It was weekday just after 3pm. The final bell had rung and students were filing out of the building heading toward the parking lot. Kids pushed and shoved one another as we squeezed through the double doors toward freedom. I couldn’t wait to get home and rip off the uniform that stuck to my body from the sweat and heat of the spring afternoon. I was out the door in seconds scanning the sea of cars for the one that didn’t belong—the big white work van that stuck out in the crowd of BMWs, Audis, and the occasional Mercedes. I spotted it at the edge of the parking lot and made my way down the sidewalk toward the man inside. He must have seen me coming because a moment later, as I was halfway to the vehicle, he stepped out covered in paint from the off-white flecks in his black hair to the green spots splashed on his brown work boots.
“Hi dad,” I said hugging him and kissing him on the cheek.
“Hi hijita,” he replied as he opened the car door for me, ready to head home.
At the time I was attending the Catholic grade school, my father had been running his own business for over a decade. He was the owner of a company called NC Painting which was named after me and the name my mother and sister shared. It was a small painting company that provided construction services when needed. More importantly, it was his company—one that he built through determination and perseverance. “I can’t work for someone,” he always said, although he used to,before choosing the entrepreneurial path.
Before he began his own business, my father worked for Sims Clothing Company. He began as a sales associate, fighting other employees for the attention of customers looking to buy suits, ties, and dress shoes. “They were your commission. If you didn’t sell to them then you didn’t make much money,” he explained. He worked his way up in the Falls Church, Virginia store eventually being offered a store manager position in Atlanta, Georgia. But he turned this down in favor of his own ambition to build himself a business. It was risky move—one that resulted in inconsistent job opportunities, trial and error in the field, and overall unpredictable success. Despite these difficulties, he found a way to prosper and grow his business making enough money to send me and my sister to private school.
Unlike what some of my classmates thought, my sister and I did not attend the school through the assistance of a scholarship. Once, when someone asked me this question, I responded with one of my own wondering why they thought I had a scholarship. “Your dad,” was their only response.
In the moment, I didn’t quite understand what those two words implied, but by that evening, all I felt was embarrassment. Someone thought I was poor because of what my dad looked like, because of the car he drove, because he was a working man but not in a business suit. My family was somehow less than those of the other students because of how my father made his living.
I turned to my sister for help that night when my father told me he would pick me up from school the next day. A moment of panic seized me as I considered what my other classmates would think when they saw his van parked at the edge of the lot.
“So what if he drives a van?” my sister said. “Dad made something of himself. You can’t care about what people think just because he looks a certain a way or has a certain job.” I fidgeted by the doorway of her bedroom, unable to look her in the eye and ashamed that I had felt embarrassed moments before. “He owns a business, Nata. That wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
Just like that, my sister reinstated my pride in my father and the value of the life he had created for all of us.
Our father came to the United States from Bolivia to attend university, something none of his siblings had done. He attended George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and completed his Bachelor’s in Latin American Studies and Global Affairs while working full-time at a restaurant to pay for his education. My father did not choose this career path because he was a poor immigrant but because it made him truly happy to be his own boss. He took a risk by starting his own company with minimal business knowledge and help. Yet he successfully established himself as an entrepreneur all while supporting his family and sending his daughters to private school.
“I wanted to do it, so I did,” he once said.
It’s true that appearance leads to judgment. My father’s paint stained clothes were unfamiliar to my classmates and caught the attention of certain individuals. But his appearance did not make up his person. It did not mean he was poor; it did not mean being a Hispanic immigrant had put him in a disadvantageous position; it did not mean he was struggling to live and provide. What it did mean was that he worked for a living. It meant he was not ashamed of his manual labor job. It meant he had successfully built the career and future he wanted for himself and for his family.