Erwin Figueroa spent his grade-school years in the Guatemalan coffee fields, slashing through farm rows with his machete. By fifth grade he wanted more from life than coffee picking. After watching episodes of Miami Vice on a shared television in his rural village, he knew he needed to find a way to a big city.
After sixth grade, the final year of schooling in Chiquirines (took a guess?), he asked the farm owner who owned an estate in the nearest city— Quetzaltenengo, four hours away—if he could live in his estate and work for him so that he can continue school.
“He gave me a room in his 15-room mansion, where I lived with his family for the next seven years,” Erwin said. “From there I worked hard, kept his house and gardens clean, earned good grades, and won a college scholarship to America.”
Erwin’s years spent at the estate were loaded with life-lessons that still stay with him. At one point, Erwin explained, the owner was frustrated with his sons, who earned lower grades than Erwin and failed to work hard at home.
“He raised my allowance and made his two sons’ allowances lower than mine,” Erwin said. “Of course they beat me up a few times over that, but I was more or less treated as part of the family.”
In 1989, at age 17, his last year of high school, his father left the coffee farm and moved the entire family—including seven brothers and two sisters—to Quetzaltenengo. There they started a wholesale coffee business, connecting growers to sellers. Erwin moved from the mansion and rented his own place to help his dad’s business.
“In some ways I inspired my father to want more too,” he said. “I’ll say one thing, we know everything about coffee.”
Living the Dream…Twice
I believe in dreams, and dreaming for bigger things,” Erwin said. “When people say sarcastically, ‘I’m living the dream,’ I want to say, ‘But I really am.’”
Erwin applied for scholarships in Germany, Japan, and the United States. “I landed at Berkshire Community College, and before I knew it, I was visiting New York City and Boston and pinching myself. The more I achieve, the more I dream. Now I dream for my daughter. I dreamed to have her here someday.”
When Erwin moved to the Berkshires, he left a 3-year-old daughter in Guatemala with her mother. When she turned 17, he told her mother he was coming to Guatemala to take Kimberly to America. “In 2011, I went to Guatemala to do the paperwork and bring her back. With no English, she worked hard like I did, and in one semester earned Dean’s list at BCC.”
“She blossomed here. I watched my dream become a reality right in front of my eyes.” Next she attended University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “A dream I never got to realize for myself,” Erwin said. After earning her Master’s at the Isenberg School of Business, she landed a full-time job in Boston at the global accounting firm Ernst & Young, where she had interned during school.
This year she vacationed with friends in Europe. “I like to remind her where she came from and what she used to be,” Erwin said. “It’s important to remember our roots, to stay humble and grateful.”
A Career of Caring for Others
“I’m in the business of helping other people, including staff,” said Erwin. “I’m the oldest of nine children. I was born to help.”
Erwin has served in practically every position BCArc offers: he started part-time as a relief worker, moved to full-time direct care, then assistant manager of a home, manager, and today he serves as a supervisor overseeing five programs and dozens of staff.
“If you love what you do, if you have the drive, you will succeed,” he said, having seen many of the staff he hired develop into successful professionals. “I thrive on helping people grow. I try to inspire my staff to do more and more.” He noted that a former staff person recently thanked him for hiring her eight years ago. “You gave me the opportunity to pursue the job I love,” she told him. “Those are the kind of stories that inspire me. I’ve cared for a great many people, directly or indirectly,” he said.
He refuses to take his situation for granted. “When I was 12 I spent full days in the fields, physical days picking crops and wielding a machete,” he said. “So I appreciate this kind of work in my own particular way.”
When Erwin earned a degree in business, he expected to shift to a different profession. “It was hard to leave this field, I care too much about the people and the work we’re doing.”
Erwin’s work ethic does not go unnoticed. In 2008, he won BCArc Employee of the Year among more than 800 employees.
“I have a lot to thank BCARc for, they gave me a home and made me feel comfortable when I needed it,” he said. “It feels really good to think about how I’ve helped make a lot of lives better.”
Always with a pressed shirt and tie, Erwin said, “I’m big on representing BCArc in a professional way. How I present myself is important to how BCArc is perceived.”
Since coming to the Berkshires, Erwin has been married for xx yeas, and has two children in school.