From poverty to promise

Jorge Callado’s improbable journey began in a remote Mexican village with little hope for prosperity. Now the sky’s the limit for the recent honors graduate.

By Danny Woodward

Jorge Callado

A few months ago, new alumnus Jorge Callado rented a van, filled it with luggage and loved ones and headed to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Maybe for the first time ever, he knew where he was going and exactly how to get there. Too bad they don’t make maps for life. If they did, Callado could have bypassed all the roadblocks, detours and diversions. He would have taken the fastest route from hardship to hope, from the world being against him to having the world on a string. But had that happened, how would his character have been forged? How would his determination have been honed, his focus sharpened? Would his accomplishments have been as fulfilling?

Jorge Callado with his mother

Jorge Callado draws inspiration from his mother, Aida, who overcame obstacles to become a successful businesswoman. When Jorge was 2, Aida brought him to the United States from Mexico but was forced to leave her other son, 5-year-old Jesus, in the care of an aunt. Jorge recently began his career at Microsoft.

As it is, there’s little doubt that Callado was among the most academically gifted members of UT Arlington’s spring graduating class. A finance major, he had a 4.0 GPA and was a member of both the Honors College and the Goolsby Leadership Academy in the College of Business. Outside the classroom, he was the recruitment chair for the University’s chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting and an officer in Sigma Chi fraternity.

He was selected to be the student speaker at last spring’s Graduation Celebration, sharing the stage with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. (More on Kirk and Callado’s fast friendship later.)

Where does Callado go from here? Well, Seattle, to work in Microsoft’s corporate finance division. He accepted that job—remember your first job out of college?—and spurned offers from Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, Walt Disney World and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He began at Microsoft in July.

Callado might have been the most decorated member of the Class of 2009—and its most unlikely.

“I feel like I got so many chances,” he says, “because I was just lucky from day one.”

"As a child raised in that kind of situation, you haven't experienced anything else. You can't say that your life is any different than anyone else's life."

An impossible choice

In the 1980s the village of Zacapuato, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero and near nothing you’ve ever heard of, was home to fewer than 2,000 people—most of them uneducated and many unemployed. Among them were Maria Aida Callado and her young sons, Jesus and Jorge.

Ms. Callado sold food at flea markets, hardly a profitable enterprise but enough to keep her family from absolute poverty. Then as the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s devastated the U.S. economy, Mexican nationals living in border states suddenly had no money to send home, and isolated hamlets like Zacapuato and poor families like the Callados sank into depression. For her sons’ sake, the single mother would leave everything and start anew in the United States.

The decision would both save her family and, literally, tear it apart.

Jorge Callado with Ron Kirk

Ambassador Ron Kirk was so impressed with Callado that he invited him to the White House.

Except for a brief stay in Mexico City, Aida had rarely left Zacapuato. Seven hundred rugged miles lay between her tiny town and Texas. If she made it, the other side promised only a home she didn’t know and a people she couldn’t understand. Two sons, ages 5 and 2, would make that arduous trip impossible, so Aida figured she could take only one.

Jorge was younger and weighed less and would therefore be easier to carry.

While Jesus stayed behind with an aunt, Jorge and his mother landed in the Houston suburb of Pasadena and carved out a modest living. Aida bought clothes wholesale and resold them door to door.

“As a child raised in that kind of situation, you haven’t experienced anything else,” Jorge says today. “You can’t say that your life is any different than anyone else’s life. I couldn’t compare it to anything else.”

The Callados were surviving. Excelling, even. Aida had steady employment. Jorge was in elementary school, learning English and making straight A’s. At home, however, Aida’s new husband drank too much and beat her, Jorge says. The man was in and out of jail, and Aida left several times. But he always tracked her down.

Finally, in the middle of the night, Aida followed a familiar plan. She grabbed her son and headed north to start over again. They moved 300 miles away to Cleburne, where Aida took a job manufacturing oven vent hoods by day and resumed her door-to-door clothing business at night. Eventually, she had enough clients to open her own clothing store, and she later became a U.S. citizen.

The transition wasn’t as smooth for Jorge.

“I don’t know if it had to do with not having a father figure, but I just started straying,” he says. “It was a cloudy time. And, for the first time, I started messing up in school.”

