Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 25, 2018

Perilous journey to success

Amadors beat long odds to create thriving real estate practice

Walter Amador was watching search lights manned by border patrol scan the Rio Grande River when his guide spoke.

“Whatever I do, you do. If I run, you run; if I stop, you stop,” the young man said in Spanish. “If you hear shots, don’t stop. If you hear crying, don’t stop.”

Fifteen-year-old Amador was terrified. But he was more afraid of the dreadful fate that awaited him in his native Nicaragua, where the government was drafting 16-year-old boys and tossing them into the forests to fight rebels.

There were at least two funerals a week in Amador’s hometown, and many of his friends had already died in the conflict. So, no matter how frightened Amador was, he was going to follow his guide across the river and into America – the land of freedom.

As Amador waited quietly in the darkness, his heart hammering against his chest, he thought they were alone. He and his “coyote” (a person who ushers illegal aliens across the Mexican-United States border) had walked unaccompanied through a forest for what felt like hours before they reached the edge of the river. But Amador was wrong.

As the search lights swept to a distant point, leaving only the ink-black river before him, a voice shouted “Ahora!” The next thing Amador heard as he darted forward was the splash of dozens of feet hitting the water.

Suddenly, Amador understood why his coyote had warned him to not stop if he heard crying. Joining him in his dash across the border were dozens of other desperate souls; old men, young women, mothers with babies and even people on horseback spilled out of the woods and into the river.

Soon, the sound of dogs barking could be heard above the sloshing of water. But Amador did as instructed and stayed on the heels of his guide. Eventually, they emerged from the water, but they didn’t stop running.

Later, as Amador and his coyote approached a small town, Amador looked up and saw something that still brings tears to his eyes nearly 33 years later: a water tower with an American flag painted on its side.

It wasn’t the Statue of Liberty – there was no greeting for the tired, poor, or huddled masses who yearned to breathe free painted on the tower – but Amador knew then that he had made it. He was in America.

But even as Amador wept, his journey was only beginning.

Rules are made to be broken

Vanessa Flores had a rule about dating men from work: she didn’t. As the bookkeeper at a mushroom supplier in Florida in 1997, she had more than a few male coworkers, but the picture on her desk of her and the man she was dating kept any would-be boyfriends at bay.

Amador, by then a driver with the company, liked Vanessa but respected her dating status. Then came the day he noticed the photo was gone.

Ever resourceful, Amador looked up Flores’ home phone number in the company directory and called it. When her mother answered the phone, he identified himself as “Walter” and asked to speak with “Vanessa.”

Flores didn’t know who Amador was, so when she took the phone, she said, “Walter?” He asked her how many Walters she knew.

Flores was hesitant to become involved with Amador because, like him, she was from Nicaragua, only her memories of living there were limited to the snippets she collected before she turned 3, when her parents moved to California. So, she suggested they remain friends.

Amador wasn’t interested in just being friends, though, so he persisted and eventually won Flores’ heart.

At the time, Amador was still trying to become a legal resident of the United States. Flores, an American citizen (or, as she says, “California girl”), suggested they marry as a means of securing his residency. But Amador wanted to become legal “the right way.”

Although the road was long and hard, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, a 1997 law that provides relief from deportation to certain Nicaraguans who had arrived as asylees, finally paved the way for Amador to stay.

Soon after, they married and became Walter and Vanessa Amador. Instead of spending a small fortune on a reception that would last only a few hours, Vanessa had suggested they use the money they had set aside for the party to make a down payment on a house. Walter thought it was a great idea.

But even as they settled into their first home, their journey together was only beginning.

It takes two

“She was always thinking about real estate,” Walter says, remembering his wife’s suggestion about the reception money. He’s sitting next to Vanessa at the table where they typically meet with home buyers and sellers.

In addition to being married, they are Team Amador, a real estate partnership that represents residential clients throughout the Greater Chattanooga area.

After moving to Tennessee in July 2017, they set up operations at Better Homes and Gardens Signature Brokers in Ooltewah. A fellow Realtor who had interviewed with owner and broker Gina Sakich suggested they do likewise, and they could not be more pleased with their professional home.

