Neyju Rondon's family didn't understand why she wanted to leave Venezuela.
Their life was comfortably middle-class. Her mom owned a gas station; her dad owned a restaurant in Barinas, the small town she grew up in. She liked school, had an aptitude for math, and earned a bachelor's degree in accounting. Not long after graduation, Rondon says, she got "a really good position" at a plastics company in Caracas.
Still, she wanted to leave.
"My family was so mad," says Rondon, 36. They'd say: "Come on, you go to the United States just to clean houses, to become a dishwasher? Why would you study if you [want to] do that?"
Those were her first jobs in the U.S. — and money was tight. But eight years after moving to Pittsburgh she would be conversant in English, own a company with dozens of employees and organize "La Feria," an annual information fair that now attracts about 1,000 Latinos and connects them with community resources.
Before Rondon came to the U.S., she wasn't unhappy but she was frustrated. There wasn't consistent rule of law in Venezuela, she says, and crime was bad enough that you could get killed by someone trying to steal your shoes.
She visited Pittsburgh in 2002 to see her boyfriend, Cesar Herrera, a man she'd met in Venezuela but who had moved to Pittsburgh to take English-language classes at Pitt. Before the end of her week-long visit, she extended her visa and planned to marry him. Three months later, she was pregnant.
"I didn't speak any English," Rondon says, so she started watching as much TV as she could to pick it up. They lived on the North Side and rented a place that cost a few hundred dollars a month. Herrera worked as a dishwasher at Franco's Trattoria, in Dormont. "Everything for us was expensive," Rondon says.
Herrera helped her get a job at the restaurant, but it didn't last long. Rondon was pregnant and kept getting sick at work. So she began house-cleaning for a Nicaraguan family.
Two goals lingered in the back of her mind: "Step one: Learn English. Step two: Do something better than cleaning houses."
Neyju was already becoming a fixture of the Pittsburgh Latino community. She met Patricia Documét, the Pitt professor who started the La Feria information fair at her church, and quickly got involved in organizing the event. (She ran it from 2009-2010.)
She started to get corporate cleaning requests through friends and word-of-mouth, but didn't have an official company they could contract with. To change that, she took one of Brent Rondon's (no relation) classes in Spanish on how to start a small business. He was among the first participants in La Feria and is the director of Duquesne's Pittsburgh Immigrant Entrepreneurs Program.
"I noticed that she's very driven ... she wants to try new things," Brent Rondon says. "She's not afraid of talking to people or making deals."
It wasn't long before he was helping her fill out IRS forms and registering her with the state. In 2010, she launched "Neyju Check List," her own official cleaning company, and secured one of her first contracts with an ice-skating rink.
Running the business was a challenge — Neyju struggled at times to break the language barrier. "My English is not perfect," she says, adding, "I'm not afraid about it."
Now, she has about 40 employees who work on a number of contracts with hotels and other businesses in the area. Six months ago, she moved to Reserve Township, and her 10-year-old son Alejandro is a budding wrestler who has won state-wide competitions and hopes to make it to the Olympics.
"You have to follow what you're feeling," Neyju says. "[My parents] understand now — and they understand for Alejandro, too."