Human : Alex Ortiz
Country: New York City, USA
Domain: Consultation / Construction Industry, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering
Job Profile: Principal Owner- Axon Engineering Services / Product Manager
There is a famous Spanish proverb, ‘Si te caes siete veces, levántate ocho‘, which would loosely translate to ‘If you fall seven times, get up eight‘. This Hermano , whose life has been an embodiment of strength and courage, had walked into a motivational group and left all the listeners clutching for hope in the depths of their hearts.
This series is dedicated to the strong-willed abuelas, the resilient mamas, the unwavering papas, the little pocas, the fierce hermanos living and thriving in the heights and to our ‘Sueñitos’.
The promise of the great American dream is what makes thousands of immigrants from far and near head to the States with a single-minded desire – to make it in life. The Ortiz’s story is one among the many such stories that represent the soul of America and what makes the nation what it is today. Born to two determined Colombians who wanted to make it in life for the better. So here’s introducing our next human in the series, Alex Ortiz, from the city that never sleeps , a construction consultation firm owner with an electrical engineering background and a mentor to a community of dreamy-eyed Hispanic students.
Alex fondly recollects his early memories of growing up in a bustling city in Colombia . His father was the youngest in a family of eight siblings and the first to head to college thanks to the sacrifices made by his older ‘Hermanos’ and ‘Hermanas’. The senior Mr. Ortiz got himself a Sanitary and Plumbing Engineering degree and had a steady job in Colombia. His parents had married young and he recalls how his 18-year-old ‘Ma’ the beautiful Libia had to ask her teacher’s permission to let her clear her high school diploma on time so she could get married. He chuckles and tells me how even the teacher attended their wedding. They soon had two little boys of their own. And that’s when the young couple would decide to risk it all by heading to America as relatives who had immigrated over to the States would tell them there was an opportunity for their kids to get a better life. And they were determined to make it.
The family arrived in the states in the early 1980s and he remembers the tense atmosphere at home in the initial years before their papers were in order and they couldn’t put their guard down. He describes to me how once the legal papers arrived, he could sense the calmness at home.
That was a moment when they knew they would be alright.
Growing up in the Heights
Located in upper Manhattan between 155th Street and 195th Street –Washington Heights has been immortalized in several Broadway plays, movies, and literature. It’s not just a melting pot of cultures, it’s the essence of what makes New York what it is today. It’s the neighborhood of dreams and hope. It has historical significance and derives its name from ‘Fort Washington’ which was a strategic location during the American Revolutionary War. It has now become a haven for immigrants from across the globe who call it their home.
The Ortiz family were one such family that had arrived in the states and made ‘the heights’ their home. He remembers how every parent in his neighborhood had multiple jobs. Everyone was doing whatever they could to get by. It was a neighborhood of resilient and determined immigrants who all dreamt of the ‘American Dream’ and motivation was one thing they didn’t lack.
He admits it was a cultural shock in the beginning. The schools and the students’ attitudes were entirely different from his early years in Colombia.
He would add, ‘ In Colombia, you were afraid of your teachers.’
The states were different in that aspect and he had to learn to get used to it. He also realized how the math taught in his old school was more advanced than he was learning here and it helped him excel in Math so he could focus more on learning English.
He recalls how he was a part of this gang in high school called BTS (Brothers taking out Suckas) and HOT (Hanging out tough) and how their gang leader was his friend with the tag name ‘Lazy‘.
He would say, ‘We thought we were the coolest kids in town.‘
I remind him how BTS in this Gen-Y era refers to a popular Korean band.
He chuckles and agrees that he won’t have survived high school with such names at this age.
He laughs and tells me how he was a skinny kid who barely knew English and other high school kids would try to pick on him. He was encouraged to go to a gifted and talented middle school as his grades in Math were excellent. He would later attend Aviation High school in Queens and that’s where he discovered his interest in all things related to ‘Electricidad’.
He recalls, ‘Electricity represents energy. Life .’
As a 13-year-old dreamy-eyed boy, he had plans to become a pilot but his interest in electricity made him realize it wasn’t what he wanted for himself. He recalls how he started hanging out with the ‘cool kids’ in the streets and saw how easy it was for him to fall into bad habits. He remembers several incidents and the choices that he had to make that could have landed him somewhere else today.
