Valsan was born in the back-room of a bodega 67 years ago.
My grandfather had several bodegas in Cuba circa 1940s. My father often retells the story of how he was born on a sack of sugar in the back of one said bodega. My grandmother, who worked quietly and faithfully by my grandfather Jose’s side, told the midwife to start getting the conditions ready because she felt she would be giving birth soon. “Getting conditions ready” meant filling a metal tub with hot water, gathering whatever scraps or towels were available, and clearing a table or floor area in the back.
In this case, my grandmother lay back on some sacks of sugar, sweating and breathing heavily. She bared down, holding her legs back, and pushed. The comadrona (midwife) received my father, Ruben Agustin Valdes, into this world on August 28, 1946. My grandmother Carmen, whom I was named after, put my father to her breast immediately. Nowadays, and specifically in the U.S., we are asked if we WANT to breast feed; but, in her time, as well as present day Cuba, you prayed for the milk to come easily.
It was not the first time a new born was heard crying from the back of the bodega. My father had 6 brothers and 3 sisters, of whom 4 brothers and 1 sister have now passed.
My dad says, Abuela Carmen was back to work the next day, but I can hardly believe it.
Like many Cubans, my father and his siblings made the difficult decision to leave their parents and other family behind to pursue a better life in America.
I was born during a short stay in Puerto Rico after my parents first left Cuba. My father worked as a salesman, and later started a company there with his brother. After about a year, my father felt he had learned enough about sales and merchandising, and decided it was time to go to the U.S. and start his own business there.
He would travel weekly to New York to buy merchandise. Often, he’d return the same day because he did not have enough to pay for an overnight stay at a hotel. More often than not, he would leave the house in the morning with only a tostada and cafe con leche in his stomach, and not eat again until he returned. If he had ten dollars in his pocket, it was to buy Cuban bread and croquetas for my mom, my sister and I, and the rest to reinvest in the company.
My father visited local vendors at flea markets and small strip malls to sell to them. Little by little, his clientele grew, until he was able to open his own post in the strip mall. It was between 400-800 sq feet. Valsan sold earrings, bracelets and necklaces, sunglasses, coin purses; many items, but wholesale only. Eventually, with God on his side, my dad’s hard work and discipline paid off, and he moved to a larger location where he also began to sell to the retail public.
I have been working at Valsan all my life.
I wasn’t born in the back of a bodega like my father, but most of my earliest memories are of watching cartoons in the office, or Jeff Smith on The Frugal Gourmet*, a cooking show that aired after Sesame Street, or was it The Muppets.
*Yes, I googled the name, I was only 3 or 4 then. None of it stuck, anyhow; I’m a terrible cook.
I remember when we got our first compute—the black screen and green letters, and all the professionalism it represented. I was always eager to play secretary, but I was forbidden to explore this obscure version of Windows.
Instead, I kept myself entertained with the green chalkboard behind our secretary’s door, erasing some important delivery information or other factoid, to doodle trees, clouds and rainbows, maybe an unruly squirrel. The work of an 8 year old is never done.
I only “worked” on the weekends or holidays during the school year, but over the summer I was there almost every day.
I had many “friends” at work. Of course, I was too young and naive to realize they were sort of obligated to be nice to me. But anyhow, I “helped” everybody. I was particularly handy at testing out the toys. A lot of them came with those small annoying “try me” batteries that often wore out before the toy left the shelf.
I helped the secretary most of all, when she had nothing to do. We would play circulitos. Basically, your goal is to connect 2 dots during each turn, until you complete a square. Then, you initial the square, and the most squares wins. She never “let me win”, and I’m grateful for that.
Christmas and Mother’s day meant lots of work and big sales, but were usually followed by a slower season which meant personnel cuts. I recall one January, clasping my hands together and begging my father,”Papi, please don’t fire Mary. She’s my friend.”
I don’t know if it was my somber look, or if he really had no intention of letting her go, but Mary’s been with us for about 20 years.
As I got older, I got more and more involved in the day to day operations, like the register. Customer service was not my forte. I was a magnet for belligerent customers who wanted to return something used (that was working perfectly fine), or who had some other “important”, yet unfounded suggestion.
