Yes, immigrants still come to this country to pursue the American Dream, and Enrique Roa is living proof that some of them – the lucky ones, the bright ones, the dogged ones – still manage to find the dream and live it. When he was 9 years old, Roa left his home in Mexico City with his mother, Ana, who was fleeing a broken marriage and looking for a better life. Eventually they made their way to Jamaica, Queens, where Ana found work as a supermarket cashier and Enrique enrolled in P.S. 95. He had been doing algebra since the age of 6, and his aptitude for math wowed his teachers and classmates.
Flash forward two decades. Today, Enrique Roa, 27, is living in the apartment in the Compton House co-op in Jamaica where he spent most of his youth – alone now, since his mother and stepfather, Angel Bermudez, moved to Long Island – and he’s a freshly minted graduate of St. John’s University with a degree in Quantitative Risk Management. While he hunts for a job as an insurance actuary in these tough times, he continues working fulltime as a doorman at a high-rise Manhattan condominium. And since February of last year, thanks to a coup by Roa and several other disgruntled shareholders, he has been treasurer of the co-op board at Compton House, a six-story brick building with 118 units.
“When I was growing up in this building, it was a very pleasant place to live,” Roa says. “We had great supers, great neighbors. Somehow we lost that. It became a battleground, and the supers were no longer helpful or kind. It was all about making money for themselves.”
Roa found that he wasn’t the only one with misgivings. “A group of five shareholders got together and decided we wanted to make changes to the building,” he says, recalling the germination of last year’s coup. “Maintenance was rising every year, and we wanted more transparency on board decisions. The outside of the building was getting rundown, and the hallway walls were peeling and stained. We wanted to see our money do something different. We even talked about putting solar panels on the roof.”
After knocking on doors and stating their case to fellow shareholders, the five allies wrested control of the five-member board last year and promptly got busy – renovating the hallways and lobby, renegotiating contracts, changing vendors, tightening accounts payable. Now, with the return of warm weather, the board has turned its attention to redoing the landscaping. “Aesthetically, the building has greatly improved,” Roa says with pride. “We’re getting a lot of feedback from people saying they’re enjoying what we’re doing.”
A Brush With Failure
Enrique Roa’s current status – a co-op officer with a college degree, a marketable skill, a steady job and a bright future – did not arrive without struggle and setbacks. After graduating from Thomas Edison High School in Queens, he won a scholarship to Pace University’s campus in Westchester County. He was the first person in his family to attend college, and he thought he was on his way. But he had trouble fitting in with the upscale student body, and his grades suffered. Eventually, he forfeited the scholarship and came back home, feeling like a failure.
He got a job as a busboy at Le Cirque, the celebrity-magnet restaurant in Manhattan. One night, some students from Pace arrived for a graduation party, and the headwaiter introduced Roa to the group as a former Pace student. If the introduction was meant as a goad, it worked.
“I was humiliated,” Roa recalls. “I vowed I was never going to let that happen again. I decided that night I needed to go back to school and figure my life out.”
He spent two years at La Guardia Community College, earning straight A’s, then won a half-scholarship to St. John’s. This time Roa didn’t take any chances. “I was extra-motivated,” he says, “I was breaking my head studying. I was in the library all the time.” In May, he graduated – remotely – near the top of his class.
As he waits for his break into the insurance business, Roa keeps working to improve his co-op and he keeps working his doorman job at International Plaza, near the United Nations. “There are a lot of diplomats in the building,” he says, “so I meet people from Canada, Turkey, France, all over the place. I like it because I get to see different cultures and perspectives, different ways of treating people.”
In his role as treasurer at Compton House, Roa tries to treat people in a way that lets them know that they’re the ones who matter most. “When you’re on a co-op board,” he says, “you’re not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for the shareholders. They put their trust in you, and you have to make sure you do what’s right for them and the investment they made with their sweat and hard work. A lot of the shareholders think we’re moving in the right direction.”