Jerry Ascencio came to California 57 years ago from Mexico. Those early years were defined by struggle and punctuated by periods where he lived in a trailer, worked three jobs and performed in mariachi groups in the underbelly of San Fernando Valley nightlife.
But today he stands as an example of why so many come north: He found financial success. He did well in real estate, and is now telling his story in a seemingly unlikely place — the theater.
“53 Million & One,” details Ascencio’s journey from immigrant to entrepreneur. Ascencio, chairman of the National Assn. of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, a post he uses to promote Latino home ownership, plays himself in the production he co-wrote with a colleague.
The live show, which will make a stop Tuesday at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, highlights the challenges and experiences that thread the 53 million Latinos living in the United States.
“This is not just the Jerry Ascencio story,” Ascencio, who owns a real estate brokerage in the Valley, said by phone. “It’s the story of every immigrant. Remove the heritage, replace it with another, and it’s the same, exact story.”
Gerardo Ascencio, known as “Jerry” to friends and family, was born in Michoacan, a state in Western Mexico. His father sought better opportunities in America but his application for a visa was declined. He paid a “coyote” to take him across the border and landed in the Valley.
His dad worked in a factory to pay for his wife and two children to enter the United States. Three family members remaining in Mexico could not make the journey together. Ascencio was left in the hands of strangers in Tijuana, as his mother and brother joined their father in the Valley. A week later, he reunited with his family.
Ascencio went to school and completed eighth grade. At 15, his father sent him back to school in Mexico, where he lived for two years with his grandmother.
“My father never allowed me to forget my roots,” he said.
His father eventually provided the family a good blue collar life, he said, finding employment on an assembly line at General Motors in Van Nuys, where he also made and sold burritos to coworkers at the plant, which is now shuttered.
At age 17, Ascencio started teaching English to children, but when his father found out that his son had dropped out of school, he demanded Ascencio return to California and contribute to the family, which had welcomed three more children. The then-teenager worked three jobs — at a fiber glass factory in the morning, playing with mariachi groups at night, and then toiling through the graveyard shift at a gas station with his brother.
These and other family stories are shared in the show, including those of Aunt Gloria, a widow with five kids who lived in East Los Angeles. Her children got involved in drugs, gangs and violence. Today two of Ascencio’s cousins, Aunt Gloria’s children, are dead, and another one is in jail, and their stories were not sugar-coated.
“We didn’t want this to be a Pollyanna story,” Ascencio said, who is married with three children. “We talk about making the wrong choices in America and how a transition can be beautiful for some or how it can break down others.”
Ascencio said his interest in the real estate industry came from his mother, who watched a talk show on Telemundo about successful entrepreneurs, one of them a Realtor.
His mother said the bilingual Ascencio, the neighborhood’s official translator for loan documents, eviction notices and letters from the IRS or INS, could make a good living in real estate.
Ascencio thought about how his family never owned a home. In fact, there was a time when the family of five lived in a trailer parked in a relative’s backyard.
After Ascencio obtained his real estate license, he helped his parents put a 20% down payment on a home in Pacoima.
“I helped the family achieve a goal, and I remember when we closed escrow, wiggling my toes in the carpet and thinking we had a chimney,” said Ascencio, who now has 25 years as a broker under his belt. “It was such an incredibly significant moment in our lives, becoming a part of American society.”
“53 Million & One” developed when Ascencio and friend Gary Acosta, National Assn. of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals co-founder and CEO saw “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” a documentary highlighting the African-American experience through the boxer’s experiences.
Ascencio and Acosta talked about Ascencio’s story and co-wrote the script.
The live show, which has been performed in over American 20 cities, incorporates plenty of music, drawing on its protagonist’s background as a Mariachi performer. There’s also plenty of American pop in the score.
“It’s the most priceless moment when someone says they will never look at another immigrant the same way,” Ascencio said. “I get floored and humbled.”
IF YOU GO
What: “53 Million & One”
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Bowers Museum, Kershaw Auditorium, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana
Information: (858) 622-9046 or visit nuevolatinotours.com