FROM ZERO TO HERO

By FERNANDA DAMIANI

My father doesn’t believe in luck.

He has never believed in destiny or giving yourself over to the fates. He believes in hard work and deliberate action. And he isn’t afraid to cut his losses and start over.

Hugo Damiani is 52. He began his journey in a small town in Brazil, and along the way to where he is today he’s started over more than ten times.

He tells me I know about ten per cent of his story. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know I don’t know everything. But from the parts that he has told me, I’ve learned lessons in how to be strong, how to go after what I want, no matter how hard it might be.

Since I can remember, my Dad has told me to study and to fight for what I want. Sometimes when I call him up to tell him “Dad, I don’t know what to do with my life, I’m terrified,” with a calm voice he tells me, “Don’t worry, even if everything goes wrong, you know you can start over and over again. Don’t be afraid to live, keep studying, and never, ever give up on your dreams. If you have to start from zero, once, twice or ten times, in the end, everything will be figured out.”

When my Dad was a young man, he wanted to be a priest. Then he changed his mind and started over from zero. I can tell you that I’m grateful he did.

I decided it was time to ask some questions, to try to fill in more of the story. Here’s part of that conversation, translated from Portuguese.

How old were you when you started working?

I’m the son of farmers, and because of that we – my siblings – work since we were really young to help our parents to feed the animals, such as the cattle, chicken and pigs. My first real job was after we moved into the town. I was 13 years old at the time and I worked washing cars on weekends, as well as cracking wood or preparing a vegetable garden. When I was 14, I started working on a monthly basis, initially unloading soy trucks and other grains. In a matter of time, I was given the opportunity to work at the office, to weight the products as well as what got in and out the company. In that period I would work 16 hours a day, making only the minimum wage, that today it would be around $270. Since my parents were farmers at the time, we’ve always had food but we had other difficulties. Since I was really young I wanted to have more than my parents could offer, and in work, I found a way to help them.

What kinds of difficulties have you been through? How did you overcome them?

Maybe the hardest one was to starve. On many days in my life all I had to eat was one or two bananas. I’d also walk a lot, because there wasn’t a lot of resources. It was also hard to face some health problems.

I’ve overcame all of that with willpower and determination because I didn’t want to come home without making my dreams come true. In the beginning, it was complicated because I was alone, but after, with the presence of my wife, everything became easier.

How old were you the first time you left home?

The first time I left my parents’ home, I was 15 and I went to live in Cascavel – a city an hour and a half away – because an uncle who’s a priest invited me. He believed I had a great potential for growing. It was a great opportunity and it was the one opportunity to study only, and that’s what I’ve done for a while. I studied different things, such as English and music, but I focused on accounting and financial areas.

In how many different cities have you ever lived? Why did you move to so many different places?

I think I’ve lived in 10 different cities over time. Change has always been something present in my life, I’ve always been a dreamer, I’ve always believed that things could get better, that I could keep growing, and because of that I was never afraid to seek a path for my life.

At some point of your life you decided to go to the seminary, why?

I’ve always wanted to be a priest. When I went, I was in a relationship with my wife, but when I decided to go we broke up, but we kept some kind of relationship. When I was in the seminary, we had to find ways to be able to get her letters, because the priests could suspect seeing so many letters from the same person. One of the names she made up was Veronica. We also figured out how to write in codes that only the two of us would understand, so if someone opened the letters, they wouldn’t understand the context.  It was a party every time I got her letters. I remember one time, I jumped from the second floor of my residence to go to the center of the city just to call her.

Contrary to what most people believe, she wasn’t the reason why I left. I just found out it wasn’t my calling. It was after I left the seminary that I moved to Mato Grosso, starting once again a new chapter of my life.

I got my backpack and went to the road. It was an adventure. I initially moved to Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso, but since I didn’t have enough money to stay for a long time, I found a job in a distillery in a smaller town next to it. Back then, that distillery was owned by the biggest soy producer in the world. The problem was that when I got there I saw the reality of the place because the conditions weren’t good. I had to share a house with other 14 employees, the food wasn’t of good quality and the distillery was really far from where we lived. We would leave the house super early in the morning and would come back at night.

That’s when I asked my wife if she would like to move there, because I found a job for her, and it was in the same sector as mine. She left everything behind and went to find me. I still remember the day she arrived. She was in a really old bus and we went to the only hotel in the town, can you imagine something bad? Now imagine something worse than that. We stayed the night there, but the next day she was sent to the female residency and I lived in the male residence.

I stayed there for six months, and I literally abandoned her there when I went back to the capital because I found a better job at a bank, at that time, I rented a small place with a friend, but I decided to ask her to quit and live with me… But timing wasn’t the best, because just before the job at the bank started I got really sick and I had to go back to my parents’ house to treat it. Meanwhile, my wife found a job in Rondonia, that is about 800 kilometers from Cuiabá. After that, both of us went back to Cuiabá, and that’s when we actually started our lives together.

We had a really small house, with a small stove with only two burners. There was no bed, only two single sleeping bags and no wardrobe. Our wardrobe was a broomstick hanging on the wall. Little by little, our lives started changing, because my wife got a job and I got promoted at the bank, and in December 26, 1986, we went to our hometown to get married. Almost a year after, our first child was born.

Everything was going well at the bank, but an opportunity to work in a radio came up in Cascavel. It was a dream I had for a long time. I quit my job and we moved there to be one of the directors at the radio. I worked there for two years. At the same time that I left my job, all of our economies were taken away from the bank because of the economic plan of the president at the time.

All of our money was blocked for four years, and after that we lost all of it. We moved once again to somewhere else, it didn’t work out, until finally we went back to our hometown, where we were living in my mother in law’s house.

Once again, I had to start it all over again. We build a small house in a land donated by my parents. Looking through a newspaper, I found a job in a company in Paraguay, and it was the opportunity I was looking for. It was a big company with eight stores only in Paraguay, with headquarters in Sao Paulo and Miami. I started there as an administrative assistant but in about a year I was in the administrative management and in three years I was the controllership manager. The only thing about that job was that I worked from 12 to 14 hours a day, from Monday to Saturday and basically no vacation.

I only made it because I had a great woman by my side, without her nothing would’ve been possible. I’d leave the house every day at 6:30 a.m. and I would come back at 9 p.m. Her comprehension and her capacity made me go through all of it. While I was working, we decided to build an apartment building, and she is the main reason why we did that. While I was working, she was the one in charge of everything, and she made it happen in a year. As well as being a great mother educating and raising my two daughters.

How is your life now? Would you change something?

Today I have my own business, it is a clothing store and I started at it being the general manager where I became a partner. I’ve ended the partnership and today the company is mine and it works with six different employees. After a lot of work and sacrifice, my life is stabilized. I only work from Monday to Thursday and not for the whole day. The only thing I’d like to see changing is to find time to travel with my wife and be able to enjoy a little more of life.

Today, would you start your life from zero again?

I’d start all over again, with no fear, and I’d have the advantage of being a little more experienced, because I no longer have the disposition and the strength of youth.

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t know what they are going to do with their lives?

There’s no formula, there’s no magical secret for live, everything happens through hard work and dedication. I’ve never believed in luck, but I’ve always believed I could make a difference with effort and hard work.

And what advice would you give to yourself when you were 14 years old?

I’d say: “study my son!” That’s what my father said. I didn’t listen to him because I decided to go after what I wanted in another way. I’ve won in life through my hard work and dedication, but imagine what would it be like to add an education to that?