Growing up, I thought that I was famous.
When I was three years old, my parents made a fake “Newsweek” magazine cover with me in the center dressed in an immaculate all-white suit and baby-blue tie. After seeing this cover, I immediately shared the good news with all of my friends, and they believed me.
At the time, our family of five lived in Hollywood, and because the city served as the backdrop for “I Love Lucy” re-runs, my conviction that I was famous grew even deeper with every episode I watched. However, this fantasy began to crumble around the time I was about to start the first grade.
Suddenly, I began to notice the graffiti on our apartment’s walls, the steel bars on our windows, and the gangsters on the street corner. Our single-room apartment in East Hollywood started to feel like it was miles away from the real Tinseltown on the opposite side of the city. The picture in our living room of my father, barefoot as a child in El Salvador, only widened this gap in my head.
But any last hope that this new inkling was wrong vanished one a night when my father was getting ready to leave for work. As a truck driver, my father would drive across the country for one to two weeks and would rarely be able to stay at home for more than a day or two. To make our goodbyes easier, my father would pop down on one knee, give me a chest bump and then remind me that he was counting on me to be the man of the house while he was gone.
Given my aspirations to be an action movie star, I used to always respond with a roar, all while wearing my favorite superhero underwear. However on this day, I couldn’t respond with the same enthusiasm. Instead, I began to cry and grip his leg. To calm me down, my father recounted the moment he left El Salvador due to the civil war and said goodbye to my grandfather:
“Look, when I was 17, I was caught in crossfire and held at gunpoint. After that last incident, with your grandma crying right next to him, your grandpa told me: ‘If you stay here, you’re going to die. You’re not 18 yet, but I’ll let you leave home. But the only reason why I’m letting you go is because I trust that you’ll work hard and not eat trash off the streets.”
My father then told me: “Son, I’m leaving you because I trust that you’ll be OK without me here, and more importantly, I’m leaving so I can make some money to put you in a good school. I want you to have the chance to one day become something that I never had the chance to be.”
Because of my father’s sacrifices, I was able to attend a private school every year after that one, and because of his words, I became compelled to do well academically with everything in my power. Instead of attending the local high school that has historically held a 45% dropout rate, I gained admission to the oldest high school in Los Angeles—a Jesuit all-boy college preparatory school. And instead of joining one of the local gangs— both of which have been named transnational terrorist organizations by the U.S. government—I became the first in my family to attend college.
Two years ago, I found myself leaning on this moment again when I needed to choose between Wharton and another institution in Los Angeles. I struggled to leave the comfort of home, and I cowered at the level of brilliance seen in my potential classmates. In the middle of Welcome Weekend, I couldn’t wrap my head around how I got to that seat in Huntsman Hall, given where our family started.
A few days before the deadline, I reflected on that moment that I shared with my father 25 years ago. Envisioning the courage he showed upon leaving El Salvador with little more than a 3rd grade education and leaving Los Angeles each week with little more than a dream, gave me the courage to pick the road that scared me most but ultimately became one of the decisions I have ever made.
Now, as we get ready to graduate, I find myself at a new inflection point that is not school or work-related: What kind of son, brother, friend, (and one day) husband and father do I want to be? The answer I keep arriving at is my father.
As we embark on this next chapter in life, we may one day find ourselves pushed towards a path filled with fear, uncertainty and unchartered territory. In sharing this story, I hope that what worked for my father—moving forward with an unwavering enthusiasm for life and an incomparable love for those who matter most—may perhaps serve as some guidance for all of us in the pursuit of happiness.