This is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month series, "Our Latino Heritage," where we are profiling a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.
When René Alberto Cortez first arrived in Miami in 1987 he was a promising professional soccer player in town to train with a Florida league. He was young, talented and anything but carefree – his wife was back in their hometown of Cochabamba in Bolivia, sick and awaiting his return.
“I went back to Bolivia and though she had managed to have the surgery she needed for complications of a thyroid disorder, she needed more care than she could get there,” said Cortez, “The doctors there had initially given her three months to live, but my friends told me: ‘Take her to the United States and she’ll be fine.’”
“I arrived at a friend’s house in Virginia with my wife on a Thursday, and with God’s help, I had a job and started work by Monday,” said Cortez. “We got into some debt but, we eventually got ahead – and most important, my wife got healthy.”
Within ten months of being in the U.S., Cortez was able to bring his three children – two daughters and a son – to this country to join him and his wife.
“I dedicated myself to house painting,” Cortez said, lamenting that because he didn’t have a firm basis in English before he came, he wasn’t able to work in better-paying white collar occupations he may have been able to secure in Bolivia.
Around that same time, Cortez’ exquisite soccer skills came into play.
“I fell in with an Ecuadorian soccer team in Maryland,” Cortez said. “We played together and then we started working together. My teammates helped me get more and more work, branching out to remodeling…I started becoming a foreman on jobs and eventually started to branch out on my own. And that’s how I have my own small construction company now.”
Entrepreneurship runs hot in the Cortez veins. Just as three out of every four new businesses in the U.S. are started by Latinos, four out of the five people in Cortez’ household are small business owners.
In addition to his own construction company, his wife, who started out cleaning hotel rooms, started her own cleaning service. Their eldest daughter also runs her own cleaning service and their youngest daughter followed in dad’s footsteps and opened her own construction company.
“The truth is that I started my own business because though I had some good employers, others would not treat me well,” said Cortez. “And I thought, if they can have their own business, why can’t I? It was the same with my wife. She started out cleaning and then became a supervisor and then an area manager and I told her, ‘Go out on your own.’”
Just as three out of every four new businesses in the U.S. are started by Latinos, four out of the five people in Cortez’ household are small business owners.
The couple has now been married for 41 years. They’ve realized the American Dream of home ownership, community service – Cortez still plays competitive soccer and teaches the game to school-age kids near his home in Woodbridge, Virginia – and seeing their children grow up, go to school, marry and produce seven grandkids.
But they are now preparing themselves for another shift.
“I love this country, everyone in my family is a citizen and I’m just so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here,” said Cortez, “but, thank God, my mother is still alive in Bolivia and we’re ready to go back. My kids are grown and we want to spend some time with her and, just, relax.”
Of course, by “relax,” Cortez means that he’ll be travelling and playing with his soccer leagues – his teams have played in England, Canada and Bolivia – returning to Virginia regularly to visit the grandkids and, of course, running a small business in Bolivia.
“We’re in the process of studying up and figuring out what kind of business it would make sense to open there,” Cortez said. “Just a little something to distract us so we don’t get bored. It’s too hard to just do nothing.”
Even if he does relocate, Cortez says the U.S. will be going back to Bolivia with him, in his heart. “I continue to be so thankful for what this country has given me. I have my family, my kids, my grandchildren and now I can rest. What more could you ask for?”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.