Building from scratch

Customer Marvin Ramirez, left, talks with Maria Avila about

It’s hard to decide what part of Maria Avila’s life story is
most amazing: Escaping the Colombian Mafia, leaving her daughter
behind, starting from nothing and building a successful business,
or achieving her life’s goals in spite of all of that.
Avila, 51, came to California from Colombia 17 years ago to
escape the Colombian Mafia.
It’s hard to decide what part of Maria Avila’s life story is most amazing: Escaping the Colombian Mafia, leaving her daughter behind, starting from nothing and building a successful business, or achieving her life’s goals in spite of all of that.

Avila, 51, came to California from Colombia 17 years ago to escape the Colombian Mafia.

“I was a lawyer in my country,” Avila said wistfully of that dark time in her life. “The Mafia in Colombia was terrible. I was in fear for my life.”

Avila had just finished law school in Colombia and was embarking upon her professional life when she felt she had to leave her country and her daughter to save her life. Avila left her then-7-year-old daughter Angela behind to live with her father and headed to America.

“It was the hardest part of my life,” Avila recalled. “Angela was with me all of the time.”

Avila came to Morgan Hill to live with her sister Sylvia Montoya in the city’s Jackson Oaks neighborhood.

She investigated becoming a lawyer in the United States, but faced two obstacles. Because of the vast differences between the Colombian and American legal systems, none of her coursework would transfer. She would have to start from scratch to become an American lawyer. She was advised against trying to practice law because her heavy accent would interfere with trying cases.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a lawyer to bring people to the same level, to bring justice to people, to help people,” Avila said.

But here in America, she had to give up her dream of becoming a lawyer.

She took whatever work she could find, earning money to bring her daughter to America.

“She was surviving,” her friend and fellow Realtor Maria Hovey said of Avila’s early years in Morgan Hill.

Avila worked cleaning houses, catering parties, waitressing and shining shoes.

“Every time I made some money, I thought, “I will be bringing my daughter to this country,” she said.

It took her three years and more than $10,000, but Avila was finally reunited with her beloved Angela.

Even though Avila had given up her dream of becoming an attorney, she hadn’t given up on the American dream.

“I always thought, “What can I do to make my life more easy, to make life better for my daughter?” Avila said.

One of the jobs Avila took was telemarketing loans. Her boss encouraged her to seek her real estate license.

“I studied for three months, every single day,” Avila recalled. “My husband woke me up at 3 in the morning to study.”

While she was studying for her license, she was working the lunch and dinner shifts as a waitress at a Morgan Hill Italian restaurant.

Her husband, Rafael Cebrezo, an Argentine immigrant, studied with her and took the real estate licensing test with her.

“Rafael was done in 20 minutes. I took three hours,” she laughed.

Rafael’s quick finish on the test shook her confidence.

“You know, my pride, I told myself, ‘I have to pass it’,” she said.

And she did.

She eventually became an agent at the Prudential office in Morgan Hill, where she was mentored by her fellow agents and learned the practical side of the real estate business.

“The first time I went to present an offer, (my fellow agents) were blessing me through the windows,” Avila said.

Despite the support of her co-workers, Avila had a difficult time getting her new career off the ground.

Then she discovered the magic of advertising. She arranged a trade with a magazine for the Hispanic community. In exchange for an ad that would have cost $400 a week, she agreed to sell ads in the magazine.

She kept that arrangement for six months, until her real estate business had grown to the point that she could easily pay for her own ads.

Avila quickly became the top producer in the county and the second highest producer in California.

As she succeeded, Avila brought all of her remaining family from Colombia to the United States.

“I thank God every single day that I was able to bring my whole family here,” she said. “The most beautiful thing is that we are together. I thank God, and I thank this country.”

She outgrew the Prudential office – “There was no place for my clients,” she said – and decided to open her own agency.

That’s when Realty World Rancho Grande was born.

Her company now has three offices – one in Morgan Hill, one in San Jose, and a third in Sacramento – and almost exclusively serves the Hispanic community.

After she left Prudential, clients who knew her only by reputation still called her former company trying to find her.

“They called looking for the lady with the very heavy accent,” Avila said. “They knew they meant me.”

“Ninety-nine percent of my clientele is Spanish speaking,” Avila said.

As her new business grew, her family came to work for her. Her husband, Rafael, manages the business.

Cousins, siblings and nephews work as real estate agents, office managers, secretaries and escrow assistants. Her daughter and her fiancé are both Realtors in the Sacramento office. The San Jose office, which opened in 2003 with four Realtors, now has 17 agents.

The Morgan Hill office opened a few months later with two Realtors and now has 10. The Sacramento office opened last year with one Realtor and now has seven.

Avila attributes her success to several factors. First, she doesn’t care what her clients wear.

“I don’t care what they look like, if they come to my office wearing dirty work clothes,” Avila said, mentioning that her clients often feel uncomfortable in traditional or upscale realty offices.

Second, she speaks their language.

“We explain, in their own language, something that looks like it’s very complicated,” Avila said. “We start to educate people so they understand the benefits of buying a house. We make our clients understand the process.”Finally, Avila has respect for the power of advertising.

Her first success was found in a magazine for the Hispanic community, and now she advertises on Hispanic television, including Telemundo and Univision. Hovey adds another reason for Avila’s success.

“She is hardworking,” Hovey said. “And she cares about the people who buy houses. She covers the clients, emotionally, financially.”

Hovey said Avila is an inspiration to her co-workers and her clients.

“If you want to succeed, you have to work hard, like her,” Hovey said. “Not only for me, but for a lot of people, when we think of her, we always think that we can succeed, because we see it in her.”

Avila concedes that her story is an example to many immigrants. “I tell my story many times to my clients,” Avila said. “I tell them, in this country, if you want to do something, you have to have ganas (want it).” When Avila looks back on her life, she does not resent the tribulations she faced and overcame.

“I look back and I can’t even believe how we’ve grown,” she said. “When I look back, I don’t feel sad. I feel happy, because it gave me strength.”

And she used that strength to achieve her girlhood dream of helping people, of bringing them to same level, not through the law, but through real estate.

Contact: Realty World Ranch Grande, 60 W. Main Ave., Suite 23, Morgan Hill, (408) 779-6481,

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