Orestes’ Odyssey
By Paul Napolitano

Appeared in Construction Link
May 1994

To say that Orestes Peña has overcome long odds to achieve considerable success in the trucking business is the ultimate understatement.

In Peña, we’re talking about a man who fled his homeland on a crudely built raft, survived a soggy, 50-mile journey in a turbulent sea, only to find himself in an unfamiliar environment, one which was not overly anxious to embrace a 23-year-old who spoke no English.

The story, or perhaps more appropriately, Orestes’ odyssey began in April of 1971 in the small seaside town of Guanabo, Cuba, 20 miles east of Havana.

” I learned how to build a raft from a story I read in Popular Mechanics,” Peña said.

For six months, Peña assembled the raft in his tiny, second-floor apartment. On October 23, 1971, Peña left his Guanabo home for the last time, carrying the raft which was concealed by paper.

Peña and three male friends pushed the raft into the Caribbean Sea at 7 o’clock that evening, exactly one hour before armed guards assumed their lookout positions near the shore.

“I rowed while the three guys used coffee cans to bail out water that was coming into the boat. It was hurricane season so the water was very choppy. About a mile off shore, the guards opened fire with machine guns. But it was dark so we weren’t hit. Peña rowed eight hours without taking a break, trying desperately to get as far away from Cuba as he could while it was still dark.A United States Coast Guard vessel spotted the refugees around 4:30 the next afternoon, 50 miles off the Cuban coast, and brought them to Miami.

Peña spent four days in Miami undergoing interrogation because U.S. officials thought he might have been a Cuban spy. He left Miami soon thereafter to join his parents and two brothers in North Hollywood.

Peña’s first job was at Easy Lift in North Hollywood where he worked as a welder. A year later, with business very slow, he was laid off. That end was to be the beginning of a trucking career.

“I went to Tampa in October of 1973 to visit a friend of my dad who had a 10 wheel dump truck. He showed me a check for $572 that he made in one week. I was only making $172 a week in California. So I bought my first truck on October13, 1973 in Lakeland Florida, and I started working like a maniac.”

In 1974, business was bad enough in Florida to prompt Peña to move back to California.

“Little by little, I found trucking work. Then one day I met a fellow by the name of Jim Grondyke. In April 1974, he started giving me some business. When the other guys didn’t want to go to Santa Barbara because it was too far, I went. I went anywhere he sent me.

“Then, when they started the Glendale Freeway, I got to work there and that put me back on my feet. In 1975, I bought my first trailer from Jim Grondyke. By that time, a lot of people knew me as the ‘Crazy Cuban’ because I worked very fast. Pretty soon, everybody wanted me.”

“When he started working for me, Orestes didn’t know any English,” said Grondyke, now a trucker for Viking Demolition, Glendale. “He’s a hard worker,” Grondyke added.

The Northridge earthquake got Peña’s trucking company off to a fast start this year. He ran 30-40 trucks for Penhall’s I-10 demolition. He’s worked on the 5 and 118 for Penhall and Reyes Construction & Security Paving, respectively. Peña has 30 trucks working with Cleveland Demolition at Sherman Oaks Galleria and Bullocks at Northridge Fashion Center. And that’s just a partial list of his recent activity.

“My recent contact with Orestes has been his assistance with the removal of debris from the 5/14 and the 5,” said Jay Steele, a construction engineer with Caltrans, who has worked with Peña for 18 years. “He’s always been right there when I needed him,” Steele said.

Peña, now 45, still lives in North Hollywood ­ in one of six houses he owns in that city with Irma, his wife of 21 years, son Ortestes Jr., an daughters, Yesenia, 18, and Yvette, 16. Irma, 40, and Orestes Jr., 19, work full time in the family owned business.

Construction was recently completed on a 10,000-square-foot building in Sun Valley that houses Peña’s office and shop. His truck yard and the building sit on industrial property Peña purchased eight months ago. To keep things in perspective, Peña keeps the hat, pants, and shoes he wore on his eventful voyage to his new homeland in a bookcase in his spacious office. “It reminds me of where I came from,” Peña said.

Unfortunately, this silver lining has a dark cloud.

Yesenia Peña was 15 months old when a cabinet her father and grandfather were moving slipped off the dolly and pinned her head underneath. Yesenia was on life support systems for more than a month and spent five months in the hospital following the accident.

Although she didn’t walk on her own until she was ten and has permanent brain damage, her mother sees the events from the bright side.

“It was like miracle,” a grateful Irma Peña said. “The doctors didn’t give her any hope at all. They said she would be a vegetable for the rest of her life. Because she was so young they couldn’t do anything about it. Now after years of physical and speech therapy, she can walk and talk, but she does have a major speech problem. Even still, she’s a real happy girl.”

Yvette Peña will love going back to school in September, after spending the better part of the past year undergoing agonizing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia. Both parents say the disease was caught in the early stages of development so the outlook for a complete recovery is bright. Yvette is in remission and feeling much better.

“I don’t know why it has to be that way,” said an emotional Orestes Peña, referring to the suffering his daughters have been through. “I would rather be ill, don’t make my kids suffer. I’m giving everything I got for the health of my kids.”

Knowing what he went through to reach this point in life, there should be no doubt that Orestes Peña has a lot more left to give.