t for sheer luck.
In 1995, Stefanova’s family won a green card through the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa program—a lottery system that provides permanent visas to applicants from countries with low immigration rates. Her mother applied and struck gold on her first try. Her father, a cab driver who moonlighted as a guitarist, knew another Bulgarian musician in Las Vegas, so they left their coastal town on the Black Sea for the desert when Stefanova was 8.
While her mother worked as a housekeeper and her dad continued to drive a cab, Stefanova got lost in music. A pianist since age 4, she auditioned for Las Vegas Academy on a whim and was accepted. There, she focused on piano, guitar and photography. That experience was a catalyst for her current creative pursuits.
On any given day, Stefanova’s juggling multiple gigs, but it doesn’t burn her out. She still gets excited about booking shows and helping other indie artists. It’s a modest living and a meaningful gesture in a community that many claim is lacking culture. But Stefanova sees it everywhere.
“That’s one of the things I love about it,” she says. “People don’t think Vegas has much culture because of the Strip, but there are so many people who move here, and you get to experience all of it.”