They could not be happier with working together, either, despite the occasional bump in the road. “We’ve had our fun moments,” Vanessa adds, her gaze fixed on Walter to gauge his reaction.

“It’s one thing to be Vanessa’s husband; it’s another to be her business partner,” Walter says, laughing.

Their brief skirmishes have risen partly out of the dynamic created by their professional age differences. Vanessa is a seasoned agent, with more than 12 years of real estate work under her belt, and like many veteran Realtors, is set in her ways.

Walter, on the other hand, is comparatively new to the business, having become an agent three years ago, and is still developing his own style.

“I’ve always worked alone,” Vanessa explains. “We’re still adjusting to working together.”

Their differences, however, are beginning to snap together like puzzle pieces to form a complete picture. Walter is a natural at certain things, Vanessa says, while she’s skilled at others.

“He’s easygoing and friendly,” Vanessa notes. “He also likes to have fun. That makes it easy for him to connect with people. I like to have fun, but I need things to be in order.”

Having passed his wife’s scrutiny with flying colors, Walter turns the tables and offers his thoughts about her.

“She’s very organized,” he points out. “That’s not my forte. She’s also detail-oriented and gets right to the point.”

Walter says his wife also has an interior decorator’s eye for staging a home and is a strong negotiator. “Vanessa is feisty when it comes to fighting for our customers. She makes sure they are taken care of and get the best deal.’’

The ability to navigate a tricky deal and bring about a favorable result for a client is critical in the current housing climate, which favors sellers. But Vanessa’s experience informs her, and she knows an agent can pull only so hard before a deal breaks.

“I tell my clients it’s not just about the money; it’s about the whole offer,” she explains. “I fight hard for them, but at the same time, I have to be realistic because there’s a lot of competition out there.”

Knowing when to back off can cost a client a home they want but save them from terms they don’t. This happened recently when a seller with which Team Amador was negotiating on behalf of a client rejected a cash offer for full price.

The deal underlined the intensity of the current market. While such a market demands buyers and sellers bring skilled, experienced agents to the table, it also opens the door for Realtors who can lower the temperature in the room.

“A soft word can carry a lot of weight when things are about to get out of hand,” Walter notes, referring to his people skills. “So, between the two of us, we are beginning to strike a balance.”

What’s more, Walter says, Vanessa is learning to deal with his occasional silliness. He looks at his wife and smiles. “Is that right?” he asks.

“You are silly sometimes,” she replies. “We definitely have different personalities.”

“If we were the same, it would be boring,” he counters.

“I know.”

Vanessa’s tone is conciliatory. Then she admits that Walter helps to make real estate fun for her. “When we show a property together, we have a good time, and so do our clients,” she says.

Suddenly, the two are talking like they’re in the room alone, laughing about going off-road in their Toyota FJ Cruiser while taking pictures of 145 acres of Marion County land they just listed.

“We didn’t know if we were going to make it out of there,” Vanessa recalls. “It had just rained, so the ground was soaked, and there was no reception, so we didn’t always know where we were.”

As they talk about their adventure in the mud, it’s clear Walter and Vanessa are not working together just because it makes good business sense; they teamed up so partly so they could spend more time together.

Going one step further, they teamed up to help save their marriage.

Health scare

For the first several years of their marriage, Walter worked for Nestlé Waters while Vanessa built her real estate business. Over time, Vanessa grew weary of working for a company that squeezed her like an orange and offered her only a paycheck in return and decided to build a career of her own.

“I felt like I had no purpose, and that things would always be that way, but I didn’t have a college degree, so I didn’t know what I could do,” she says.

“Then I thought about how homeownership had changed our lives. We made investments, and with each move, we purchased a better home. I wanted to convey that idea to other people, so I went to real estate school and then began working as a Realtor.”

Vanessa became a Realtor in 2002. Then, in 2009, both of her kidneys began to fail, signaling a decline in her health and prompting her to temporarily quit working.

Vanessa’s battle to reclaim her health was difficult and defined her as a true survivor. At first, she rejected dialysis and the notion of a kidney transplant. Outwardly, she insisted she was too young to be sidelined, but inside, she was terrified of the unknown.

