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SILER CITY — Twelve-year-old Octavio Hernandez walked for five days and nights, crossing into the U.S. with 17 strangers, a jug of water and limited food — all to reunite with the father he hadn’t seen in nearly four years.
It was planned yet unexpected. Originally, Hernandez, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, was going to cross the border with a few relatives in 1999, but they backed down at the last moment. So, when a family friend offered to take Hernandez with him a few months later, he jumped on the opportunity.
“But this happened so suddenly,” he said. “My dad didn’t know I was coming with him (at first). Back then there were no cell phones, so my dad would call like once a week.”
This same courage and self-initiative propelled Hernandez, now a legal U.S. resident, to success nearly two decades later — first in leading Jordan-Matthews’ soccer team to a championship and second in creating a thriving steel erection business from the ground up in Siler City.
Hernandez arrived in Siler City on November 4, 1999. The journey to North Carolina took him about three weeks. Upon crossing the border, he and the others jumped into a couple of trucks and rode from Texas to Tennessee, where the van broke down before they could get to South Carolina, their intended destination. But Hernandez eventually made it to South Carolina, where he spent a few nights waiting for his dad to come pick him up.
“I was just looking out the window when I see this Camaro pull up,” he said, a car he recognized from some photos. “... In front of the Camaro (the car) had a tag that says ‘Jessica,’ so the first thing I saw whenever (the driver) pulled up on the driveway was the Jessica tag and I was like, ‘That’s my dad.’ So I jumped out of the bed, and I went to hug him because I had not seen him in four years.”
His father had lived in Sanford, but moved to Siler City about a week after Hernandez arrived in North Carolina. Hernandez immediately wanted to start working, but instead his dad enrolled him in Chatham Middle School and left him with a piece of advice: Go to school, learn English and better yourself.
And that’s what he did.
Initially, it was tough: Hernandez didn’t speak English, and a couple of students started pushing him around in his first week — but that stopped, he said, once he began fighting back.
He worked hard to learn English as fast as possible, and it paid off: Within a year, he began winning awards and even received the “Student of the Year” recognition upon finishing middle school.
“I guess that was my response to the people who thought I was not going to make it, or to the kids that didn’t respect me first,” Hernandez said. “In the end, I gained their respect because they would all talk to me. They would all know who I was because they knew that I did well in school.”
In 2002, he entered Jordan-Matthews High School and began what he called “one of the best times of my life.” While playing soccer in Pittsboro, he and several others met journalist, teacher and soccer coach Paul Cuadros, who mobilized them and the community to create Jordan-Matthews’ first predominantly Latino soccer team against all odds.
“At first, when we started doing the soccer team, we realized that we were not wanted … in J-M,” Hernandez said, “so we wanted to prove that we could be as good as any other team.”
He still remembers how great it felt to play on that field with his friends.
“It meant everything,” he said. “Once I was in the field, we always wanted to win. There was always this desire to be the best and to show the community that we could actually become champions (and) that we were not just illegals.”
Just three seasons after the team’s birth, “Los Jets” won the 2004 1A state high school soccer championship — and became “the first Hispanic team that ever made it that far in North Carolina,” Hernandez said. Hernandez, then a junior, was named the championship game’s Most Valued Player (MVP) after scoring the final goal.
Hernandez, his coach Cuadros said, was without a doubt the reason Los Jets won.
“When the rest of the guys were doubtful about the outcome of the game, he bucked them up and would bring them back,” Cuadros said, adding, “It’s pretty amazing. I’ve had more talented teams on the Jets pound per pound, I think, but certainly not the leadership.”
Fellow teammate and now business partner, Abelardo Ramirez, called Hernandez “the team’s motivation.”
“When I lowered my head or someone else lowered his, he raised it, (saying), ‘Are you kidding me? Let’s put in some effort. Put more effort into it. We have to win it. Don’t give up,’” Ramirez said.
That ethos bears out Hernandez’s post-high school journey, in which he persevered through various obstacles and gambles to create his Siler City steel erection business — named Warrior Steel Erection Corp. after his mother’s last name, Guerrero, or “warrior” in English.
Hernandez began working in construction in 2006, a job he started two days after graduating from Jordan-Matthews. It took some time to adjust, he said. He wasn’t used to being up hundreds of feet in the air and nearly decided to go back home after the first week — at least until the $1,400 paycheck changed his mind.
“I used to work at McDonald’s,” he said. “I used to make $240 a week. And then I see this $1,400 check on my first week, and I’m like, ‘No, I gotta stay here. I gotta stay here. I got to learn because there’s money here.’”
He spent about 10 years learning the trade, traveling from state to state and job site to job site, where he worked on all sorts of projects. The idea to strike out on his own arose about a year after he took his first job, but Hernandez didn’t act on it until about 2014.
“There was this fear,” he said, “‘OK, how am I going to do it? How do I start a business?’”
Thanks to a mentor’s help and his own research, Hernandez registered his corporation in May of 2015, but he hesitated to leave his job.
“I mean, I knew how to put up buildings,” he said. “(But) I didn’t know how to bid. I didn’t know how to do estimates. I didn’t know anything about the business life.”
But after finishing a Kentucky bridge project in January of 2016, Hernandez quit his job and moved back home to Siler City to partner with Ramirez — who Hernandez said spent months calling him about doing just that — and to give it his best shot.
For three months, that’s what he did: he started visiting steel fabrication shops, handing out cards and figuring out how to bid. At first, he said no one would send him bid requests or drawings, and later the few who did wouldn’t provide him any feedback.
That’s when he began to get a little desperate.
“I’m just home spending money, and I don’t see any progress, and I’m like, ‘Man,’” he said. “I remember my headquarters was my son’s toy room. I had my office there, a whole bunch of toys around me and a whole bunch of papers.”
He remembered working there from 4 or 5 a.m. well into the night, hoping that something would come out of it.
“At some points, I wanted to break and just be like, ‘Man, I’m going to go back to what I know how to do (and) go out to the job sites,’” he said, “but then I would be like, ‘No, I’ve already started this. I gotta finish it.”
And besides, Hernandez added, he didn’t want to leave his family again.
“What kept me going was my family, my son, my wife, because I had already spent 10 years of my son’s life out in the field, and I would only get to see him once a month (or) twice a month for a weekend and then I would have to take off again,” he said. “I wanted to stop that because by this time … I had already missed most of his childhood.”
The first sign of progress came when a company in Garner asked him to supply labor. That connection in turn led to his first project: erecting the steel frame for Greensboro’s Cheesecake Factory in June of 2016. The original steel erector had backed down and refused to do the project.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be granted to us or not,” he said. “But I guess that guy was desperate because I was high (on the bid). I was high, somewhere around $6,000. But he wanted it, so he tells me, ‘Yes, go ahead.’”
Since then, Hernandez’s company has dabbled in lots of projects across North Carolina and surrounding states, including a YMCA in Garner, a Morrisville elementary school and Thomasville police station.
“We have not stopped since then,” he said.
No matter what, said Ramirez, Warrior Steel Erection’s vice president, Hernandez always finds a way to accomplish his goal.
“My respect for him is for that reason,” he added, “(because of his idea that) nothing is impossible. Everything is possible, (but) sometimes you have to struggle a bit to get better.”
That’s what Hernandez said he thinks it means to be an immigrant in the U.S.
“There is a saying in Spanish: ‘I don’t ask God to give me anything. I just ask God to put me where there is because I will take care of the rest,’” he said, adding: “With hard work, it can be done. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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