When you meet Alexis Quintero and you hear his story, you get the feeling something really good is about to happen to your ceiling fan.
Alexis was born in a neighborhood called Brookylncito, which, with its wooden houses and muddied intersections full of trash, was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Panama City back in the day.
His father, an electrician by trade, passed away at an inopportune time for Alexis and for Panama…just after the US invasion, which rendered his son not just alone but alone a mass of chaos on the streets where things were, in Alexis’ own words, “more or less every man for himself.”
Not surprisingly, Alexis fell into the wrong crowd and got hung up on a number of illegal activities. But far less expected was what he would do with that illicit income: things like enrolling in electrician classes and buying his first set of screwdrivers.
“From the earliest I can remember looking at the wall in my dad’s bedroom, I knew I wanted an electrician’s diploma just like his,” he says as he points at the ceiling fan making this annoying buzzing noise above our heads. “That fan for instance. I don’t know why but I really just like fixing things that are broken.”
Alexis’s already challenging life took an even more tumultuous turn when he was incarcerated for three years for a crime he says, to this day, he didn’t commit. As a prisoner in both Carcel Modelo (one of the most notorious prisons in all of Central America) and then La Joya, he saw what he categorized as “some of the worst things a human could ever see.”
When he was ultimately released, Alexis remembers vividly waking up one morning and looking at himself in the mirror:
“The only thing I had to my name was deep circles under my eyes, trauma in my head, and a handful of bullets lying in the corner. No clothes. No food. No money. And I realized, this is not the objective. That was when I decided to continue to fight, but in a smarter form.”
From this decision spawned his enrollment in Esperanza San Felipe, our non-profit gang reintegration organization in Casco Viejo. Soon after graduation from Esperanza, Alexis realized a dream that he says could be considered a testament to his father: Servicios Elektron, a handyman business with a specialty in electric, carpentry, paint and landscaping services, backed by Esperanza’s Social Venture Club.
Upon completing his first project – a wooden surf board rack made by hand – and walking home with $300, he says the immense pride wasn’t necessarily because of the formal income. But rather in giving his son (his apprentice) a third of the cash and seeing the genuinely thrilled look on his face. “This was made the real way,” he remembers saying. “That’s how you make money the real way.”
When you ask Alexis what his old friends would say when they see his official permits and licensing, along with the small throngs of satisfied clients, he chuckles as he thinks for a few seconds.
“They would smile because I’ve always the cat. The cat who always figures out a way.”