Rebecca Sherman on an American Dream

Juanita Dominguez’s journey from poor immigrant to sought-after Dallas upholsterer is an inspiring version of the American dream.

Promised Land

Dusk was settling across the Mexican border town of Reynosa one winter’s day in 1975 when Juanita Zavala’s fate changed.

 

She had been playing baseball on the dusty road outside her house, when a stranger appeared from nowhere, as if fallen from the heavens. The woman told Juanita in Spanish that she lived on a farm in the Texas panhandle and needed someone to watch her children while she worked in the pepper fields. She’d pay $25 a week. This was more money than Juanita’s parents made all month. And Texas! People dreamed of coming to America to work, even the children. In sixth grade, Juanita had dropped out of school to help support her family of seven brothers and sisters. She cries when she remembers what her father said when she asked for his permission to go to America. “He wanted me to go so that I would have enough to eat. I was so skinny,” she says. Wearing the only clothes she owned, a blue turtleneck and bellbottoms, Juanita packed her few belongings in a paper sack. Two hours later, she was crossing the bridge into McAllen, hidden under pillows and blankets on the floorboard of the woman’s station wagon. She was 14.

 

photograph by Dave Shafer

Juanita, who spoke no English, was too young to be afraid. Instead, it was an adventure. The first week, she spent all her pay on candy for the children. After all, she was just a child. Eventually she was able to send money home each month. At 18, she married Manuel Dominguez and soon gave birth to her first child. Juanita was offered a job as a seamstress in an upholstery workroom in Dallas, so the family moved. This turned out to be fortuitous. After a month, Juanita was put in charge. And for the first time since she left Mexico, she was afraid. Her English was poor, and she couldn’t understand what the clients were saying when they phoned. Despite the overwhelming hurdle, she taught herself English by writing down messages phonetically, then repeating them out loud until they were memorized, like a school child rehearsing a poem. When her boss returned, the day’s messages rushed forth like a flood from her mouth, unstopping.

With more children on the way, Manuel set up a workshop in the shed of their rented house. Juanita had decided to go into business for herself. To find clients, she called every decorator listed in the Yellow Pages. Only one called back, but he arrived with a trunk filled with beautiful silk fabric and $1,000 in cash. She was to make draperies and upholstery for a mansion in Highland Park. She felt rich. Convinced she’d have to return the money, Juanita put it in the bank and never spent it. Her work was excellent, so she was asked to copy a sofa. It took her a month—not much time for someone who had never built anything before—and soon she mastered the art of reproducing sofas and upholstered chairs. She could copy anything.

Word got around. Juanita was fast, reliable, and meticulous. In Highland Park, women demanded that their decorators find her. Eventually, she became the mainstay of some of the top decorators in town. A good upholsterer is as coveted as a fine piece of Fortuny fabric. Designer Sherry Hayslip remembers giving a big job to another well-known workroom, only to almost lose her clients when the upholsterers were a year late. Since then, she has hired Juanita to do the most important jobs, and Juanita’s work is inside some of the most fashionable houses. The Dominguezes have prospered. Despite their success, Juanita and her husband still work six days a week, 17 hours a day. Six years ago, they paid cash for 7 acres on the edge of Dallas and built a large, two-story house on it with a workshop. Five workers are on contract. They now work legally under green cards. They pay taxes.

Juanita has had to work extra hard to make up for her lack of education. Because of this, school is a priority for her children. It has paid off. The oldest daughter, who graduated from Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, has just returned from two years in Paraguay with the Peace Corps. Another daughter is focusing on communications at SMU, while another is enrolled in El Centro’s competitive interior design school. Their son is a junior at DISD’s Magnet Center for Public Services. Juanita has accomplished much from meager beginnings, but the sweetest fruit of her hard labor is her children. They are American citizens.

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