Living in the city that never sleeps
He recalls his dad, the senior Mr. Ortiz’s first job as a real estate agent. It exposed him to the systematic racism that existed in that era and how sellers would refuse buyers that didn’t meet their prerequisites. He realized early on how if you didn’t play the game along and followed the system, you wouldn’t make any significant bucks. The strong-willed Mr. Ortiz hadn’t made his way to the States to lose his virtues.
He told his bosses, ‘It’s not where I belong.’, and left his first job.
And that was when he would start taking up any odd jobs and maintenance works to put food on the table. The senior Ortiz wasn’t too happy about heading to the States in those days. But his wife, the resourceful Libia, was a force to reckon with in those tough times. She would clean apartments, work in Salad bars in New Jersey or drive vans to take kids to school. There was no job that Libia refused to help out the family.
Alex recalls how his ‘Ma’ would get severe allergies in her hands from the chemicals used in her odd jobs and yet she would show up each day at work to ensure her kids could have a better future.
When the family acquired a van for Libia to catch hold of the school transportation business, she would become a legendary figure. NYC doesn’t close during the snow. So naturally, schools would open during such weather conditions too. There were a lot of other vans in service, but she would always show up on time no matter what rain or shine. This earned her a bad rep among the other van drivers who would get chided for being late or not showing up as Libia would always be on time.
He tells me, ‘That’s how I learned how to drive in New York City.’
He would accompany his mom on certain days and they would drive around the block looking for parking spots. Considering how congested NYC is, it must have indeed been a task to get parking for such a huge motor vehicle. But the van was her lifeline and I am sure it’s Alex’s too.
The soul of the Ortiz family, Libia wasn’t just a mother extraordinaire, she was also the nucleus of her family. Alex recalls thanksgiving dinners and Christmases’ where their two-bedroom apartment would transform into this food haven with relatives from far and near squeezing into the limited space.
He laments, ‘My cooking skills are so bad coz my mom set the bar too high.’
He recollects steamy chicken stews, potato salads, and breaded ‘Chuletas‘. The aroma of Colombian delicacies would fill their home and bring them closer to a faraway homeland they once used to know. It was like a rite of passage for the next generation to get to know their roots and their identity.
‘Dime con quien estas y te dire quien eres’Libia Ortiz
A rough patch
He remembers how his mom would wait for him to come home in the summers, but he was hanging out in the streets and she would sleep off by the time he came home. It was a task to maintain a household while juggling several odd jobs at the same time.
Libia was worried about her sons. He recollects what she would tell them.
‘Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres.’
‘Tell me who you are with and I will tell you who you are.’
She was right about being uneasy about the company he kept as he couldn’t graduate high school on time. It led him to find an internship in a recording studio to earn extra credits. This stint introduced him to the music industry which became an integral part of his journey.
Music lies in the soul of ‘The Heights’. He remembers learning to Dj with his other brother and his homies who had Dj equipment and would throw house parties. I had to remind him of the popular mixtapes of the 90s.
He gleefully corrects me and tells me, ‘It was mixed cassette tapes.’
I laughed out loud at the memory of the 90s and the hip-hop culture and its influence on most Millennials who grew up in that era. Everybody did try to rap back then. He remembers buying rap records and making mixtapes of the hot and happening songs on one side and putting instrumentals in the other. He admits that it got him popular among the boys and girls.
He was introduced to artists who had made it through some intense childhood traumas and hardships. They had a purpose and a message in their art.
He would say, ‘I realized I was just a slacker.’
That stint with amazing record & sound engineers and watching the stories behind his childhood idols propel him to sign up for a Navy recruitment exam which was suggested by his cousin who called him up over one summer.
He was adamant that he would find his purpose too.
A brief stint in the Navy
He confesses that he signed up for the military assessment test because he wanted to find out what he was good at. He had no intention to join the military. He had just gotten out of high school and he knew his parents had sacrificed a lot to come to the States and he wasn’t doing enough.
When the assessment results came out, the recruiter simply told him, ‘You could do whatever you want, kid’.
But that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. He prodded him to suggest professions he could be good at. Sensing his reluctance to join the military, the recruiter suggested him to check out the engineering branch of nuclear and electrical engineering.
He confesses how nuclear was something he wasn’t interested in.
