By Caelin Grambau, University of Pittsburgh English Writing & Spanish double major
Topiltzin Gomez came to the United States at the age of five by pretending to be asleep in the back of a car. By the time he reached his twenties, he went on to graduate from Yale, became the third employee of a small credit lending business called Honeycomb, and is now not only employee number three, but Chief of Staff.
The journeys that led Gomez to where he is today, both academic and otherwise, started at a young age, and wouldn’t have been possible without the family and community that surrounded him.
“In 1999, my dad decided to take a trip from Mexico to the US and work there for a whole year. He came back exactly a year after [and had it in his head] ‘the schools are really good; it feels like education is more of a path there and I want my kids to go to college. And somehow he convinces my mom, me, and my older brother that there might be something worthwhile.”
Gomez also acknowledged how grateful and lucky he is to have the opportunities that he did. “The border can be really dangerous and really scary but for me and my brother it was just like going on a trip. It was new but it wasn’t scary for any reason.”
He then adds, “I want people to have a very nuanced view of what the undocumented immigrant experience looks like. Yes, it’s people that are working construction or in houses, but it’s also children and it’s all one big, multifaceted community.”
That idea of a multifaceted community followed Gomez throughout his life as his family settled in Waukegan, Illinois, a small rust belt city just north of Chicago. Waukegan, composed of an almost 50% hispanic population, quickly became home to Gomez and his family. “I was coming to a new country, but I never felt like a minority at all because a lot of my friends had also come from Mexico or from Honduras or from El Salvador.”
The community that Gomez and his family soon found in Waukegan became a big aspect of Gomez’s own journey.
Waukegan, a once-booming city, was hit hard when factories left. Seeing that helped to spark Gomez’s interest in economics. “I was starting to think a lot about ‘why Waukegan, why did the factories leave, why did my family leave from one place and come to this place, and a lot of those questions pointed me towards economics because that’s where I could explain some of the unexplained phenomenon of my life.”
Eventually, Gomez left Waukegan, and ultimately ended up in Pittsburgh, but he credits the community of Waukegan, and his family especially for where he is today.
After high school, Gomez continued his academic career at Yale. His mother, a school teacher, had always taught Gomez and his older brother to love learning in every stage of life, and this set the course for the rest of Gomez’s academic career. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, a Dartmouth graduate, Gomez realized that he too would feel right at home in the Ivy Leagues.
His biggest advice for kids getting ready to advance to higher academic pursuits? “Find people who support you because there’s a lot that you do not know. If you’re new to the country, there’s a lot you don’t know, but [still] share your desire to go to college, or at least ask about going to college. Share it with anyone and everyone who you trust, and ask them what advice they would give you. Surround yourself with good peers, mentors and counselors, but also support your peers in that same mission. Team up with the ones that believe in that same thing, because that will help you get through a lot.”
Today, Gomez is the Chief of Staff at Honeycomb, a credit lending service that helps small, local businesses crowdsource a loan straight from their community rather than borrowing from the bank. Everyday he works with Pittsburgh residents, helping small business owners get their ideas off the ground and make their dreams a reality. And the parallels to his own story? It all comes back to the community.