First he was expelled from class, then from school, then finally from the last-chance alternative school. He repeated both his high school junior and senior years, serving a one-year suspension in between. He spent that year reflecting and returned determined to succeed.

He enrolled in a school that let him work at his own pace and catch up on missed credits. Refocused, he finished high school and enrolled at Hill College. “Coming back from that whole year off made me hungry to do well academically and feel good about myself.”

Two years later, he brought that enthusiasm to UT Arlington.

“Jorge was one of the most focused students I have ever had,” says David Mack, assistant dean in the College of Business and director of the Goolsby Leadership Academy. “He sets challenging goals for himself and then concentrates every facet of his being on accomplishing those goals. I have no doubt that he will accomplish great things in his life. The Goolsby Leadership Academy is very proud to have him as one of our alums.”

Together again

The Callados of Cleburne didn’t talk much about Jesus in Zacapuato. Although Jorge wondered what his brother was like, they had little contact. And since Jorge was here illegally, visiting Jesus in Mexico wasn’t an option.

Aida never intended for Jesus to stay in Mexico this long. But living with an abusive stepfather in Pasadena wasn’t the American dream, and neither was running from him. And Jorge’s “cloudy time” kept her hands full. She sent money when she could, and, as Jorge said, “he was safe, and everything was going good over there—she calculated that he was better off there.”

But the family wouldn’t be separated forever. Thirteen years after they came to the United States, Callado and his mother traveled to the Mexican Consulate in El Paso to see how they could bring Jesus to America. The story has a happy ending, and the Callados are careful to keep the past in the past. Jorge asked his family to attend his commencement ceremony but not Graduation Celebration where he told his (and their) story to an audience of 1,000. He also has sheltered his mother and brother from media interviews, including with UT Arlington Magazine.

“She was a good example and good role model,” Jorge says. “One of the things I saw was that she had this extraordinary opportunity, only a sixth-grade education, coming from a different country…and even now she doesn’t speak very good English. For her to be in that situation, how much potential is there for someone who was able to be educated here? If she had that kind of success, how much more success can somebody achieve with an education?”

As for Jesus, Callado says he and his brother have a good relationship. “He doesn’t have any ill feelings toward me. And I don’t think he has ill feelings toward my mom.”

Giving back

Callado became a U.S. citizen in 2007. Two years later he was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He hopes he won’t be the last. Two younger half-siblings, both born in Texas, are following in his footsteps—for better and worse. His 19-year-old brother is making the same bad choices Jorge once did, but his sister is going to college to become a schoolteacher. Jorge is paying her tuition and fees.

“She wanted to go to school, but she didn’t have the money. And I was working full time, so I said here you go. I know that if I was able to do that before, I’m going to be able to do more while working for Microsoft. If my brother wants to go to school, I’ll pay for his as well.

“I would urge everyone to recognize the opportunities this country provides to everyone, not just the wealthy. In most countries, only if you’re born into a wealthy family will you get the chance to go to college or even progress. Here, everyone has the opportunity to break that cycle of poverty. Seize that opportunity, and then give back.”

This is his passion. With the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, Callado worked to get high-risk high schoolers thinking about attending college, even hosting them for a day on the campus. Some day he’d like to return to Zacapuato to see what kind of difference he can make there.

Those who know him best aren’t surprised by his altruism.

“Jorge leads by example,” says Lupe Leyva, a fellow Gooslby Academy scholar and ALPFA officer. “He’s a great person, really humble. I really look up to him. I expect that he will accomplish many great things and one day will be invited back to UT Arlington for the Distinguished Alumni Award.”

Kirk, the U.S. trade representative, urged the crowd at Graduation Celebration to give back and used Callado as an example.

“Jorge’s extraordinary life story is proof that America is the land of opportunity and that you can conquer adversity and achieve success if you stay focused, apply yourself and seize the opportunities that come your way,” Kirk said later. “Jorge has proved that he is a leader. Great things are in store for him.”

After the ceremony, Kirk welcomed Callado into his private room at Maverick Stadium and invited him to the White House. Callado said he’d like to take Kirk up on that. But first would come the 17-hour drive to Walt Disney World with the family—the first trip they’d made together. Which meant, as Callado said, “a lot of time for us to talk.”

Oh, the stories they can tell.

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