‘53 Million and One’: Putting a Face on the Immigrant Experience in America

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When the first group of Wells Fargo employees was invited to a presentation co-sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) and Century 21, attendees expected nothing out of the ordinary—a talk on Latino demographics, perhaps, or tips on helping Hispanic families qualify for a mortgage.

What they didn’t expect was a poignant, inspiring experience.

“The Hispanic market opportunity is a huge priority for Wells Fargo, and Jerry’s live performance of ‘53 Million and One’ illustrates the Hispanic experience in America better than anything we’ve ever seen,” says Brad Blackwell, executive vice president, Wells Fargo Mortgage. “The feedback from our employees has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s an experience we are happy to replicate.”

Scripted by NAHREP co-founder Gary Acosta, and performed by veteran California REALTOR®, past NAHREP president and one-time Mariachi singer Jerry Ascencio, ‘53 Million and One’ tells the powerful story of one immigrant family—Ascencio’s—who came to America poor and undocumented in the late 1960s, and struggled to find social and financial well-being and a piece of the American Dream.

Much like Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” or Mike Tyson’s “Undisputed Truth,” the one-man performance blends pathos, humor and flashes of brilliance to tell a familiar story.

“It’s a rags-to-riches story that speaks to every American who has roots outside of this country,” says Ascencio, who was a year old when his parents brought him across the border from Mexico into Southern California. “It’s an immigrant story, an entrepreneurial story, a story that belongs to every family who came to this country from China, from Mexico, from Europe, from Vietnam, from any place else in the world—and let’s be real, how many Americans don’t have foreign roots?”

The production describes how, from a small, rented house in California’s San Fernando Valley, Ascencio’s father, Javier, plied his trade as a gas station attendant while studying to prepare for more lucrative work as an automotive repairman. His mother, Maria, did part-time factory work to help provide for the family. In rare off-hours, Javier, a musician and singer who played a variety of instruments, began to supplement income by playing local gigs as a Mariachi singer/musician. He instilled his love of music in Jerry, who often tagged along.

Despite their willingness to work hard, the family could not afford to buy a home.

When he was 15, and an unfocused student, Jerry was sent to extended family in Mexico in the hope that he might apply himself and study for a good-paying job. But American opportunity was top of mind for Jerry, who returned to California two years later at the age of 17, happy to work three jobs at once to contribute to the family pot.

“I worked days in a fiberglass factory,” recalls Ascencio. “I also worked the graveyard shift at a local gas station—and in between, whenever we got a gig, I worked with my father singing in a Mariachi band.”

Then his mother watched a talk show on Telemundo where one of the guests was a successful real estate entrepreneur. “You can do this,” she told Jerry. “This is a business you’d be good at.”

A natural people person, Ascencio studied for his license, which he earned in short order, and in 1989, he began selling real estate. He was 21 years old.

“Real estate opened another world for me,” he explains. “I was lucky to have the perfect ethnic background—Latino friends and neighbors who knew and trusted me and were eager to own their own homes. I spoke the language, and I was good at my job. I became an overnight success.”

A year later, in 1990, the family bought their first home—a three-bedroom, one-bathroom, bank repossession in Pacoima—for $124,000 with a 20 percent down payment and an 11.25 percent interest rate.

By 1993, at the age of 25, Ascencio had established his own company, San Fernando Realty Mission Real Estate, which today serves the large, multi-cultural San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley regions with more than 50 bilingual agents. He still serves as the company’s broker/owner and dedicates his volunteer time as chair of the NAHREP Foundation. He is a board member of the National Community Stabilization Trust, founding president of the NAHREP San Fernando-Santa Clarita chapter, and has held numerous leadership roles with the Southland Regional Association of REALTORS®.

He married his wife, Martina, started a family, and focused on his thriving business.

Fast forward to the year 2000, and the founding of NAHREP by successful real estate entrepreneurs Gary Acosta and Ernie Reyes, who envisioned the organization as a needed voice for the Hispanic real estate market and a champion for Hispanic homeownership.

“NAHREP, which now has 40 chapters and more than 20,000 members nationwide, is propelled by a passionate combination of entrepreneurial spirit, cultural heritage and the advocacy of its members,” says NAHREP Chief Marketing Officer Jason Riveiro. “Our mission is, and has always been, to advance sustainable Hispanic homeownership.”

