Like most Hispanic women, my story starts with my mom, Flor.
At 13 years old, she emigrated from Colombia to the Panama Canal Zone in 1963 when it was a U.S. territory. When she arrived, she was adopted by her older sister, my Tia Alba. Mom dropped out of the 8th grade because the courses in English were too hard for her, and she just couldn’t keep up.
For Mom, life in the U.S. looked a lot like what you’d imagine for a typical brown immigrant pursuing the American dream. When she was 18, she got her GED, married my father (a U.S. citizen), and then migrated from Panama to the state of Georgia, eventually settling in Texas. They got divorced when I was four.
After the divorce, she spent her time cleaning motel rooms and cooking food at a truck stop in Magnolia, Texas. Mom’s pay was meager. She was barely keeping up with the bills, and after the divorce, Dad vanished without a trace and never paid a dime in child support for us three kids. As I was starting kindergarten, we were evicted. My mom, Abuela, my two siblings and I packed our belongings and moved in with my Tia Alba. She had a great house, and it was a full house.
Moving in with my extended family after an eviction may sound like the start to an immigrant sob story, especially to a person born in the U.S., but that home was my safe haven where I could be both Colombian and American. It was where I felt the deepest sense of belonging.
Tia Alba is the matriarch of our family and her home was a slice of Colombia in Houston, Texas.
The sound of cumbia music in the background when Mom and her sisters danced together, the smell of sancocho, frijoles, and arroz con pollo simmering on the stove, and the taste of delicately sliced carne wrapped in plantain leaves that had been slow-roasting on the grill for hours on end — these are the senses of my childhood.
Alba, her husband, and his daughter took the main bedrooms and we five piled into the guest room. My two siblings and I slept on pallets on the floor while Mom and Abuela shared a bed. I’d often pretend to be asleep, sandwiched between my sister and brother, but I was wide awake imagining what our life would become. Since Mom was working so hard, would we eventually buy our very own suburban home like I saw in the movies? Would we have Thanksgiving at a long table together? Could I have my own room that I could decorate with posters of Bon Jovi?
I’d envision myself eating pizza at football games. While other Colombian girls dreamt of their weddings, I was a proud American, so I dreamed of how elegant I’d look in a purple sequin dress I’d wear to prom. Most of all, I imagined what I’d be like as a “college girl” — smart, determined, stylish.(When mom gave me or my sister a compliment, our favorite one was, “You look like a college girl.”)
Through my Abuela’s snores, I would overhear my mom and aunt chattering carefree in Spanish and giggling like school girls. In those moments, I’d hold my sister’s hand and know how lucky we were to escape our father and be close to our Colombian family in a country where anything could happen if you worked hard and had an education.
In close quarters with my Colombian family, anything was possible.
Our dreams were possible. Being a college girl was possible.
I was possible.
My mom began to come out of her shell when she landed a job at Randall’s, a grocery store chain in the South. She would work crazy shifts, sometimes up to 12 hours a day, but no matter how much her feet and back ached, she came home excited. I remember seeing her grow her potential as I grew mine.
As the eldest daughter, I was the person who took care of chores — the cooking, cleaning, and feeding of my siblings — when she had to work long hours. I didn’t mind though because this shared responsibility is normal for immigrant families like ours, and I loved feeling like I could keep up with Mom’s new busy “American” life.
Life felt calmer because we experienced a newfound sense of stability. We didn’t have to move every time mom got a new offer to clean rooms for an additional eight cents an hour. We could stay in one school district for an entire year. We could finally grow roots.
A lot of that stability happened because of Veronica, her department manager.
When Veronica came into our lives, I started to understand the positive impact an empathetic manager and a fulfilling career could have on you and your family. Veronica saw Mom’s potential and promoted her from a store associate to a team leader role at the salad bar. She gave Mom the proper training and tools to succeed and, more importantly, the room to innovate.
Once my mom believed someone like Veronica valued her contributions, she became invested in work in a way that I’d never seen before. It was no longer about survival; it was about growth.
One time I visited Randall’s while she was on the clock, and I recall her proudly announcing her fresh-cooked specials over the store intercom, rolling her r’s in the typical Colombian, dramatic fashion any time she had a chance: rrrroast turrrrkey, anyone?
As the leader of the salad bar department, she would think about her customers’ needs rather than the store’s status quo. She made a firm stand against pre-packaged and processed food items from big suppliers, and instead, she would take groceries from the store to cook fresh items for the salad bar at home. She enlisted my sister and me to make signs and designs to market her ideas to people walking through the produce section.
Mom transformed a salad bar full of overly processed, prepackaged foods to one with home-cooked, healthy meals hecho con amor.
Freshly cooked foods at a salad bar were unusual in a grocery store in the 80s. It might be counter-intuitive, but it’s cheaper for a grocery store to buy a bucket of eggs in brine from an outside supplier than to allow an inspired employee to grab a carton of eggs off the shelf. But my mom had a vision, and she fought for it.
Let me tell you, the innovation paid off. The salad bar at Randall’s went from making $165 in sales per week to making an average of $4075 per week. Do you know how I know that? Because my mom is so proud that all these years later, she still rattles off those exact numbers.
Looking back on it, I’m proud to tell you that my mom helped invent the hipster hot and cold food bar that you see in stores like Whole Foods today.
Veronica knew the talent the store had on their hands. She not only supported Mom, but also fully empowered her. Mom was awarded Employee of the Month for three months that year, and she made Employee of the Year for two years in a row. That might sound silly to most professional white-collar workers, but it was monumental for my mom and for our family.
Seeing how Mom changed under Veronica’s leadership taught me the importance of investing in people, not resumes. She understood that growing your business meant growing people first and foremost.
Because Veronica invested in my mom, Mom was able to invest in us. My brother, sister, and I grew up with a strong role model. We all went to college. We are all living out our dreams of having successful and stable career paths. My mom is our universe, and we honor her by raising her grandkids with faith, love, and the closeness of a Colombian family.
Veronica invested in my mother and taught me that championing underrepresented talent can not only increase the bottom line but also change a person and a family for years to come. I’m a living example of that.
To the outside world, she was another brown single mom immigrant trying to make ends meet. She had a thick accent and a super sassy style that made her an outsider. Many people discriminated against her. Others may not have noticed her at all — she was the person in the background doing the jobs no one wanted to do.
But Veronica saw my mom in a way others didn’t: she saw drive, grit, and untapped talent.