Born and raised in Nicaragua, Chema knows what it was like to live the U.S. immigrant experience. José María Alvarado, or Chema as he’s more widely known, is a Senior Vice President for Fareportal (parent company of the online travel agency CheapOair) and he sat down with me to chat about Hispanic Heritage Month. What began as a discussion on what this month means to him, turned into a flashback to earlier times, unveiling his road to success, his passion for family, and love of cooking!
This Hispanic Heritage Month, join us on Chema’s journey:
From a Small Town in Nicaragua to the U.S.
It was 1984 when he and his siblings arrived in the US with their mother, who worked for the Nicaraguan Consulate in Washington D.C. The family couldn’t have known that their four-year hiatus from Nicaragua would turn into a lifetime. Although the family had plans to return home, the eighties would prove to be an untenable time of political unrest — going back home to Nicaragua was no longer an option. It’s been 34 years since then, and what a lifetime of changes it would prove to be for a 15-year-old boy from Nicaragua.
“It was an overwhelming experience to find myself as an awkward teenager, in a new country and with scant language skills,” said Chema, as he recalled himself at 15 years of age. “I knew very little English and was thrown into a public high school in Alexandria, Virginia of over 2,000 students.”
But Chema would learn how resilient and determined he was when, with the guidance of caring teachers and through ESL programs, he was fully integrated into school life in the U.S., and all within 6-months.
“I am eternally grateful to those teachers and to the school system that made such an important investment, in assuring immigrant children such as my siblings and myself had the tools to succeed in this country”, said Chema.
From the Classroom to Corporate America
There is a saying: “Everything happens for a reason”.
Chema navigated high school successfully and would go on to earn a finance degree from the American University in Washington, D.C., and later an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. However, his search for a job in the finance industry after his graduation from American University could not have started at a worse a time than the recession of 1992.
“I didn’t choose the travel industry; the travel industry chose me”.
As few work opportunities in finance were available, he gladly accepted a position as Accountant for an airline consolidator in Washington, D.C. Ever since then, Chema has been a part of the travel industry. From D.C., he landed in Miami as Head of Administration and Finance for a tour operator, then as Director of Corporate Sales and later SVP for North America for Iberia Airlines of Spain before making his move to NYC in 2011 to head the Sales, Marketing and Loyalty areas of the Oneworld Airline Alliance. In 2017 he joined Fareportal Inc, the parent company for online travel agencies CheapOair and OneTravel.
Yes. It would seem that things happen for a reason and that the 15-year-old who traveled from Nicaragua inevitably would hold his place in the field of travel.
A Look Into His Hispanic Heritage
Two words: Family and Food.
When he arrived in the U.S., his family consisted of five people: his mother, two sisters, one brother, and himself. The family has now grown to twenty-three: Chema and his wife have three children of their own, plus his siblings’ spouses, ten nieces and nephews, and one grand-niece. And fortunately for his many family members, they get to appreciate Chema’s passion — cooking! I learned all about his favorite dishes and it’s safe to say they sound divine; seafood paella, clams with cilantro and wine sauce, and garlic shrimp…YUM!
“So, what makes Hispanic Heritage Month so special?” I asked.
“It’s an important reminder of the ingredients that makes this country work. My children are as American as they come — born, raised, and educated here, yet they are a piece of everything we brought with us from our home countries”.
Chema is of Native American/Spanish descent and his Jamaican wife has Anglo, African, and Indian heritage. These components (ingredients if you will!) are what Chema believes makes America great. For his family, and all American families regardless of where they came from, the historic contributions made by Hispanic immigrants are undeniable, making Hispanic Heritage month an important time to remember just that.
On To His Advice to Younger Generations
“Start preparing yourself early”.
Landing his first airline role with Iberia Airlines in 1999 as Director of Corporate Sales was one of the most memorable moments of his career. “It was an iconic airline brand with which I had many cultural and historical affinities. I was 31 years old and it was shortly after the birth of my second child. I felt as I had hit the lotto: a new child and new job, heading a sales organization of 40+ executives, and leading them through a restructuring process during a time that would see the airline change from a bloated government-owned institution to an efficient, lean, and profitable publicly traded company”.
“Education is important”, he explained. “Hispanics are underrepresented in higher education institutions and still lag behind all other ethnicities in college completion. We need to start there, by supporting young minds and encouraging them to take advantage of opportunities to receive a higher education. My college and graduate school experience prepared me for leadership roles and it has certainly opened doors. In general, to increase the ratio of Hispanics in leadership roles, we need more college graduates”.
Throughout my one-hour journey with Chema, I learned just how passionate he is about his career, his family, and of course, food. I agree, he has certainly lived the U.S. immigrant experience — a success story. His rise to the top is a testament to his ability, and every immigrant’s ability to persevere.