“My nephrologist told me I would be a new person after I had the transplant, but I was scared something would go wrong,” she says.

So, Vanessa deferred treatment for nearly three years, choosing instead to rely on diet and exercise to keep her healthy. But her kidneys continued to deteriorate, and by the time she agreed to begin dialysis, they were functioning at nine percent of their original capacity.

As Vanessa began dialysis, her doctor told her she faced a two-year wait for a kidney. (Today, the wait is three to five years at most centers and even longer in some geographical regions, according to the National Kidney Foundation.) Unwilling to put her entire life on pause, she and Walter decided to move to Tennessee, a state they loved and frequently visited.

They were traveling to Knoxville to make an offer on a house when Walter, who was working as a service coordinator for Nestlé Waters in West Palm Beach, was offered a promotion to unit leader at the company’s branch in Melbourne, Florida.

Walter accepted the promotion and the couple stayed in Florida. At the time, their decision seemed to simply make good financial sense, but looking back, Walter sees more than an opportunity to climb up the corporate ladder; he says he sees the grace of God at work.

“Because of where we were living, Vanessa was able to receive a transplant in seven months,” he points out. “God works in mysterious ways.”

Just like the doctor promised, the kidney made Vanessa feel like a new person. “Once I had the transplant, my health changed. It’s a wonderful kidney,” she says, smiling.

The transplant did more than restore Vanessa’s health; it also changed her and Walter’s perspective on life and their marriage.

“Walter was with me every step of the way, including my darkest moments,” Vanessa says, tearing up. “Through it all, we saw how fragile life is and how we should take nothing for granted.”

At the time, Walter was working 15 hours a day, leaving before Vanessa woke up and returning late in the evening. “We had been given a second chance in life, and we weren’t even having dinner together,” Walter remembers. “Vanessa sat me down one day and asked, ‘Why are we married?’”

They knew the answer: they were married because they loved each other. But their lives had no balance. So Walter made a choice.

“We live in a free country, and because of that, I want to work hard and make something of myself, but I also want to enjoy life,” he acknowledges. “I’ll be 50 soon, and I don’t want to look back on my life and wonder why I’m here.”

Inspired by his wife’s ability to make the dream of homeownership come true, Walter became a Realtor in 2015. Then after moving to Tennessee, the couple formed Team Amador in January of this year, ensuring they would have all the time they wanted to spend with each other.

When they need to decompress, they separate for a time. Vanessa likes taking walks and Walter enjoys biking, but they eventually return to each other, ready to work or simply enjoy the life they have made together in Chattanooga.

It’s a good life. It’s also a life far removed from the one Walter faced as a young man whose country was under brutal government rule as he came of age.

Escaping Nicaragua

Walter’s parents came from humble beginnings. His father, Octavio Amador, was raised by a single mother, while his mom, Maria, was adopted. But both spent every spare moment and ounce of energy laboring to improve their lives.

“All they ever did was work, work, work,” Walter remembers.

Octavio and Maria eventually became comfortable enough financially to begin traveling to the U.S. Then, in 1981, war broke out between the Soviet-backed Nicaraguan government and the U.S.-backed Contras, and life as they knew it changed.

“The government didn’t care that your grandfather worked his way from picking cotton to owning a hacienda because the hacienda now belonged to the people,” Walter says, using his fingers to form air quotes around “the people.”

As the conflict scarred the Nicaraguan countryside and killed many of the nation’s sons, Walter saw his friends leave to join the military and then return in body bags.

The deaths had an impact on him. As Walter approached 16 years of age, when he was scheduled to register for the draft, he decided he was not going to die for a government whose beliefs he did not share.

“I was taken to headquarters a couple of times, and my father had to come running with my birth certificate to show them I was only 15,” Walter says. “The last time that happened, I told my mother I was done.”

When Walter was young, his father brought home one of the famous USA1 license plates. Whenever he looked at it, he thought of someday living in “America, the land of the free.”

But after the Soviet-backed government took control, no one was able to acquire a visa to travel out of the country. His father, however, still had the visa he had acquired at an earlier date and hatched a plan to transport his son to the States.

