Originally hailing from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Manu Torres Kortright deviates from our typical profiles in that he is not, at least on paper, an immigrant.
“Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory,” Manu explained, “It’s a colony, really, but they call it a territory because it doesn’t sound as bad or obsolete, especially in 2017. We are born Puerto Rican nationals, but we have United States citizenship.”
According to Manu, many people see his being born with United States citizenship as a privilege, but in his opinion there is more to this situation than meets the eye.
“Those that think they understand, think we have it made. If it was something that was mostly benefiting us, it would have been cut off years ago. The U.S. always gets the best part of the deal.”
Despite his citizenship status, Manu self-identifies first as Puerto Rican, then as Hispanic and Latin American, saying that his view is typically reflected by the general sentiments of the American people.
“The perception of people in this country is that we are immigrants. I understand that most people don’t know about Puerto Rico’s status.” He went on to add, “I’ve felt like an immigrant, but it’s not something I’m ashamed of at all. I’m a Puerto Rican and a very proud one.”
Though Manu had travelled during his youth, living in Madrid as a child while his parents completed their PhDs, going on an exchange program during his undergraduate years, and attaining master’s in interactive design in Barcelona, he did not officially move to Chicago until later in life.
“I was working with J Walter Thompson in San Juan as a Digital Creative Director at the time. I was lucky enough to be part of a hot streak where Puerto Rico was making a lot of noise and winning international festivals. The creativity coming from the island is world class. That’s when we started getting calls from agencies in the U.S.”
In 2012, Manu piqued the interest of an advertising agency in Chicago that was on the hunt for a creative director with a strong digital background. After he was offered the position, Manu discussed the possibility with his wife and two children.
“I remember we were all at a sushi restaurant. It was like a team, we put our hands together and said okay we’re going to do this. We decided if it didn’t work out after 3 years we would come back.”
They began selling some of their possessions in preparation for the move. They managed to take a bit of Puerto Rico with them, bringing along art they’d collected from Puerto Rican artists, their furniture, and the family car adorned with paddle-board racks from a local Puerto Rican surf shop. Manu was the first to arrive, his wife staying behind with the children in order for them to finish their last few months of school.
“It wasn’t easy at first. It was harder for the kids to deal with the weather. They really missed friends and family and sometimes felt like here they were placed in a box or judged right away at school. They really missed the island.”
Despite the initial transition, Manu and his family found their place in Chicago. They cleared their initial 3-year hurdle, with 2016 marking their fourth year living in the United States. Now, Manu sees hope and inspiration in the city around him.
“Chicago is an incredible city. The creative energy is great. People are driven to do stuff for themselves as opposed to waiting for things to happen. That proactive attitude reminds me of Puerto Rico, at least as I know it.”
Manu discussed one of his biggest sources of inspiration since coming to Chicago: theBikes 4 Books project, an annual long distance bike ride that raises funds for educational non-profits.
Bikes 4 Books, 2015 Photo Credit: Jesús Díaz
“The second year that we did it, we did it in support of GirlForward, an organization that helps resettle refugee girls from the ages of 12-19. Since I’m a father of two teenagers, one of them a girl, I felt really strongly about helping with the cause. It felt like I could really make a difference.”
Manu was so captivated by the cause, in fact, that he offered his talents as a visual artist and redesigned the GirlForward’s logo and brand book. Additionally, he’s building his own bike from scratch to use in the next ride.
“I’m almost done,” he said with a grin, “I just need to add the pedals.”
GirlForward Logo Evolution
Build A Bike | West Town Bikes
Projects like these are especially important to Manu, as he claims that corporate culture in the United States can often lead to stagnation. Now in his early 40s, Manu says he is surprised to find that he often identifies with the younger generation and its proactive nature.
“I think it has given me hope in terms of seeing a younger group of people doing incredible things. Especially in advertising you see a lot of studies about younger people and how they don’t care, and it’s not true at all. It’s a group that should be seen as an inspiration.”
“Many U.S. citizens haven’t explored the world enough. A huge percentage of Americans don’t even have passports. That’s scary. I think that alone explains a lot of the stuff that is happening in the U.S. right now, starting with the man in The Mar a Lago White House It’s a country that is resourceful and rich in culture but often misinformed.”
For Manu, the desire to discover and see more is what drives him. He recognizes the differences between life within the States and Puerto Rico, and though some of the gaps between the two cause him to reminisce over the home he left behind, it is precisely those disparities that enthrall him so much.
“We still have a foot on the island, and I’m pretty sure we will be going back at some point. But we are enjoying this Chicago experience. We are happy right now. We are stronger and more malleable because of it. We’ve liked experiencing the contrast.”