‘I don’t want to be a part of something that destroys.’
That’s when it hit him how his old friend ‘Electricidad’ has entered his life again. The electrical and electronics workshops he attended in his Aviation high school were still fresh in his memory. He remembers how life flashed before his eyes, his classes on electrons and voltages, and his brief stint as a DJ working with amplifiers and equalizers all made sense at that point.
He signed up for the electrical and gas turbine engine engineering branch.
He recalls, ‘I saw an opportunity where I am fortunate to be here and I could learn anything I want in life.’
He remembers how he breezed through Bootcamp. Until then he was a skinny kid and the training helped him to shape up. His mom was scared to let him go but he vividly recalls what he told her.
‘I have to do something. I just cannot go the way I am going. I am going nowhere.’
He tells me how he was afraid of failing at that point.
‘There was just too much at stake.‘
But the universe had other plans for him.
Seven months into the Bootcamp, he had forged a friendship with a few of the trainees and they had formed a gang called ‘La Migra’. They would get into a lot of trouble and probations. By strike two, he was discharged from the Navy. He was dispatched off to the Captain’s mast. The elderly military veteran instructor there took him under his wings. He was someone who came from the same block and understood the streets.
He would advise, ‘ We pick up bad habits but you are gonna be alright, kid!’
Alex was still unsure about where his life was heading and he would ask the instructor what he should be doing.
The instructor’s reply was similar to the recruiter’s nonchalant response, ‘You can be whatever you want to be. ‘
That’s when he realized how he needed to find the answer to that question on his own. He recalls how discipline in the Navy changed him for the better and made him understand how he could be whatever he wants to be by learning to apply his interests to subjects that intrigued him.
He had finally found the confidence he needed to follow his heart.
City College experience
He was determined to follow the ‘electricity’ he felt in those engineering classes in the navy. By the time his probation got over, he went over to City College to sign up for the electrical engineering course. It all made sense as he had toured the college when he was in middle school. City College was right in the heart of Spanish Harlem; it was affordable, local and he could still come back home. There were several financial aids on offer for minority students as well.
His Colombian heritage coupled with the ‘American Dream’ to make it fuelled his resolve further.
He had seen the sacrifices and choices his family had made each day, living from paycheck to paycheck, this time around he was going to make it right.
He was in the country of dreams and if he didn’t make use of the opportunities in front of him, then as he would say, ‘You are a big fool.’
City College wasn’t your typical Ivy League college, but it had a ‘soul‘. Most of the students who signed up for the college had odd jobs and were determined to succeed. He recalls how one of his classmates, a heavily pregnant Monica Coronado, a mother of two from the Queens, had to beg her professors to let her take her finals earlier to graduate on time . She was expecting her third child any day at that point. The system didn’t allow her but as luck would have it, the baby waited till the finals were over. She gave birth two days after her finals.
He smiles and tells me, ‘It was like even the baby knew Mumma had to finish college.’
She was one of the two people in his team who had keys to the office he could acquire in his final year for the social club. Dorms weren’t available at City college yet. It was a small office with a refrigerator, some sleeping bags, and a computer desk. The space became a sanctuary for people looking for a room to study in.
The college didn’t lack in such inspiring stories. And he proudly tells me about how he was elected the president of the LAESA-SHPE for a term. The LAESA or the Latin American Engineering Student Association was one of the largest student organizations in City College in the 90s with a total of 110 members. The social club was active in inviting over high school students to encourage them to apply to the college as well as finding companies and organizations that would provide internship opportunities for the students. It was indeed a thriving community.
He tells me, ‘We were all determined to make it and we were all going to make it through together.’
The support system he had in college helped him to bag several internship opportunities in noted companies like Xerox, Sony Studios, Bell Labs to name a few.
He adds that out of all the internships, Sony Studios gave him an opportunity to meet JLo and I bet it was his favorite.
That’s when he would recall his mom’s quote on ‘Tell me who you are with and I will tell you who you are.’
He was now surrounded by professionals and determined people who wanted to make a better future for themselves. He had finally found his purpose.
Giving back to the Community
It was at City College that he connected back to his roots and found a way to give back to the community and the people that had made him who he was today. He fondly remembers how his beloved teacher, the Irish-American, Mr. Sadowski had pulled him up once and asked him to sign up for the Physics classes on offer.
