DRIVEN TO SUCCEED
Roanoke Times, The (VA) - July 24, 2006
Author: Beth Macy beth . macy @roanoke.com 981-3435
Rocio Ortiz has a monster inside her.
It screams at the factory workers she supervises when they slack off or talk too much. It growls when her teenage son explains why he can come and go as he pleases, and when the high school principal calls -- again -- to say her son was skipping school.
We could have died just getting here from Mexico, Rocio tells him for the umpteenth time.
And: Forget about these cushy Roanoke County suburbs. When I was your age, I didn't have a house.
I didn't even have socks.
There was a time when the monster protected Rocio, when it pushed her as she scrambled across the border and away from a life dependent on cheap shoes sold from the back of her rickety bike.
It helped her shed the shameful "illegal immigrant" label, propelling her from factory worker to plant manager to business entrepreneur.
But sometimes, the monster still keeps her up at night.
A chicken all to yourself
To this day, Rocio can barely look at her childhood photos. She's 3 or 4 in one of them, wearing a frayed poncho and clutching an equally sad-looking mutt. By 12, she was a sixth-grade dropout, on the gang-infested streets of Mexico City. When her parents split earlier that year, her mother abandoned the kids, and her father started a second family of his own.
Ask her to explain what prompted her homelessness -- both her parents were alive; her father owned a small chair factory -- and she can't. She stares into space, speechless for a minute, then sobs.
"They ... didn't ... care about me," she says.
The only person she could rely on was herself. At 13, Rocio mounted a suitcase onto the back of her bicycle and filled it with shoes, which she sold door to door for the equivalent of $3. She collected parental figures the way most little girls collect dolls.
The first one was her mother-in-law. Rocio was 15 when she met Carlos and became pregnant before long. Rather than a "quinceanera" -- the elaborate coming-of-age ceremony held on a Hispanic girl's 15th birthday -- Rocio had a small wedding.
Carlos' family embraced the newlyweds, giving them a room in their house. The room was tiny but Rocio managed to pack in a bed, table, stove and kitchen sink. When Roberto was born in 1988, the couple made a child's seat out of an old cardboard box.
Rocio painted the walls to give the "apartment" a homey feel and complained when the in-laws in the next room crowded her space. She loved that she had a family now, especially a mother, but she wanted a house of her own and complained loudly to Carlos about it.
"If I hadn't screamed, I'd still be there," she says, looking at photographs. In one, precocious Roberto is sitting on an airplane he'd fashioned out of scrap wood, a rusty table and cinder blocks. "My brother-in-law is still in his room with his family, still living in his mother's house."
Then, as now, jobs were scarce: Carlos was lucky to make the equivalent of $5 a day. Roberto still has scars on his legs -- from riding around the city on the back of his mom's bike.
When Rocio dreamed of the United States, it was an unattainable place, somewhere past the end of a gleaming white street and over the top of a hill. In her dreams, she never made it to the other side.
In reality, a friend told her, he knew a way she could. He had made the trip himself with the help of a smuggler, returning home with stories of lip-smacking meals. And cash.
He told the couple, "In America, you can have a whole chicken, and you don't even have to share. In America, you make more in one day than you make here in a week."
The first time Carlos Ortiz tried to sneak into the country, the plan was to go to Roanoke. He had a sister, already working for the El Rodeo Mexican restaurant chain, who could set him up. Once he saved enough money, he'd hire a coyote -- a guide, essentially a human smuggler -- to bring Rocio and Roberto to "El Norte," as they called the United States. The North.
Many Hispanic immigrants who migrated in the early and mid-'90s came to work just long enough to save money -- for a house, a needed surgery, a daughter's quinceanera -- then returned home. More than anything, Rocio wanted her own house in Mexico.
But U.S. immigration officials caught Carlos near Tijuana and sent him back. When Rocio found him on the doorstep -- pale, dirty and dehydrated -- they both burst into tears.
The second time around, in 1993, the plan worked. Carlos found himself in Virginia, living 10 restaurant workers to a house. He borrowed $2,000 from a co-worker and hired a coyote from Colombia.
To avoid being raped by corrupt Mexican police or gangsters, Rocio wore multiple shirts and dressed like a man, hiding her hair under a cap. The coyote helped her carry 4-year-old Roberto across the desert.
Eight hours and several prearranged car rides later, she was staring at the strangely clean streets of San Diego and clutching Roberto's hand.
