It was August 21st, 2009. I was at home sitting in our living room when I received the call confirming my first professional internship. There I was — by myself and crying happy tears. I had finally gotten an unpaid internship at a multicultural marketing agency in New York City, where I could put into practice what little I had learned on my own and from the one graphic design class I had taken in college. I was about to start my senior year of college and I felt like things were finally starting to look up.
I was majoring in Human Resources Management with a minor in Graphic Design. Before taking any classes for my graphic design minor, I had learned to design using Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. That’s all I knew how to use and yet I confidently called myself a graphic designer. My design portfolio consisted of bar menus and party flyers from the restaurant where I worked in Glen Cove while I went to college. I worked, first as a busboy and then as a waiter so I could pay for my college tuition, help my mom with the rent, and cover any additional school expenses that may come up.
That was the beginning of my career in design and it’s been over 11 years since then. It was not easy, especially for someone like me — an undocumented immigrant from Perú.
The early years in a new country
December 21st, 2020 marked 20 years since I came to this country at age 14. We flew into New York and arrived in a town called Glen Cove in Long Island by way of an extended family that had lived there for many years. During our first year in the U.S., my brother, mom, grandmother, and I lived in the home of a relative, sharing a single bedroom with bunk beds. After moving to a studio apartment in the same house and graduating high school, we moved again — this time to a full apartment on the second floor of the house. I lived there until I got married.
During the summer and winter breaks of high school, I would go with my mom or grandma to help them with their jobs cleaning houses. On those days, my grandma and I would take the bus to the houses she would clean. Once there, my grandma would hand me the Windex and the Pledge. I was in charge of cleaning the windows and mirrors and making sure all of the wood surfaces shined.
The work was physically demanding, especially if the house had many floors. But my grandma had a system to make things easier and not waste time. First, she would put all of the laundry in the washer and while that was going, she would dust off all the surfaces and items in the house, one by one. Then, she would unload the washing machine, load the dryer and say, “Almost done — I just need to vacuum!” After that, we were on our way to the next house. Some days, we would go to two houses on a single day, on others it would just be one. On nice summer days, it was great to walk from one house to the other, but during the winter it wasn’t as fun.
During my senior year of high school, my guidance counselor asked me where I would apply to go to college and I didn’t know. I actually don’t remember having “the college conversation” with my mom or anyone. All I knew was that I wanted to be an architect or a civil engineer.
A few people (including my guidance counselor) recommended I go to Nassau Community College (NCC). Without asking many questions, I decided to apply there. When I filled my college application, I had all the information except for one thing: I didn’t have a Social Security number. I didn’t know how bad that was or what it meant to not have one, but the moment I understood I started to feel fear. Fear for my future, for my mom, for my brother, for my friends who were in the same situation I was in. That moment changed my life. Every time I would fill a document that required a SS#, I was reminded of what I was in this country — my “status” — and how uncertain my future was.
After changing majors twice and taking a semester off because I didn’t know what to study and didn’t have the money to continue paying for college, I finally decided to pursue Business Administration. Three and half years later I graduated from NCC with an Associate Degree becoming the first in my family to graduate from college. After 8 years of being in this country, I was aware of what this graduation meant to my family — it meant their sacrifices were starting to pay off. But I decided to go for more, so I applied to Baruch College for a bachelor’s degree. This meant that I would be commuting to Manhattan some days of the week.
Commuting to the city sounded great, especially to my mom and grandmother. I could see how proud they felt when they would tell family members or bosses that their son or grandson was going to college in Manhattan. It was indeed something to feel proud of. But, from time to time, we would hear rumors about ICE raids in Long Island. Some happened at bus stops while others, we were told, were happening on trains or at buses leaving from Port Authority in Manhattan. As I started my commute to go to college in NYC, I would sometimes fear that ICE might get on the train and arrest me, so I always looked for an emergency exit or sat near them. I’d sometimes create scenarios in my head of those moments and I would imagine escaping through those emergency exits.
During my senior year of college, I started to commute into Manhattan every day from Monday to Thursday as I started going to my internship on the days I was not going to class. Friday to Sunday I would work at a restaurant in Long Island, sometimes from 10 am until closing at 11 pm. It was brutal.
The beginning of my career
The first assignment during my internship was to design a logo and other print materials for a multicultural conference at the offices of Diageo, in New York. I didn’t know what Diageo was or what they did, so I did my research and found out that they were the world’s largest distiller, they owned most of the spirits I was serving at the restaurant where I worked on the weekends. I had the opportunity to go to the conference and when I saw my work being used everywhere inside that building I just couldn’t contain my pride and happiness. I posted so many pictures of this day on Facebook that I should have been reported as a spammer.