He would tell him, ‘ Are you stupid? Don’t you want to head to college?‘.
He was puzzled by how he had enough credits to make it through to college and here was his teacher insisting on him to take up another coursework. His answer was probably ‘No‘ at getting to college at that stage in his life, but he had to say ‘Yes‘ to his favorite teacher.
Mr. Sadowski interrogated him further, ‘Are you rich, kid?‘.
‘Nope‘ was his reply.
And that’s when his teacher would reason him out.
‘Then how will your parents feel when they know that you could have taken this class at high school and now they have to pay for it in college.’
He realized how that little nudge from his teacher helped him ace his engineering classes at City College. He would later help Mr. Sadowski in bringing over around thirty talented students each year to the college for conferences that LAESA would conduct till his retirement.
Mr. Sadowski would later confess to him :
‘Every teacher’s dream is to hear that he made a difference in a student’s life. Not everyone gets to see that, but you did that to me.‘
I could see how he has now passed that baton to Alex and how he now volunteers in organizations like HISPA (Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement) and is selflessly giving back to communities in New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Texas to name a few.
He is now an inspiring mentor to many but he hasn’t forgotten the couple of mentors he had like Mr. Vincent Ammirato, who introduced him to the world of construction and fieldwork. He encouraged him to get his professional engineering license. He realized how he could create his own blueprints and see his designs come alive in the real world. His love for the outdoors was something he inherited from growing up in the heights. He remembers how learning programming in college opened him up to opportunities in the tech industry but he didn’t see the kind of freedom he felt being outside.
He recalls his dad in his early 50s heading back to school to become an environmentalist. If there was one thing that the Ortiz were passionate about was nature. He recalls how he would often escape the tense environment at home to head outside and clear his head. The outdoors represented ‘Libertad’ to him.
The construction industry was where he met his mentor and partner for more than a decade, señor Hector Mena, a City College alumni who grew up around the same block. Working around NYC for several projects was how he got inspired to set up his firm. This gave birth to Axon Engineering Services which has been his brainchild to provide services in all sectors.
At last, he had found the freedom to create and find his own ‘American Dream’ that so many pursue in their lifetime.
El amor todo lo puede
Alex didn’t just find his purpose, he also found the love of his love.
He remembers seeing the beautiful Lorena in a copy store in Hackensack, NJ near the office of his first job. He remembers how he gravitated towards her.
He would proclaim, ‘She was too much of a girl not to talk to.’
He remembers saying ‘Hello‘ to her and her smile was the reassurance he needed to ask her out.
‘She doesn’t believe this but I couldn’t sleep the entire night before I asked her out‘, he confesses.
And that ‘amor‘ has brought them two little angels of their own – Tatiana, 13, and Samara, 11. The proud father tells me how Tatiana has got a keen eye for art and is extremely quizzical about the world around her. Samara, on the other hand, has taken an interest in learning Japanese and spends her time watching Anime.
I had to ask him if his mixed ‘cassette‘ tape days are officially over.
He laughs and tells me how he now understands his dad so much better. The senior Mr. Ortiz and Alex have now formed a closer connection as fatherhood has transformed their relationship and they have bonded lately with their shared love for nature, science, and space.
He laments, ‘Someday I will be a nuisance to my kids too and I dread it.‘
I reminded him how the high school years haven’t started yet so he has a good solid few years to still be the coolest person in their life.
We live in the hope that little Tatiana and Samara would one day stumble upon this piece and realize the incredible journey their papa and mama have undertaken to be where they are today. And keep their little dreams alive in the toughest of times.
Alex’s journey isn’t just about one man’s story of success, it’s a journey of determined and resilient parents who would make it through all odds to ensure their kids had the life they could only dream of. His story represents an entire community of dreamers who are working hard each day for their ‘American Dream’. Some make it and some don’t. But they exist in each corner of the avenues, each salad bar in the uptown, each bodega right around the corner, each local taking the ‘A’, each restaurant lining up the square, each laundry and dry-cleaners right around the corner, each yellow taxis honking at the streets, each salon in the locality, each vans dashing to make it to schools on time. You will find us everywhere.
This is dedicated to our ‘Sueñitos’.
Our little dreams.
This is only the beginning.
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