The first step on their journey involved traveling to Mexico. When Octavio and Walter flew from Managua to Mexico City on Sept. 3, 1985, Octavio was ostensibly accompanying his son to school. He had greased a few government palms to get Walter a student visa to Mexico, so he pulled off this portion of his plan without a hitch.

After Octavio and Walter landed in Mexico City, their next destination was Matamoros, where they met the coyote and the driver who would be transporting them to the edge of the forest.

“My father said the worst feeling in his life was turning me over to people he didn’t know,” Walter says. “He told me to walk behind them so they couldn’t hit me in the back of the head and kill me.”

As Octavio watched the tail lights of the vehicle that carried Walter and disappeared in the darkness, he wondered if he would ever see his son again. Then he returned to his hotel to rest before hopefully meeting Walter in the morning.

Although the sun rose on cue the next day and showered the Texas landscape with light, the hours ahead had the potential to be dark ones for Octavio and Walter. If they were caught, the authorities would immediately return them to Nicaragua, where the government would be waiting to march Walter to a crude two-week boot camp.

The coyote had taken Walter to the Casa Blanca Hotel in Brownsville the night before and then left. After drying off, Walter called his father and let him know he’d made it. In the morning, Octavio took a taxi across the border and met his son at the hotel.

The next step of their journey would be no less perilous than their previous ones: reaching Miami.

While in Brownsville, they met the owner of a coffee shop called Cafe Nicaragua. The woman told her son to drive them to the airport in Harlingen, Texas, where she advised them to board a plane to Miami as early in the morning as possible in order to avoid the immigration officers.

This was a big mistake, Walter recounts, because immigration was already there when he and his father arrived.

“My dad left me holding a newspaper in English and went to pick up our tickets. Then a man wearing a white shirt walked over to me and asked me for my papeles, or papers. I told him my father had them,” Walter recalls.

There was just one problem: Octavio had papers for only himself. When the immigration officer became aware of this, he took Octavio and Walter into custody and placed them in a holding cell at the airport.

“You’re through,” the man told Octavio. “You’re bringing an illegal alien into the U.S., so we’re taking your visa and sending both of you back to Nicaragua.”

Octavio dropped to his knees and pleaded with the man. He explained that Walter was his son that they had been unable to leave their country legally and that death likely awaited Water in a Nicaraguan forest if they were sent back.

When the man left, Walter dropped to his knees next to his father and began to pray.

The land of freedom

Octavio died several years ago, but Walter still remembers the two most important lessons his father taught him. “He told me I would have to work hard for what I wanted in this life because no one was going to give me anything,” Walter says. “He also told me take care of my friends because money comes and goes, but friends never leave.”

Walter has heeded his father’s counsel and says he is reaping its benefits. When he has put his hand to a plow, he has produced fruit, as he and Vanessa are doing now as Realtors.

Moreover, when he has persisted, he has succeeded, as he did in 2005 when he became a U.S. citizen after several years of working toward that goal.

And when he has been faithful to those who are close to him, he has seen love multiplied in his life. Now it’s his turn to fight back tears as he takes the hand of his wife and contemplates what he could have lost.

But neither Walter nor Vanessa want to idly enjoy their blessings. Rather, they want to pay them forward. Vanessa has a long history of volunteer work with the homeless, while Walter works to raise awareness of the importance of becoming an organ donor.

“Jesus said to treat other people like you would want them to treat you,” Walter says. “I believe in His words. He has blessed me, so I am trying to be a blessing to others.”

“Our lives are not just about us,” Vanessa adds. “We’re not here to just enjoy the food on our table and the roof over our heads; we are here to help others.”

Their mission now is not to recover from a debilitating disease or fight to achieve freedom, but to “be a better son and daughter, to treasure our friends and to make the most of the time we have,” Vanessa says.

“And to be thankful that, by the grace of God, we found a way to do it together,” Walter adds.

When the door to the cell in which Octavia and Walter were praying opened again, a different man stepped through. But instead of hauling Octavio and Walter onto a plane bound for Nicaragua, he began to fill out the paperwork for granting Walter political asylum.

He then gave the young man a work permit and ushered him onto a plane that was Miami-bound.

“Welcome to the land of freedom,” the man said as they parted ways. “I hope you make something of yourself.”