Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
HIS WORLD STARTED SMALL, BUT HARD WORK HELPED IT GROW
HIS WORLD STARTED SMALL, BUT HARD WORK HELPED IT GROW
By Fred Dickey April 25, 2016
If you listened to a jingle over and over again, 40 hours per week for 20 years, it would have ricocheted around your skull several million times.
Fortunately for Raul Ontiveros, the tune is Disney's bouncy "It's A Small World." I mean, it could have been Mozart's "Requiem." Raul says he loves the tune. "For me, it's a jingle of money."
Raul drives an ice cream truck. Check that. He is sole proprietor of a direct-market confection retail business. That's not being cute. That's accurate.
Raul is also a Chula Vista real estate agent seeking to move into that dicey business in a bigger way. When he showed up to be interviewed and have his photo taken, he was wearing a blue suit that a La Jolla tailor couldn't have fit better on a man of 48. Occupying a place of pride on his lapel was a badge that gives his name and also reads Royal Realty, Coldwell Banker.
His happy, reaching-out manner not only says he wants your business, but you want him to have it, if for no other reason than to make this nice guy feel good.
If you didn't like Raul, you'd have a people problem.
It was not always thus.
Raul's life changed for good 30 years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico. He was a kid not long out of high school and trying to block out his father's criticism about lying around and doing nothing, for which there was ample justification. He saved his energy for partying.
He may have been indolent around the house, but Raul itched for adventure, and to young guys in Jalisco, that meant norte.
Had he foreshadowed a rat-infested basement bedroom in Chicago, he might have gotten busy for his dad.
"My friends told me, ‘Hey, what are you going to do there (in the U.S.)? You don't even speak the language. Aren't you scared?'"
Like almost all 17-year-olds, he wasn't smart enough to be scared, so he entered the country illegally and was immediately faced with the basics - eating, sleeping and not calling attention to himself.
Raul came with no skills, so he was forced to take any job that was offered to a young guy who had only a strong back, calloused hands and the willpower not to put the shovel down and walk back home.
"It was very depressing. Some people used to tell me, ‘Hey, you just say I'm looking for job.' And then sometimes they give me jobs for three days, for four or a week. It was a depressing time of my life, but I never gave up.
"There were times I would sleep in the field. I don't want to remember because that was so sad. I'm the kind of person that I focus on positive things. I cried a lot of times. A lot of times I would go hungry."
For five years he survived as a field hand on farms and as a day laborer, mainly in the countryside north of Los Angeles. Twice he went back to Mexico, but each time returned north.
Why? Simple. He liked it here.
"The truth, I really like the way Americans treated me. They've always been so nice. When I was working, we couldn't understand each other, but you can feel when people is nice to you. I never feel discrimination or anything like that."
Even immigration officers seemed to respond to his smile. "La migra? Oh, no, no. I was never scared of la migra, because even those guys used to be nice to me. I was smiling at people, and they were nice."
After five years, he was granted a green card. That gave him the confidence to explore the U.S. First stop, Chicago.
Chicago is known as the windy city, but that's only during fair weather. In winter, that fair breeze off the lake turns into what black folks call "the hawk." A freezing, howling wind that burns into every exposed body part. For a young man from semi-tropical central Mexico and balmy Southern California, it truly was a bone-chilling experience.
And he didn't live on Chicago's Gold Coast. He exhales slowly at the memory.
"Oh, my God. I lived in the worst places. It was scary. Yeah. Very violent gang neighborhoods. I was scared, but I had no other choice.
"I remember living in one room with six others, sleeping on the basement floor, and rats passing across the room in the night. They were big rats, too. It was disgusting."
He took jobs wherever he could find them, often as a restaurant bus boy. However, he also enrolled in every English as a Second Language class he could find. He realized English was his route to success.
Of learning English, he says: "It was hard, very hard. But I had to learn."
He finally had enough of Chicago and decided to come to San Diego for a gentler clime. There he met his would-be wife, Alicia Montano, and became a U.S. citizen. He was a restaurant cook for a while, but he wanted more.
"I wanted to be self-employed, because I feel like I was ... how can I say this? I didn't feel freedom when I was working for somebody else. Then, somebody introduced me to the ice cream truck business. For most people it's a work to be ashamed of, to be honest."
Why? It's honest work.
"Yeah, that's the way I see it. But because it's only ... I don't know, but it's something not to feel proud about. It's in our culture, in Mexican culture. It's the way it is. Sometimes it's hard to change people's mind."
In 20 years, Raul has steadily advanced through several trucks, each nicer than the last. His most recent is a top-of-the-line, $40,000 rig.
"I was proud, and I make something. At this point, people see me very different because my ice cream truck is brand new, and I've been focusing only on the best communities."
He studied niche marketing and decided his best sales route is coastal North County. The neighborhoods are more prosperous and have fewer children, but he could have the territory virtually to himself.
"I want to give that community, that people, something nice, something that they can be proud of having me there working.
"The other day I met Tony Hawk (of skateboarding fame). I was by his house, and I didn't even know who he was. Some kids told me, ‘Oh, my God, Tony Hawk bought from you! Tony Hawk! Tony Hawk!' He's been buying from me three times. He is a very nice person with his kids."
Most important to Raul are his two children, Raul Jr., 11, and Isabella Marie, 19, a sophomore at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is studying civil engineering and will go to Germany for the fall semester.
Raul chokes up when he talks about his daughter's achievements.
Isabella Marie has earned scholarships, but the brunt of her private-college cost is borne by her parents, and it ain't cheap.
"(The tuition) is hard for us right now, because it's like paying another house. We want the best for our daughter even if we have to sacrifice a few things - or a lot of things."
Twelve years ago, his wife got a job in the real estate business, and that inspired Raul to employ his outgoing personality in that pursuit. He quickly qualified for a sales license, but because he lacked confidence in English, he mainly admired the document but didn't use it.
He continued to study, and today his English is serviceable. He is easily understandable with an appealing Spanish lilt. You can tell he is conscious of every word he doesn't know and mentally makes a note of it.
He says his goal is to look beyond the Mexican-American community for real estate customers.
Raul spent his time in the weeds; now he can raise his head and detect the scent of clover.
I ask Raul if he felt guilty about violating the immigration laws of this country when he was a youth. He doesn't say yes or no, simply that at 17, he didn't think about it. It was just what you did if you were a young Mexican seeking adventure and fortune.
And that's a point we choose to overlook. Mexicans and others come illegally because we extend a tacit invitation with our lax enforcement, which they rightly interpret as a come-hither.
Humanitarian? C'mon. Were that our goal, we would seek out and allow in the infirm and the orphaned, of which there are plenty of both. The powers of our society want cheap labor and blocs of loyal voters. The immigrants want work. A deal is a deal.
The fact that some who come north have committed crimes isn't Raul's fault. He has kept his end of the bargain.
The whole question has a macro and a micro to it. Big picture: Our hospitality has been greatly abused at times, inevitably. But not by Raul. He's the micro. He is a good family man and has become a productive citizen.
If we have a problem, it's not with Raul Ontiveros.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]
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