At the end of the first semester of my senior year, the agency decided to extend me for another semester but this time they said they would help me financially by paying for my tuition until I graduated. Their investment in me was something that marked my life and changed the course of my professional career. They saw something in me and decided to bet on me and my future and, for that, I will forever be grateful.
June 15, 2012
That Summer Friday in June, I had just finished having lunch when I checked my phone and noticed I had missed calls and multiple text messages from my mom, my girlfriend, and friends. One of these had a link to a news report.
President Barack Obama had just announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA.
I cried as I read the news report.
For the first time in 12 years, I felt that the burden of fear could finally be lifted from my shoulders a little bit. What’s more, I started to imagine what this could mean for me, my brother, and my family.
Thanks to DACA, I was able to drive a car without worrying because I finally had a driver’s license. I could finally apply to any job I wanted anywhere in the US. This was a game-changer and it felt like a reward after so many struggles and hard work.
Now with DACA, the agency that had given me my first internship opportunity hired me as a full-time employee. I got to work on advertising campaigns for Johnnie Walker, Jagermeister, Honey Bunches of Oats, Kroger, and Valeant Pharmaceuticals. I went on to lead the design and art direction for all of the agency’s clients. I hired designers and mentored others. I created radio and television spots, social media campaigns, out-of-home billboards, websites, and digital banner ads. The agency and I won advertising awards for the first time. I did what I never thought I would be able to do.
I worked with them for over 5 years until I decided it was time to move on and try something new. I landed at a big global ad agency whose name was mentioned a lot in a popular TV series. I got promoted a year after, but, 5 months later, I was let go as part of a round of layoffs. I continued working as a freelancer at a couple of small agencies until I received a phone call to join the in-house product design team at WW (WeightWatchers at that time). After almost two years of working at WW, I was presented with the opportunity to lead and mentor a very talented group of designers at an agency in NY. A lead role was something I had dreamed of for a while and so I jumped at the opportunity. In a year, we delivered more great work than I did anywhere else during a similar timeframe. Unfortunately, this experience didn’t last long as I was let go again due to financial problems.
I started looking for a job once again and, believe it or not, there was an opportunity to go back to WW. So I took it and I’m still here.
What I’ve learned
It’s been 20 years now since my family and I came to this country and even though I’m now on the path to becoming a US Citizen, the fears I had when I found out about my legal status in this country are still there, they’re not completely gone, they just feel different. I’ve learned to live with that.
This journey has also given me many lessons that I carry with me and apply both in my personal and professional life:
- I’ve learned that if I’m going to be a designer, I will make sure to be the best one. As my mother and grandmother cleaned houses and offered their very best work, they created a lasting reputation that led them to find more clients. Thanks to them, I know that whatever you end up doing, you should always strive to be the best at it.
- I’ve learned to not get attached to things. A former Creative Director advised me once to practice non-attachment after I sounded and looked frustrated during a meeting. Since then, I focus on the process — rather than the outcome — when I do something at work or in my personal life. This mindset shift has allowed me to let go of my fear of failure, which often stifles us from taking any risks.
- I’ve learned to talk less and listen more. My grandmother would always listen to me and not say a word until I finished talking. Then she would give me advice. It was therapeutic. At work, my boss is able to empathize with me and my teammates because he has created an environment free of judgment where everyone is comfortable sharing opinions or challenges. This creates trust and respect towards each other — thus creating an environment that is conducive to higher performance.
- I’ve learned to ask questions — especially “why?” I learn more and I learn faster by asking questions about things I don’t understand or don’t know. This was something I experienced when working in advertising and it laid the foundational skills I would need as I pivoted into product design. The more questions I asked, the more I understood the problems at hand in order to come up with better potential solutions. Keep asking questions.
- I’ve learned that if you move up, it’s only fair if you help others move up as well. Just like I was given an opportunity at the beginning of my career by those two individuals who trusted me with their work, that chance they took on me eventually led me to the next step of my career. DACA opened the doors for me and many others to also take that step and contribute our talents in many fields. Imagine the ripple effects we could create if everyone that was doing well was able to help one other person?
I’m very aware that my story may not be the reflection of all the young immigrants that came to this country alone or accompanied by their parents. Some were able to follow a college career or joined the military force. Others weren’t able to do either because they had to work so they could help their families, or serve as caregivers to older parents or family members. I realize my path couldn’t have been possible without the family, friends, and colleagues who helped me along the way. I’m grateful to have encountered people that were willing to help, guide, and mentor me throughout this 20-year journey that, at the time, appeared to have a somber future but today, is hopeful and rather bright.