Author urges students to ‘fly straight’ and ‘dream big’

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Businessman and author Robert Renteria urges West Aurora High School students to persevere. “As long as you have a heart, you always have a chance,” Renteria said during a Thursday, March 21 program at the school. (West Aurora School District 129 photo)

Robert Renteria was falling into the life of his father, who was a heroin addict and an alcoholic.

Renteria was doing drugs, selling drugs, and involved in a gang. He was burglarizing houses and stealing cars.

“Had I become my father’s son? Shamefully, yes,” Renteria told students during a Thursday, March 21, presentation at West Aurora High School.

He noted that his father left when Renteria was just 3 years old.

“The only legacy he left us was a pile of bills and a bunch of empty bottles of booze back in the trash can,” he said.

Renteria said he went from one dysfunctional family to another — gangs. He said he lost friends because they were either serving 25 years to life in prison or they were dead.

“You show me your friends and I’ll show you your future,” he said. “You cannot be hanging around with the wrong people because if you do, you are going to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and get yourself killed; and I don’t want you to become a statistic.”

Renteria, a business professional and the author of “From the Barrio to the Boardroom,” urged students to set their own path. Barrio is Spanish for neighborhood.

“Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something, he said. “As long as you have a corazón, as long as you have a heart, you always have a chance. Don’t let where you came from dictate who you are.”

Renteria said it was a drug deal in East Los Angeles that went bad — where instead of the recipient reaching in a bag for a wad of cash, he reached in for a gun and attempted to shoot Renteria — that set him straight.

The gun misfired and running through a sliding glass door and bleeding profusely, Renteria made a deal, saying “God, if you let me live, I’ll sin no more.”

He went back to school, got his General Education Development degree, and joined the military.

“The military was the best decision of my life. It not only changed my life, but saved my life,” Renteria said. “It not only made me a man, but made me a better man.”

Returning from the military, he headed back to East L.A. and a couple of his friends who weren’t dead or in prison tried to suck him back into the gang life.

“I came to Chicago in 1990, with $200 and a duffel bag,” Renteria said.

He survived on the Arby’s Five-for-$5 deal, having one sandwich a day Monday through Friday.

Renteria got a job in the commercial Laundromat industry, selling washers and dryers. He worked every day, every holiday, and every weekend.

“I didn’t see my mom for five years and while other people were out going to dinner or taking their girlfriend to the movies or walking their little doggie named Sparky, I was working; and after five years I got promoted and recruited,” Renteria said. “I became vice president of a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.”

His first year in corporate America, he got a Christmas bonus of $42,000. He bought his mother a car and put the keys in a gift bag.

When his mother pulled out the keys, she asked what it meant. Renteria said, “Mama, this means you never have to take the bus again and then I sat there and cried because I was supposed to be a gangster.”

After six years, he started his own distribution company, and wound up with a house on a pond, a Mercedes-Benz and traveling first class.

“I say that not to impress you, but to empower you,” he said.

“Remember in life, the greater the struggle, the greater the victory,” he told the students.

He encouraged students not to let obstacles get in their way.

“A setback in life ain’t nothing less than a setup for a comeback. It ain’t over until you win,” Renteria said. “So, it doesn’t matter how hard or how many times you get knocked down in life, what matters is how many times you get up and fight.”

He said by staying on the right path and having dreams, anyone can achieve success.

“Life is tough, but you’ve got to fly straight. People don’t fail because they aim high and miss,” Renteria said. “They fail because they aim too damn low, and they hit. So, we have to raise the bar and dream big because if the dream is big enough, the odds don’t even matter.”

He urged students not to mimic his early years and be involved with gangs.

“Gangbanging and violence is not a lifestyle, but a death style and the ultimate weapon is not a loaded gun but an educated mind,” Renteria said.

West Aurora senior Marshall Garcia met Renteria through a friend and the businessman has been mentoring Garcia for more than three months.

“He’s had a lot of impact. He’s given me a lot of life advice,” Garcia said of his mentor. “Anytime I need someone to talk to, if I think I’m struggling with something, he always tells me to keep fighting, keep going for it.

“So, he’s had a pretty positive impact on my life and has been helping me.”

Garcia hopes to either go to Waubonsie Community College in the fall or go into a trades program for welding or machinery.

The 17-year-old Aurora resident said he sees Renteria as a role model.

“He’s really helpful when it comes to things. He gives me calls to check up on me,” Garcia said. “He sees how I’m doing. He makes sure I’m OK.”

Valerie McCall, director of education equity in West Aurora School District 129, said the program provided good experiences for students.

“I think it’s an opportunity to be able to see a part of themselves, a part of their story in someone else and to see what they did to be resilient and to still succeed whatever circumstances they may have in their lives,” McCall said.