The association, while committed to empowering the Hispanic community, has grown exponentially in non-traditional Hispanic markets.

“That’s because Hispanics are a uniquely mobile demographic. They’re willing to move for the sake of better employment, better education, better housing—and NAHREP is committed to educating real estate professionals in every market who serve Hispanic homebuyers and sellers,” explains Riveiro.

Opportunity is everywhere, Riveiro notes. Statistics report that one in every four children in the United States today is Hispanic, and that 21 percent of millennials—the next big wave of potential homebuyers—identify as Hispanic.

Ascencio, meanwhile, a natural speaker, never faltered from his deep commitment to community service or his drive to tell the immigrant story to a wide American audience. During his 2012 term as NAHREP president, the co-founders got to know him well. They understood his background, applauded his passion, and admired his talent and people skills. It did not take long for Acosta to connect a few significant dots.

“Jerry is an outstanding speaker, proud of his background and totally comfortable in his skin,” Acosta says. “I am always looking for new ways to galvanize our membership and convey the Latino story to a broader audience. I have written speeches before, but in Jerry, I saw the perfect opportunity to use a new medium (theater) to communicate the complexity and triumph of growing up in poverty and overcoming adversity.”

The result was the script of ‘53 Million and One’—written, revised, revised some more and named for the 53 million Hispanics residing in the U.S. at the time the presentation was completed in 2014. (The Hispanic population has now increased to 57 million, but the show retains the original title.)

In his performance, Ascencio narrates a powerful Latino-American tale, weaving together his storytelling skills and Mariachi guitar music to tell the story of a resourceful family with whom so many can identify. The presentation debuted to an audience of thousands at NAHREP’s 2014 National Convention and Latino Music Festival, garnering rave reviews and requests for repeat performances.

“The 60-minute theatrical monologue electrifies audiences because it spotlights the common challenges, experiences, and aspirations that bind together the millions of Latinos who call America home,” says Marisa Calderon, NAHREP’s executive director.

Viewing the performance as a great opportunity to bridge barriers and celebrate cultural differences, Century 21 became a national sponsor of the project, kicking off a 25-city tour, adds Calderon.

To date, as increasing emphasis is placed on cultural diversity as part of the American experience, ‘53 Million and One’ has been seen and applauded by more than 12,000 individuals and 40 banking, real estate and other corporate audiences, including Freddie Mac, Pulte Homes and Quicken Loans. More performances are on tap nationwide, and more are being scheduled as word of the show’s dramatic and vital message filters through the real estate industry.

“Hispanics aspire to the American Dream perhaps more than any other group,” Ascencio says. “Together, we have nearly $2 trillion in purchasing power, and we want to contribute to the communities in which we live—as entrepreneurs, as PTA members, through Neighborhood Watch, as consumers, and as homeowners. We see this show as a testament to our common goals and the search for economic opportunity.”

Ascencio, his wife and their three sons, Jerry Jr., 22, Alex, 18, and Adrian, 14, have made the show a family commitment, traveling together as often as schedules permit. They handle wardrobe changes, manage stage directions, and even strike sets for the moving production.

“We’re a close-knit family, all three generations,” says Jerry Ascencio, Jr., who, in his ‘day job’ is a REALTOR® in his own right and sales manager in his father’s San Fernando brokerage. “We’ve always spent a lot of time together, and we support each other’s goals and ambitions. Traveling with dad to do ‘53 Million’ has been a great experience for all of us. We feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves and something that’s very worthwhile.”

The traveling production is also very much a part of NAHREP’s larger goal—promoting the entrepreneurial spirit, the cultural heritage, and the advocacy of its members in the mission to advance sustainable Hispanic homeownership.

“By 2020, Hispanics will be a key driver in the first-time homebuyer market, comprising as much as 55.5 percent of all homebuyers,” Riveiro reports. “NAHREP members are an important link to this trend, and we encourage real estate professionals in every market to join us—and our real estate and financial partners—in enhancing our value as trusted advisors to the Hispanic mega market.”

For his part, Ascencio remains committed to the dual role he plays as leader of the real estate empire he founded and troubadour in support of a cause.

“The term ‘real estate,’ when you say it in Spanish, translates as, ‘rooted asset.’ That is a term that speaks to my heart,” he says. “Helping immigrant families put down roots in this great country is a calling that moves me every day.”

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