To say that Bloomberg coffee and commodity markets reporter Marvin Perez has come a long way is an understatement, given his impoverished childhood in Costa Rica, where he worked the coffee farms picking beans with his five older siblings to help support their mother.
“You attached a basket to a belt around your waist and picked beans. Every time you filled it, you got a token, which could be exchanged for money at the end of the week,” he recalls. “Saturdays were payday. I typically earned $8 a week. That was a lot for a kid, and it paid for a portion of my expenses and snacks in school.”
Perez grew up with 11 people in a tiny, three-bedroom house with a dirt floor, no hot water, and an outdoor latrine. Despite these conditions, it was Perez’s mother who kept a happy home and strived to make a better life for thee family.
“My mom always told me that getting a good education and being well-groomed were essential to do well in life,” Perez says, laughing at himself for pointing out his clean fingernails. “School was always a happy place for me. When I learned to read, a new world opened up. I saw new possibilities and also an escape.”
Still, he could not always attend a full day of classes. During the harvest season, Perez went to school in the morning or afternoon, but never both. Summers he worked the farms from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Sometimes when I go to coffee conferences now, people talk about child labor,” he says. “For me, it was just normal for kids to help the family. Many of my school friends did not have fathers either, so I did not see it as exceptional. It was fun. There were clean rivers where we could swim and play during breaks.”
Perez was 12 when his mother excitedly called everyone into the kitchen to announce big news. She got a visa and was moving to New Jersey to work in a factory sewing slippers and to pull double duty as a housemaid. The goal was to send her children about $80 every few months.
Soon after leaving, she sent a postcard of Manhattan with the World Trade Center front and center – a picture that would inspire Perez to quit the bean fields to devote himself to full-time studies.
“I was fascinated by the enormity of those towers. I began writing my mother letters, threatening that I would cross Mexico to come to the United States if she didn’t bring me legally,” he says.
His wish came true via an appendicitis attack. His mother fell ill and while recovering from surgery was told she would be sent back to her country as an illegal once she healed. She married quickly. As a resident of the U.S., she brought her son over on a green card. It was the first time they had seen each other in eight years. He was now a 20-year-old man.
He only spoke “un poquito” English, but it didn’t matter on the factory floor where he earned $140 a week making plastic frames and driving a forklift.
“I was so depressed because the jobs were not what I dreamed of when I looked at the World Trade Center,” he says, adding that he visited the observatory regularly for inspiration. “I knew I had to make changes and told myself: ‘You wanted to come here. Now make it happen.'”
First things first. He had to learn English and signed up for classes. He also got out of the factory, stocking shelves at Bergdorf Goodman by day and working for a big name catering company by night. “I was working parties for the richest people: Jackie Onassis, Princess Di, Malcolm Forbes.”
A supervisor he admired inspired him to get a bachelor’s degree. “I told her I wanted to go to Cornell just like she did,” he says.
Perez was eventually awarded a full scholarship in exchange for coaching students studying Spanish. With his Ivy League degree in hand, Perez landed at Bankers Trust, then JPMorgan, before putting his love of both writing and numbers to work at the Dow Jones, writing for the newswire, The Wall Street Journal, and Barron’s, with coverage including emerging market debt and equities as well as commodities.
When his beloved towers fell on 9/11, Perez had just left the buildings and watched in horror from his post in New Jersey. His bank receipt, stamped 8:27 a.m., is now hanging framed next to his mother’s postcard in his apartment overlooking the Hudson River.
“The towers were always my inspiration,” he says. “When they fell, it was a life changing experience.”
Soon after, coffee made its way back into his life. Perez took a new job working from home as a reporter covering the coffee market for a brokerage that was launching a new service. This setup afforded him more free time to write poetry and fiction. He hopes to eventually publish a novel depicting the lives and choices of single mothers who migrate to the U.S. searching for better opportunities for their families.
His partner of 16 years, Gregory Buchalter, is a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera House. “One of our greatest joys now is taking my mother to the opera,” says Perez, “especially to see Puccini’s La Bohme. It’s about a seamstress, which my mother can completely relate to.”
But after nine years, he was getting restless. It was time for a change. “I had always admired Bloomberg’s coverage and the company as a whole and was dying to work there,” he says. “I picked up the phone and called an editor one day to ask for a job. There was none, so I called every month to remind him of my availability and interest.”
About eight months later, it was his phone that rang. Bloomberg had an opening covering what else but coffee? The beat also included cocoa, cotton, sugar, and citrus.
“I was so excited by that,” Perez says. “The job spoke to my roots, having also grown up with cocoa beans in my grandmother’s back yard and afternoons spent playing in cane fields and climbing orange trees.” What’s more, he felt his goals were finally being achieved in Bloomberg’s towering office.
“I am so proud to be working here,” says Perez, who joined Bloomberg in 2011. “It is important to work for a company that is not only recognized for its high standards, it continually supports and inspires me. I am always challenged to improve.”
“What can I say?” he adds shyly. “I get to walk into Bloomberg headquarters every day. I am grateful that I was not left on the streets of San Jose.”