RepCorner: What Really Counts

Edition: January 2013 - Vol 21 Number 01
Article#: 4170
Author: Laura Thill

Like many kids growing up, Phillip Cervantes looked forward to his summer vacations. But for Cervantes, the sixth of seven children of migrant parents, summer vacation meant leaving his home in Biola, Calif. – a small community of Hispanic immigrants located just outside of Fresno – and heading south for peach and cherry picking. By early fall, the Cervantes family would find themselves back in the Fresno Valley, in time for the grape harvesting season. “The law back then permitted us to start the school year eight weeks late if we were working the crops,” he explains. “In Northern California, agriculture is the biggest commodity.

“My dad grew up in a mud hut in Mexico, with no electricity or running water,” Cervantes continues. In the 1940s, his parents immigrated to the Fresno area “to pursue a better life, which they did.” Fieldwork was abundant. It was an opportunity. At the same time, it required “long hours, seven days a week to feed a family of nine,” he points out. So, everyone in the family did their share. Whether that meant younger children occupying their time and staying out of trouble while their older siblings and parents picked and packed fruit; adults watching over the children; or older children and adults working long hours in the field, the goal was clear: to love and support your family, he says. “My mom’s sisters also lived here,” he says. “My Aunt Rita and her family also went picking. My Aunt Jenny stayed home [to care for] another aunt with disabilities.” Family and extended family helped keep the younger ones in line, he adds, noting that in Biola, “there was a lot of opportunity for kids to deviate in negative ways.” Family, church and tradition were the glue that held everyone together. “We never missed church and a Sunday meal together,” he recalls.

In 1970, thanks to his mother’s insistence, Cervantes’ father joined Man Power, a program that provided job training. The elder Cervantes opted for janitorial training, and through the help of an acquaintance he landed a job at Fresno State University. “This was a turning point for my family,” says Cervantes. Indeed, his father’s permanent position at the university meant no further need for seasonal fieldwork. It meant his mother could stay home to raise her family, and Cervantes and his five brothers and sister could begin the school year on time.

Nevertheless, everyone continued to pitch in, and by the time he and his siblings were in eighth grade, “we were pretty much on our own,” he recalls. “Field work was nearby, and it was something [my brothers, sister and I] did to make our own spending money.” And, over the years, one thing never changed, he adds. “My whole family still meets every Sunday for brunch. Then we hang out and have a barbecue later in the day. It’s a family tradition, and if someone doesn’t show up, someone else calls [looking for them]!” Indeed, as a family, “we are extremely blessed and charmed,” he says.

Giving back

It’s precisely because he feels so blessed that Cervantes dedicates so much time to his childhood community, Biola. “Growing up, my goal was to work hard in order to leave Biola,” he says. “But, I now realize that what needs to happen is for [those who have been successful] to return to communities like Biola and put salt back in the earth.

“Biola is a rural community,” he continues. “It had 1,000 people when I was growing up. Today, it has 1,600. It looks like a Third World country. Even today, it has no park.” Nor would it have a library if not for the local school, which makes its library available to children and teens three afternoons a week.

Indeed, his role on the Biola Community Development Corp. has enabled Cervantes to change the community for the better. He and his development team not only work to secure government funding for construction programs (they recently facilitated the construction of a 44-apartment building and 44 new homes), but also to emphasize to the people of Biola the importance of taking responsibility for their future. “It all starts with the one in the mirror,” he says. Yes, they may have little or no resources, but “we try to teach them that they are [largely] responsible for keeping up the community. No one will help them if they don’t help themselves.”

Making a difference begins at home and in the schools, Cervantes continues. At community forums, “I have asked people, ‘Who here wants their children to go to college,’ and everyone will raise his hand,” he says. “But, when I ask, ‘Who here knows how to get their children to college,” no one raises his hand,” he says. “I work to empower them to make a better life for themselves – and a better America. I believe that as a country, we are only as strong as our weakest link.”

60 days and 60 nights

In spite of the intense poverty that characterizes Biola, Cervantes is grateful for the various role models who “made a difference in my life.” Many of them – including his oldest brother – were Army veterans with a strong sense of dedication and responsibility to their country and the people, he says. “I struggled in school, so going to college wasn’t a good choice for me. My oldest brother had joined the Army and eventually became a captain.” Joining the Army was a viable option, he recalls, and his brother was very influential in his decision to do so.

In 1990, when the Gulf War erupted, Cervantes was a member of the California Army National Guard. The National Guard was looking for volunteers to go overseas, and he complied, he says. “But it really didn’t matter, as they activated our whole unit.” For a tight-knit family and, especially, for parents, watching a loved one depart for war is a bitter pill to swallow. “It was the first time I saw my dad cry, and that really hurt,” he recalls.

Cervantes and his unit spent the following nine months in Kuwait, attached to the 101st Airborne Division. Kuwait’s desert and sandy landscape prohibited helicopters from landing or taking off, making it necessary for units such as Cervantes’ to help transport troops, ammunition, food and supplies. But, no military training could have prepared Cervantes and his fellow troops for the intense conditions they would encounter in the Middle East. Before the ground war even began, “Iraq bombed Kuwait continuously for 60 days and 60 nights,” he says. “We were completely cut off from the rest of the world. During our briefings, we were told there could be 10,000 dead Americans at the end of the first day.

“We had a priest visit us, and I thought for certain that was my last confession,” he continues. “Still, I believed the most honorable way to die was by serving my country. I was afraid, but I believed this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I excelled in the Army and I was ready to [fight].”

Yet, he continued to be plagued by the thought of his dad crying. “My family made me a tape [of well wishes] for Christmas that year. But, my girlfriend – now my wife – told me my dad couldn’t record his wishes in front of everyone else.” He needed to do so in private, and in strongly worded language, begged his son to get out of the Army as soon as he could. “I decided right then that if I made it home, I would get out of the Army.”

Yes, he would have liked to continue his Army career, he admits. “I was sure I’d be a lifer,” he says. “But, my dad was the best father ever.” As it was, the elder Cervantes later apologized to his son for trying to sway his decision to stay with the Army. But, Cervantes has no regrets. Good things were in store for him.

Celebrating 10 years

His entrance into the medical products industry began with a small distribution company, explains Cervantes. “It was a good job, but as a small company, there were limited opportunities. I saw joining Henry Schein as a career.”

Today, Cervantes balances his sales career with raising three daughters – 16, 13 and 10. “My work as a sales rep is easy compared to working [in the fields] or being bombed or shot at,” he points out. That said, he approaches his customers much the same as his fellow reps do. “It’s all about treating your customers as you would want to be treated,” he says. “And, you can’t allow your personal agenda (e.g., sales incentives, budgets, etc.) to supersede your customers’ agenda. Sales reps need to stay customer-service oriented.”

Indeed, by meeting the needs of the customers, reps will meet their needs and those of their company, he adds. “But, compared to being bombed and shot at, that’s easy!”