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.
As a successful Dominican-American, Benny Lorenzo is a living example of how a dedicated community can come together to lift a child out of poverty.
The son of an immigrant from Santo Domingo who arrived in the United States with but one acquaintance to call on for help, Lorenzo is loathe to take full credit for his significant successes in life.
“My mother emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1961,” recalls Lorenzo. “She came to New York City all by herself and worked in a textile factory as a seamstress until she could save enough money to bring me here. She worked so hard so I could attend Catholic school - she dedicated her life to me.”
This was, as Lorenzo vividly remembers, before the enlightenment of the bilingual education movement. “There weren’t any special programs back then. It was ‘Welcome to America,’ 100 percent immersion from day one and you either sank or swam.”
Lorenzo’s classmates at his Washington Heights school in New York City were a diverse bunch from all over Latin America. They had each other to lean on, in addition to having adults at the school who were ready to cultivate their talents.
“I benefited from many, many people helping me throughout school – I went to Catholic elementary and high schools and I was surrounded by people who were ready to help,” Lorenzo said. “I also benefitted greatly from after-school clubs, such as the ASPIRA clubs, and other activities. I just had a variety of individuals helping me and steering me in the right direction instead of toward a criminal professional and there is a very small line between the two. When you’re growing up in the inner city it can go either way.”
Inspired by his mothers’ sacrifices for him and his teachers’ efforts, Lorenzo managed to win a New York State Regents Scholarship, enabling him to attend the prestigious Cornell University.
“My mother had no clue about Cornell – like no idea what it meant at all, she was just happy, it didn’t matter what college,” Lorenzo recalled. “I earned my degree in engineering and went to work for a number of corporations. I had a good job and I was able to help her.”
Lorenzo eventually went on to earn an MBA from Harvard University and then stepped into financial services just as the hedge fund scene started to take off. It was after making a name for himself on Wall Street that Lorenzo began giving back in earnest.
"There's so much opportunity here in the U.S. - we can’t become embittered by the prejudices and racism of others. You can’t get that chip on your shoulder and focus on ‘Life isn’t fair.’ You have to overcome all that stuff, remain positive and optimistic."
In addition to serving as the Board of Directors’ Secretary of the 2015 New York Dominican Day Parade, he is also an advisory board member of the City University of New York’s Dominican Studies Institute and supports several other Latino-serving organizations like The Mexican Museum, which is headquartered in San Francisco, California.
“You know, you just have to be a role model and show young people that it can be done,” Lorenzo said. “Young people today have a very tough environment to grow up in. It can be very hard to stay on the right road and not get involved with drugs or have unplanned pregnancies, but you have to show that the hard work can pay off.”
“Dominicans are very hard workers, we have an entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to work harder than other people – this is our competitive advantage,” said Lorenzo. “And there’s so much opportunity here in the U.S. to take advantage of, so we can’t become embittered by the prejudices and racism of others. You can’t get that chip on your shoulder and focus on ‘Life isn’t fair.’ You have to overcome all that stuff, remain positive and optimistic, work hard and you will be fortunate.”
And, of course, once you make it – remember to pay it forward.
“I’m very happy to have made the trip to the U.S., I consider myself Dominican-American and I love America,” Lorenzo said. “Dominicans can succeed greatly here, if they work very hard and remain tight with their community. Never forget where you came from, you have to remember that your success will not have been attained all on your own – and never forget to give back.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.