Vicksburg is home

Published 6:18 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sixteen years ago, Pablo Diaz was a stranger in a strange land. 

He didn’t speak the language, and what little he did understand he had to decipher through odd accents they didn’t teach in foreign language classes. The natives were friendly people, however, much like he knew back home. He grew to love them and gain their trust, and eventually became one of them. 

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He became a Mississippian.

Since coming to the United States from Mexico as a college student in 2002, Diaz has made Mississippi his home. Now the president and CEO of the Vicksburg Warren Chamber of Commerce, the Warren County Port Commission and the Vicksburg-Warren Economic Development Foundation, Diaz is also responsible for helping shape Vicksburg’s future. It wasn’t long ago, however, that he was just a young man trying to find his way in the world.

“My values and approach to life fit with American values and approach to life,” said Diaz, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2010. “I’ve been able to thrive in Mississippi and in America overall and expand my capabilities because of the American system, in a way I never knew I could.”

Diaz was born and raised in the small town of San Felipe, located on the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula about halfway between the bustling metropolis of Mérida and the well-known resort town of Cancún.

Diaz was working three jobs when he was 10 years old — delivering newspapers, sweeping up at San Felipe’s city hall, and doing manual labor cleaning out the city’s drainage systems. He said it instilled in him early on a strong work ethic and the value of earning a dollar.

“I’ve held a job since I was 10 years old. To me, that has made a huge difference and allowed me to embrace the challenges and to thrive in America,” Diaz said. “When I think of discovery, I use that word because I loved working hard. It’s part of the recipe for success when you live in the U.S. That’s why it was the perfect fit.”

When he was 12, Diaz left sleepy San Felipe, population less than a thousand, for Mérida, which has a population of nearly a million, to attend secondary school. His parents stayed behind while he lived with other children.

“You were on your own. You had money and a place to stay, but your parents weren’t there,” he said.

Diaz said it was a common scenario for the region’s children and never felt dangerous, although he did have some issues adjusting to city life.

“In San Felipe, we wore sandals all the time. I didn’t have any shoes. The first week I was invited to play basketball and I showed up with no shoes. They nicknamed me Tarzan,” Diaz recalled with a laugh.

Another time, Diaz got in trouble at school and was told he wasn’t allowed back until his parents came to speak with the principal. It was a four-hour drive from San Felipe to Mérida, which apparently was longer than his parents were willing to make.

“The principal called them and they said they weren’t coming. It took a couple of days before he realized they weren’t just saying that,” Diaz said.

Despite that one misstep, Diaz was an excellent student who went on to graduate from the prestigious University of the Yucatan. He plotted out a career in accounting and finance and, figuring he needed to learn English to advance in the corporate world, began searching for an American university where he could get his masters degree.

Some of his classmates and friends had attended Southern Miss and spoke highly of it. Diaz applied, was accepted, and his course was set. He came to Mississippi in 2002 not knowing how to speak a word of English.

“I did not have any English skills. To go from zero to a Southern drawl was a fascinating experience,” he said, adding that taking accounting classes helped ease the transition. “All my classes the first semester were numbers. I said I’m just going to learn it.”

By the end of that first semester, Diaz says he understood what people were saying. It took about a year to be able to hold a conversation, and by the time he graduated in 2004 he was fluent in English.

He was also in love.

While attending Southern Miss he met Laurel native Amber Hickson. She had recently returned from an exchange program to Mexico and was looking to brush up on her latin dancing skills. Diaz was happy to be her instructor and the two quickly hit it off.

Diaz and Hickson were married in 2005, and they now have three children — daughters Maya and Ella, and a 3-year-old son named Luca.

“It was one of those things that just hits you, and soon I was convinced I was in trouble,” Diaz laughed. “My entire plan of life changed when it was evident I wasn’t going to get away from this relationship.”

That meant that rather than returning to Mexico and hunting for an accounting job, Diaz needed to adjust his career path. He received his masters degree in economic development, which provided a different sort of challenge. Rather than just crunching numbers, economic development marries that with crafting policy to help move communities forward.

Diaz worked in Meridian before taking a job in Martin County, Florida, on the southern Atlantic coast. He returned to Mississippi to take an economic development job in Grenada in 2009, and became a U.S. citizen the following year.

“That was a very special moment for the entire family. Not just for me, but for my in-laws. They were very proud of that moment,” Diaz said. “It was embracing something that came naturally to me.”

Now a family, the Diazes moved to Vicksburg in May 2017. Although he had been in and around Mississippi for nearly a decade, Diaz said he had never been to Vicksburg before a visit early last year. It didn’t take long to decide this was a place they wanted to be.

“When we were considering coming here, we walked through the streets of Vicksburg. We had never been to Vicksburg. Our first visit, we found it extremely beautiful, with a personality and a soul that many, many communities lack because somebody put a road and a building there,” Diaz said. “They don’t have a persona, and it’s an exciting opportunity in Vicksburg because it does have that.”

Diaz added that that applies not just to Vicksburg, but to Mississippi as a whole. The state’s mix of small towns and medium-sized cities, as well as its culture and people, remind him of his native Mexico. It’s a perfect match that makes it easy to call his new home, home.

“I do find similarities in the values and the simple way of life in Mississippi and where I grew up,” he said. “There is a lot of honesty, faith, and hard-working people in Mississippi, and family ties. Those are similar values to what I was lucky to have growing up.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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