The aide next to me motioned me forward and announced, “Mr. President, this is Juan Penalosa.” The President of the United States of America and I made eye contact and I walked forward in a daze. I had spent the night before practicing what I would say and had it down to a polished 15 second sound bite. But, as I walked forward, I had drawn a blank. The President shook my hand and looked at me expectantly. I whispered the first thing that came to my mind. “It’s an honor, Mr. President. My father would have been so proud.” As I spoke, tears began to well in my eyes.
My father came to the United States in 1972 from Colombia and became a naturalized citizen on March 8th, 1978. He was a small business owner, volunteered as an interpreter in the Courts and helped Spanish speaking Latinos gain residency and citizenship. He had worn his citizenry with great pride and now, over thirty years later, I was standing next to the President of the United States. And the story of my parents, so similar to the story of millions of other Americans, had brought tears to my eyes.
The President put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “What was your father’s name?” I replied, “Juan Penalosa.” President Obama smiled and said, “Great name.” I told him my father’s story. How he met my mother in Colombia and they left Colombia and moved to Wisconsin to attend college. I told him that he and my mother had made many sacrifices for my sister and I and had a great love for this Country and its opportunities. As I spoke, he tightened his grip on my shoulder and said, “it’s a great Country.”
President Obama then asked me about myself, and I told him that I am a Senior Manager at IBM but more importantly, I am a volunteer organizer for his campaign in Los Angeles. I said, “We are going to get you re-elected, Mr. President.” And the President nodded and responded, “because of you.” I had been standing with the President for what seemed an eternity and the camera man cleared his throat. We turned to the camera and a photo was taken. As I turned away, the President gave my shoulder one final squeeze and said, “your father would have been very proud of you.”