It was seemingly a normal day, minus the fact he found himself in the backseat of his own car, a pistol jammed into his ribcage. It all happened so fast. It was the type of scene one would see in the latest blockbuster movie, only this time it wasn’t a production, it was real. His life was hanging in the balance, and unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time. It was the fifth.
“Why are you so quiet?” demanded the assailant.
The forceful request was met with silence, in large part, because the young business professional had nothing to say. Having been in similar situations before, he remained cool. Calculated.
Unnerved by his victim’s silence, the gunman repeated his demand, “Why are you so quiet? Does this car have a tracking device or something?” It didn’t.
“Well, what can I do?” he responded calmly. “I’m not going to make a show or scream.”
A Past Life
The son of working-class parents, James was born and raised in a poor region of Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. For years, the region has been plagued by political and economic unrest, leading to a dramatic increase in violence.
His father, a hard-working and honest man, was forced to work two jobs in an effort to provide for his wife and seven children. Despite his efforts, the Cardenas family couldn’t escape the ghetto, where poverty and violence were rampant. So much so, when reflecting on his childhood, James recalls watching people getting gunned down over a pair of shoes.
“We had 350 dead, weekly,” James said. “Every week. In one single city. And, there isn’t any war going on. It’s because of crime.” It was a city of killers, robbers, and kidnappers, who earned Caracas, Venezuela the title, “The World’s Most Violent City.”
"We had 350 dead, weekly. Every week. In one single city."
Although James didn’t know it at the time, his environment would have a profound and lasting impact on his family. He recalls one day, when he was 10 years-old, his family learned his oldest brother had been gunned down in the streets by gangsters.“We used to be five brothers,” he said. “My older brother was shot when he was 16 years-old. Today, we still don’t know the reason he was shot. Now, we’re four brothers.”
It was a turning point in his life. Following his brother’s murder, James was forced to take on more responsibility. Now the oldest son, he began working alongside his father on weekends, cutting meat at the butcher shop; and during the evenings while his father drove a taxi. His father viewed it as an opportunity to shape a different future for his son, using the time to instill in him the value of money, discipline and hard-work.
“I realized being poor is more than just a condition,” James said. “It’s an idea. Being poor, you can choose that, but it’s your choice. You’re going to be poor forever.”
With a new mindset, James began working toward his dream of becoming a prominent businessman, which he hoped would enable him to move his family out of the ghetto and into a better life. In doing so, he made the choice to shape a different future than his brother. He would throw himself into his studies.
A Better Future
At the age of 16, James saw the first fruits of his labor. Graduating from high school early, he set his sights on attending a university in Venezuela. He began his education by taking night classes, which allowed him to work morning shifts at the butcher shop to cover the cost of his tuition. Although it took him five years, at 21 years-old, James earned his bachelor’s degree, becoming the first in his family to do so.
"I realized being poor was more than just a condition. It's an idea."
With a college degree, James immediately landed a prominent position at a pharmaceutical company in Venezuela, which offered him a good salary. It was the first time in his life he had a semblance of financial stability. As promised, with the help of his sister, he used his position to move his mother and brother out of the ghetto, and later fulfilled his father’s dream of owning a farm in the mountains. Seeing his family was now secure, James turned his attention to himself for the first time, buying his own apartment, a nice car and motorcycle, and a dog. Despite his success, his country’s climate continued to deteriorate.
“I began getting robbed, assaulted, and swindled,” he said. “I was kidnapped. I realized if you try and do good things, or if you look better than others, you become a target. I was a target.”
At that time, it became evident to James that his newfound wealth had placed him in danger.
After numerous run-ins with criminals, his daily concern became, ‘What can I do differently today than I did yesterday to avoid the killer, robber or kidnapper?’
“It was stressful,” he admitted. “Everyone is paranoid. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been so lucky.’ Usually people don’t get to tell their stories. I’m telling you, I went through these experiences four or five times.”
A Quiet Life
Two years ago, James packed up his life and moved to the United States, leaving behind his family. In an effort to build a strong foundation in a foreign country, James deemed it necessary to earn an American bachelor’s degree. Searching for options, he learned of NHCC and began attending shortly thereafter.
During his first year, James learned of his father’s passing. Like his brother, he was murdered by gangsters, however, this time it happened eight hours from the city. The news made his transition that much harder. But, James persevered. In the fall, James was awarded a scholarship from the NHCC Foundation, which has provided him a breath of fresh air.
“Things are difficult as an international student,” he said. “I have my savings and no help from my country because my dad passed away. Having economic help is super helpful. It’s comforting knowing this semester will be easier. James will be graduating from NHCC at the end of fall semester. He is a straight A student, who has yet to succumb to any obstacle he faces.