I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and came to the United States when my mother moved here as a migrant farm worker. I grew up in New Jersey and East Harlem, N.Y., in a single-parent, welfare family. As a teenager, I worked in a textile factory and a vitamin plant (among other jobs) to help support my family.
I’m asked a lot about my childhood and how I feel about it. I’ve never dwelled on it. As the Tavares song, “Hardcore Poetry,” says: “It depends on who is looking at the tenement walls/Whether he’s coming home or passing through.”
You have to make the most of the hand you’re dealt.
But you still have to fight being pigeonholed. As a high school senior, I was a good enough baseball player to be drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies. But I told my guidance counselor that I’d rather go to college. He asked where. I told him I’d been reading that the best universities were Yale, Harvard, Princeton and others. He just laughed. On April 1, when the letters arrived, I learned that I’d been accepted by all of them. I went to the guidance counselor’s office, threw the letters on his desk and said, “Never laugh at someone’s dreams.”
I see my differences as positive because I can bring these experiences to the workplace, which helps our business. Diversity makes good business sense because our customers are diverse. I’ve found that most business leaders genuinely believe that.
But we must extend the notion of diversity beyond ethnicity and gender to include diversity of thinking, expression, style and generation. The phrase “corporate culture” too often connotes conformity. True diversity in the workplace means that I accept who you are, and I don’t try to make you like me.
Latinos especially understand diversity. We are called the Rainbow People because our ethnic mix includes Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, West African slaves and American influences. We have a saying, “?y tu abuela, adonde esta?” which means “Where’s your grandmother?” The message is that you can’t hide your roots, no matter what your outward appearance. My own complexion is the typical canela (cinnamon) color emblematic of our diverse heritage.
My advice to corporate leaders is to take the time to understand differences within the team and how they play out, positively and negatively, in the workplace.
So, folks like me don’t like being pointed to as being “diverse.” We may come from different places, but we’ve worked hard and earned the level we’ve achieved. It’s important to be yourself. But it’s also very important that the reverse be true. Those of us who are coming into that corporate environment need to fit in with the corporation’s values, including collaboration, accountability and ethics. If you look in your heart, you will find that these desirable values transcend any background.
Besides, I play golf now. If I said that in my old neighborhood, they’d kick my ass.
As told to Allan Holmes