In Roanoke, Rocio bused tables at El Rodeo while Carlos cooked in the back. When a bout of strep throat landed her at an area hospital, it took an hour just to explain, using hand gestures, what was wrong.
Roberto would not feel that shame, she vowed, enrolling him in a free Baptist-run preschool on Elm Avenue. She rode the bus with him from her sister-in-law's house. For three hours every morning, she waited outside while teachers taught him his colors and how to count to 10.
When a teacher spotted Rocio on the porch, she invited her in and gently asked: "Does your boy need socks?"
He had socks, albeit holey ones, and only a single pair. But that was OK, Rocio tried to explain, because she washed them out in the sink every night when he went to bed.
The next day, the teachers gave the boy a bag full of stuffed animals, clothes and several brand-new pairs of socks.
"They even had tennis shoes for me," she recalls. "In Mexico, nobody gave me anything. In Mexico, if you have one pair of socks, even holey ones, you have enough. If you have two, that's plenty."
Rocio was grateful for the gifts. But, she adds, "I was so ashamed."
'Never seen someone so driven'
In two years, the couple saved $23,000 -- enough to buy a three-room bungalow on the outskirts of Mexico City. They thought they were returning for good.
Rocio fancied the house up, installing kitchen cabinets as she could afford them and nailing boards over cinder block walls.
But like many Mexicans who have tasted America, the lure of El Norte began to tug. Rocio took sewing classes and had hopes of opening a small sewing factory, but she couldn't raise the funds. The chair factory where Carlos worked was constantly laying people off.
"In Mexico, if you are 30, they will fire you to hire somebody younger," she says. "At 35, you're considered old."
In 1994, they had another son, Daniel, and little money for milk, fruit or meat. Carlos pleaded with his wife to quit wasting money on things like kitchen cabinets. "I want big pieces of meat," he said.
Rocio worried about Roberto, now 12, a ripe age for being targeted by gangs. "They will hurt you if you don't join their gangs," explained Carlos' sister, Isabel Booth, who came to Roanoke for the same reason Rocio and Carlos returned in 1999: to educate her kids.
This time, the family crossed the border together. Daniel, 4 at the time, remembers crawling under barbed-wire fences, his elbows rough from burrowing through the sand.
Back in Roanoke, fake documentation was easily acquired. Friends advised the couple to mail away for Social Security and green cards -- for $100 -- and restaurant managers jump-started the process of applying for legitimate documentation, finally acquired in 2003.
Rocio found work at a meat packaging plant and, because they had no car, she bummed rides from a co-worker. She bought her first car, a 1987 Mercury, for $1,700.
Determined this time to learn English, she took night classes at Patrick Henry High School. Before long, when the boss wanted to tell the other Hispanic workers something, he relied on Rocio to translate.
"You have never seen someone so driven," recalls Rocio's English teacher, Shari Conley-Edwards. Out of the hundreds of foreign students she's taught over the years, "I can't think of anyone I'd hold up higher than Rocio. She still comes to my classes every now and then, just to review."
The public library became her refuge. Rocio bought books at yard sales and, at the suggestion of a librarian, checked the same books out on CD so she could follow along.
The first novel she read all the way through was "Before I Say Good-bye," a romantic thriller by Mary Higgins Clark. It took nine months.
In 2001, word came down that the meat plant was closing, but another factory would be taking its place. The new owner needed employees, and it was his opinion, based on experience, that Hispanics worked the hardest
Of the 24 Mexicans and Hondurans this man currently employs, he said, "They work so hard and so fast, sometimes they run from one workstation to the next. It would take 50 Americans to replace them."
There was just one problem: The man didn't speak Spanish.
Not only was Rocio bilingual, but she also worked harder for him than anyone else -- 65-hour workweeks were routine during the busy season. When she was promoted to manager, the authority gave her a rush.
Her boss, a father figure right away, encouraged her to set goals. He even let her leave work to take English classes without clocking out.
"He knew right away I had a monster inside me," Rocio says. "He had the experience, but I had the drive."
The downside of driven
The factory owner agreed to be interviewed several times, under the condition that his name and the name of his business not be published. Like many area employers, he fears the attention could prompt an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid.
But he will say this: Rocio was as instrumental in making his business a success as he was. Promoted to plant manager in 2001, the woman who was once homeless bought her first American house -- she now owns two, including one she rents out for extra income -- and invested in a 401(k).
