November 8th, 2016… the first and only day I’ve questioned whether launching my company was a good idea. It was the day in which, for the first time since I moved to the United States, I also questioned whether this country was the best place in which to live, work and make my dreams come true. I can’t say everyone felt it then, but a sense of loss swept the United States in a way that I had never experienced before. Some may say it had never been experienced in modern history. I mourned, yes mourned, as a part of me, a part of us, died that day. I mourned empathy.
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Although we didn’t have much growing up, we had cable TV. One of my uncles paid for it and would constantly remind us that if he ever caught us watching TV in Spanish he would cancel the service. If you knew what was available on TV through our local channels when I was growing up, you would take that as a very serious threat and cross your heart you would never do such a thing. So I grew up watching TV shows from the United States.That meant two very important things: One, unlike many of the kids I was going to public school with, I had access to a second language (it’s actually how I became fully bilingual). And two, I also had an opportunity to learn about another culture other than mine. As I hit my teenage years, I would spend countless hours watching the Travel Channel and a passion for travel and exploring the world outside of my 100 x 35 miles grew within me. There was something about learning how others see the world and go about their daily lives that became synonymous with opportunity.
Once I reached college in the early 2000’s, I participated in several school-related trips that took me to places like the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Cuba. I was hooked with travel! I was also humbled. All three countries are beautiful, have a uniqueness to them, and offer a different point of view about life.
When I visited the Dominican Republic I saw how their roads and infrastructure weren’t as they were in Puerto Rico. As much as I complained about potholes on Puerto Rico’s roads, I learned to appreciate roads not made of dirt. I also learned how much dancing fills my soul. Dominicans really know how to dance Merengue and share joy!
Then I visited Mexico and my heart was both broken and patched in a way that I had never experienced. It was there where I saw what must have been a three or four year old boy asking for money on the streets. As he neared the cab I was in, I couldn’t hold the tears. My godson, who is now 17, was about the same age at the time and I couldn’t even fathom the idea of him not been anywhere but safe. I was always raised to be an empathetic human being, but there was something about seeing that boy that securely placed empathy at the center of my beliefs and values. As if learning about the harsh reality so many kids live in around the world helped me understand that a place that can be so beautiful, has so much history, and gives so much to the world, can also hold so much sadness.
And then there was Cuba. Oh, Cuba. As a half-Cuban/half-Puerto Rican woman, Cuba holds, and will always hold, a very special place in my heart. In Cuba I felt safe. Danced Salsa with a passion (yes, dancing is a common theme when I travel). Saw how the past and the present somehow exist in the same dimension, and learned about how much value is given to education. It was also where I learned to truly appreciate democracy, liberty and freedom of speech. I will never forget the look of terror on a woman’s face when someone in my group asked in a public setting what she thought about Castro and his regime.
Infrastructure, education, public safety and welfare, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press. Through my travel experiences I learned the value of each and every one of those. I also learned to appreciate living under a Government who believed, promoted and stood for the democracy our Constitution dictates. It is hard having to write those verbs in past tense given how this Nation, our Nation, is being managed (led is no longer the appropriate verb in this case).
So travel. Now more than ever. Go to places where points of view differ from your own. Get outside of your comfort zone and see how others live. Learn to understand and appreciate differences. As for me, I too shall persist. I will move forward. I will launch my company. I will show the world that leading with compassion is the true way to lead. I will share stories and experiences that show what we are truly made of. Above all, I will elevate travel as a means to develop empathetic human beings.
Zilaida Salgueiro is the Founder & CEO of Locals Compass, a marketplace in travel connecting travelers with locals for personalized itineraries.