“This is cheaper at…”, “Everything here is crap”, or “You only have two cashiers?”. Mind you, there were, literally, 3 people in line at the time.
What I could never understand, but was unequivocally grateful for anyways, was the fact that despite their complaints, they still handed me money.
Between schoolwork and homework, Monday through Friday, and work-work on the weekend, I was “overworked”.
I once argued that it was against the law to make me go to Valsan, because I was a minor, and I couldn’t be forced to work more than x amount of hours. My father, who was driving us to work at the time, glared at me through the rearview. His look was worse than a swift kick in the pants; I dropped the issue…for the moment.
I had already decided I was going to be a lawyer. Apparently, recalling some Charles Dickens novel, I would stand up for minors and uphold the child labor laws.
I didn’t want any part in the wholesale or retail business my parents had built from the minivan up. Who wants to work six or seven days a week, even on holidays, and day-a-way hurricanes? Apparently, we weren’t Jewish, Christian, Catholic, or Muslim. Atheist, I suppose; although, I often heard my dad say,”Gracias a Dios.”
Over the years, as the business grew, we went from staying at my uncle’s house, to a 2/1 townhouse, to a house-house where my sister and I each had our own room. My dad had progressed from a large red Ford van to a sleek black four door Mercedes.
Thankfully, we always had enough of what we needed, and were blessed with many things that we wanted.
My complaints consisted of,”Why do we have to work?”,”I wanna stay home and sleep,” or “Can’t I go to the beach with my friends?”
My father was very strict with my older sister and I; although, I got permission to do more than she did. Like I said, in my heart I was already a lawyer. I argued with my father on the why’s and when’s of my social life. Each time, I was ready with several points and examples to back my case. If I had been a little more computer savvy, I could’ve prepared a compelling PowerPoint on my Gateway.
I often failed and cried from frustration, but other times, my logic and or perseverance won him over.
I was very clear on one thing—I was NOT going to be a slave like my parents. I was going to be a famous lawyer and make the “real money”, not work all the time, arguing with customers over nickels and dimes.
All along my father told me I could study and work wherever I wanted.
Today, I am president of my own Valsan location. My older sister also runs one of our six locations. We are involved in almost every aspect of the business—schedules, payroll, accounting, advertising, purchasing, pricing, etc.
Our youngest sister handles the social media aspects of the business, website development, and other marketing tools, in addition to sharing many of the tasks I mentioned before.
My father is still the head honcho. He works from our headquarters, where my sister and I grew up playing hide-and-seek-and-knock over as many boxes as you can in the warehouse.
I visit that location 2-3 times a week. On those days, I am basically, my father’s intern. He does everything and nothing all at once.
My father used to do everything, whether it was carrying boxes or writing the checks. Eventually, 30 boxes became 30 pallets, and 30 pallets became six 53′ containers. Valsan went from a strip mall kiosk, to six locations amassing over 150,000 square feet of retail space. Now, he does more of the managing than the hard labor, and the mental stress is definitely much more exhausting.
It is pretty unnerving being with my dad all day.
“Get me this, fax that, call so and so, bring me those, take me there, walk with me, listen to me, tell me, sit with me, did you email so and so, what did they say,” and so on. The “right now” is implied, and usually comes while I am mid-meal, walking to the bathroom, or completing one of his other requests.
The other day I burst out in laughter, as he interrupted my bite into a sandwich, to ask me to make a call. I said, “You’re messing with me, right?”
His genuine look of confusion when he asked me “why” led me to believe he is completely unaware of the level of stress he so easily, albeit inadvertently, imposes.
Recently, my father, two employees, and I walked through Miami International Airport towards the terminal where we would soon be departing to Los Angeles, where we purchase a large portion of our goods. My father walked ahead of us with his hands behind his back retelling some anecdote from his entrepreneurial past. He was walking slowly, yet we struggled to keep up, listening intently like interns doing rounds. I wanted to write down everything he was saying. To absorb every piece of information regarding work, life, or other, that came from his mind.
Everyday that I am with him, trying to juggle ten tasks at a time, trying to learn from him and impress him all at once, and still listen for his next instruction or piece of virtue; all the while, I wonder when I’ll get to take a break for lunch.
And I hope, I can have lunch with him.