"She feels, and I do, too, that we built what we have here together," her boss says. "She's very proud of the company and what it's done, and she blames me for being the way she is."
Still, Rocio found herself wanting more -- especially for Carlos, who seemed to have no ambition beyond restaurant cooking and playing in his band. Why don't you learn English? Why don't you have a monster, too?
The monster caught up with Rocio last year, when there were one too many production orders at work and one too many arguments with employees. She and her boss were routinely putting in 70-hour weeks.
After Rocio fired a Honduran woman who couldn't get along with another employee, the woman's brother showed up, threatening to beat Rocio. Another time, after a bad storm, Rocio climbed atop the leaking roof, tacked down a tarpaulin and told her workers: We have a deadline to meet. Get back to work.
"In retrospect, I probably worked her too hard," the plant owner says.
After not missing a day of work in five years -- not even when she had the flu -- Rocio finally crashed. She was exhausted, depressed, wracked with back and stomach pains.
Why am I doing this?
And: How much more do I need?
Then she remembered Roberto's holey socks and thought: Maybe Carlos is right. Maybe we have enough.
'I am so scary'
Rocio quit the plant manager job. At 35, she now works 20 hours a week as a consultant, doing inventory spreadsheets and moderating employer-worker disputes.
Though the workers have a love-hate relationship with her, it's Rocio they call when they land in jail or need to borrow money.
In late April, the week before the national Day Without Immigrants protest, she held a staff meeting, asking for input and interpreting for the boss. After intense debate, a consensus was reached:
Though the employees had considered joining a public protest, they changed their minds, fearful of attracting attention, and took the day off to stay at home, without pay. (Plant employees receive free individual health insurance, and the average wage is $10 an hour.)
"They decided that it's better to be 'please' and 'thank you' with the country," Rocio said. "If immigration officials are not bothering us here now, why make protest?"
She tries to funnel most of her energy into the business she and Carlos opened last year, a grocery/restaurant/money-wiring business on Melrose Avenue called El Charly and Family.
When you enter the store, "You are in Mexico," she says. It's an all-Spanish oasis where construction workers come to wire money home, shoot pool and watch soccer and Spanish-language soap operas.
After doing paperwork at the plant and delivering lunch from her restaurant to the plant workers, who preorder and pay for the food, she works most afternoons at El Charly.
She's still hard on people, she admits. She gets mad when the plant workers refuse to stay after work for free English classes. "The boss will even pay them for taking the class!" she rants. "But they complain they are too tired!"
To confirm her suspicion that they were not studying on Saturday mornings as promised, she even drove by one of the worker's houses and, as expected, there were no extra cars there. Thus setting off another rant.
Worst of all: A few weeks before graduation, Rocio was in daily contact with administrators at Hidden Valley High School. Roberto, now 18, still aced his tests, but he was routinely skipping classes, and there was a chance he wouldn't graduate.
Rocio threatened to station herself in a lawn chair outside his classroom door.
It's her goal one day to be buried with a college diploma in her hands, and she can't understand why that's not her son's goal, too.
"He is so brilliant and people love him," she says. "He can be a lawyer if he wants to, but he is too lazy."
In the weeks leading up to graduation, she said repeatedly that she was so "scary" that he wouldn't graduate -- one of the few English words she still messes up.
And yet she praised Roberto for avoiding drugs and alcohol, for translating for his dad and other Hispanics at the store.
It's hard to be the son of the woman with the monster, she knows, although she is trying her best now to chill: She put an old recliner in her store office. She tries to nap there every afternoon, with her blanket and a pile of stuffed animals.
"I try to relax, but I still feel like Rocio the Illegal Immigrant who has to do more, more, more," she says.
"I have too much energy on my soul."
June 9 was more than graduation day. It was all the graduations Rocio herself had forgone, the quinceanera, the elaborate wedding, the fancy clothes.
Between her two job shifts, she managed to buy new suits for the sons and husband, decorate the ranch-style house with balloons and streamers, and cook enough Mexican food to feed 30.
In fact, she was so busy playing drill sergeant beforehand -- The snapshot collage goes here, the food table there -- that they were late for the ceremony.
During commencement, Roberto walked to the stage with a Mexican flag tacked to his gown. It was the proudest moment of Rocio's life, she said later, proof that she had "made him to be a nice person and to be a man."
Outside afterwards, Roberto thanked his parents and hugged them.
"This is mine," Rocio said of his diploma, in all seriousness, and yanked it from his hands.