Your struggles inspire your success

Dear Women,
Let me be frank. Growing up in a broken family sucks. Growing up with constant setbacks sucks. Feeling like you were given the short end of the stick, sucks. I’m sure a lot of you can relate. Whether you come from a broken family or just a broken past, this piece is for you.

I’m here to tell you that the brokenness of your past does not mean your future is meant to be broken, too. The mishaps, the struggles, the setbacks, the devastations; they don’t define who you are. They don’t determine your future.

Struggle is a part of the human experience and without them we wouldn’t grow into who we are today. Without struggle, we wouldn’t be able to see what we’re truly made of. When I find myself or someone in a negative mood I remember the words my economics professor Joe Marchese once said in class, “Do you know the only people that do not have problems on this earth? …Dead People!” And although everyone got a chuckle out of the statement I knew that he was right. Sometimes you have to appreciate the fact that you are alive and that there is always someone out there living under much worst circumstances.

But before you carve what I say into stone, let me tell you about how I choose strength and growth throughout my continuous struggles.

My name is Liza Pabon. I am 29 years old, a Latina and a tenth-grade dropout. I come from a broken family, a life below the poverty line, constant disappointments and an endless string of new towns, states, and counties with constant new homes, new schools and new friends. I am also an entrepreneur, a multi-faceted business owner, a homeowner, a landlord, and one hell of a fighter.

At ten years old, I was a fourth grader reading at a first-grade level. I started going to my teachers before and after class to work on my reading and math. I wanted to prove that I could put in the work and that I could catch up. That same year, my niece and nephew pressed a lighter to a mattress and ignited a spark that turned into a mountain of flames. We lost our house that night.

My pre-teen and teenage years were spent in the inner city dodging ill-intentioned men on my way to school, weathering physically and mentally abusive relationships, encountering countless assaults at the hands of the kids in school, while also managing a job to pitch in at home.

Eventually, it became a choice between showing up to school and working full time to make sure my mother and I had a place to live. I chose a roof over our heads, and my numerous absences did not go unnoticed.

At seventeen, my English teacher advised me to drop out, not because I didn’t get good grades, but because I missed too much school; because I had no money, no car, and no choice but to work full time just to keep a place to live. I did not choose my circumstances, nor could I do more than I was already doing to change them. He said I didn’t deserve the grades I got because I had to spend my time behind a pharmacy counter instead of a school desk. It didn’t matter that I managed to pass tests. It didn’t matter that I knew the material. I was not able to go to school, so I did not deserve to graduate. I dropped out.

I was angry. I was frustrated. I was determined to do everything in my power to prove him wrong. I wasn’t going to let this define my future. I ended my abusive relationship. I got a new job at Sutherland Global Services. I figured out what it would take to get into college and I went to work. Over the next two years, my time was spent working multiple jobs and looking for a program that would help me prepare for the GED exam. At twenty, I was unsuccessful in finding a program and decided to take a chance and just take the GED exam. I passed with flying colors, and shortly after took my entrance exams for Monroe Community College. I got in.

My parents were always entrepreneurs at their core. Successful or not, their business ventures drove our lives. I entered college at 21 with plans of studying international business and following my roots. During my first and second semesters, I began to question the major I initially declared and found myself searching for what it is I really wanted to do. As I completed my core class requirements, I realized that communication classes are where I flourished. I was drawn to the creativity of the classes. So, I changed my major to Media Arts and Communications shortly after.

From there, I started taking pictures and developed a small freelance photography business with a friend in a spare room at my house. It wasn’t until I began to master my graphic design skills that I knew the direction I was going in with the rest of my career. I purchased my first home at 23 and was able to share my blessing with more of my family members. I graduated from MCC at 24 and after that everything started to fall into place.

Under the name Stratagem, I brought on our main photographer and good friend, Luis Perez. We started getting more and more paid work, outgrew the in-home office, and moved into a loft in the Neighborhood of the Arts. From there we were able to work with larger organizations, like the professional women’s soccer team, the Western New York Flash. In about a year and a half, we moved into our current office with a lot more space. Within 4 years Stratagem went from a photography business to a full-fledged creative business with a photography studio, graphic design, event planning, and even an in-house Aveda salon.

So here I sit pondering my past and looking for the words that I can only hope will inspire others on their journey through this beautiful and at times wretched world. What you choose to focus on is what will manifest. Choose to allow yourself to believe that you have a place in this world. That you can make a difference, it only takes a small act of kindness. Allow yourself the opportunity to look inward and accept your past. Remember that who you are today is based on the mindset you choose to have going forward and what action you take thereafter. In the spirit of Women’s history month, I think Maya Angelou summed it up best when she said, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”