I was in the right place at the right time. I graduated from school with a business administration degree in Spain and I wanted to come to the United States for an master of business administration degree.
At the same time, my father wanted to open a branch of the family business here. We have been in ceramic tile, manufacturing and sales, in Spain for three generations. He always thought the United States’ market was so big — you couldn’t just come here and sell; you had to open a company.
So my father came to Miami to open Iberia Tiles with a partner, and I came to attend the University of Miami.
It was January 1980, the same year as the Mariel boatlift. Two weeks after we arrived, the partnership didn’t work out and my father found himself with no one to help him start the business.
My father said, ‘Instead of paying for the MBA, I’ll give you $100,000 and you’ll do your MBA in practice instead of in theory. You can be president of a nonexistent company.’
All we had was a signed lease in a warehouse in the northwest part of the county. My father stayed two more weeks. We incorporated, and then my father left for Spain.
I was here alone. I didn’t know what to do. I had to start somewhere. I don’t think about those days, as they were very stressful.
My father told me two things: First, don’t worry about the money. I have already lost it, he said, and I’m still happy so don’t worry. I was very concerned that $100,000 is a lot of money, especially when you are 22.
The second thing he told me: Anytime you have a doubt and you want to call me, call me. Anytime. It was very reassuring. It wasn’t the father I had known when I was growing up in Spain. You didn’t bother him every five minutes.
In the beginning, I called a lot. Whatever question I asked him, he would ask the question back to me. So, after a few weeks, I stopped calling.
You are going to make a lot of mistakes, he said. But every time you make a mistake, pay whatever you must to fix it and don’t tell anybody.
One of the first things I realized was that I didn’t speak English very well. When you are young, you think you do everything well. My accent was British, and I didn’t understand the American accent. I hired a teacher, and I really learned the language.
I met a guy in 1983, married in 1984, and in 1985 I had my son, and in 1987, a daughter. I had been here for seven years and I had a business, two kids — the dog came later. Until 1990, all I did was work and have a family.
By 1990-91, I could lift my head out of the water and started looking around the American landscape. I didn’t have any American friends who had been to my house for dinner. I lived in Key Biscayne, with a lot of Hispanic people.
I realized I was not part of the community here. So I started to get involved in organizations. First the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and then the board of trustees at Florida International University.
I have grown to love Miami. It’s a beautiful place and the crossroads between North America and South America.
I realized Miami was a very new city, and any contribution a person would make could make a real difference. In Barcelona, it’s a great city, but everything was already done.
Here, everything remained to be done. The more you do for a person, the more you love that person. A community is like that. Now, if someone asks me where I’m from, I say ‘I’m from Miami.’