When Hispanic customers call with questions about their Alabama Power bill or to make requests, they breathe a sigh of relief hearing Alejandra Rojas’ voice on the phone. That’s because she can talk to them in their native tongue.
“I feel proud that I am able to help the Hispanic community, especially after seeing how hard and stressful it is for them to communicate,” said Rojas, a customer service representative for Credit and Collections in the Montgomery Office. “That’s my way of giving back and being useful.”
Rojas also steps in to help walk-in Spanish-speaking customers. “One customer told me now he doesn’t feel as scared going into the office because he knows someone is there to help him, and he can express himself in his own language.”
Rojas’ primary job is to collect unpaid balances on merchandise purchased at Alabama Power or home-improvement loans. Because she is bilingual, she often is a Spanish interpreter for other employees who are handling requests from Hispanic customers.
“Instead of using the company’s language line, customer service representatives who know me will send an instant message or email asking me to help with a Hispanic customer,” she said. “They may ask me to get on the line with them or call the customer directly.”
Rojas said she helps Hispanic customers complete applications for new electric service or smart financing. To support health and safety during the pandemic, she was called on to translate into Spanish signs reminding business office customers to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing.
An answer to prayer
In 2013, Rojas was working the night shift as a certified nursing assistant at an assisted living home in Montgomery, and during the day caring for her mom, who had suffered several strokes. A friend told her about an available contract position as a maintenance worker at Alabama Power’s Montgomery Distribution Control Center (DCC). After several months, a fellow DCC employee, recognizing Rojas is fluent in Spanish and English, urged her to apply for a full-time job with the company. That night, Rojas took the plunge and submitted her online application and résumé.
“The next morning, I was telling my mom about it, and she said, ‘Let’s just have a prayer and hopefully something will come through,’” Rojas said. “As we were praying, my phone dings, and I told her to hold on because I got an email. It said they needed a customer service representative who was bilingual, and at that point, I just started crying.”
After acing the customer service entrance test and undergoing interviews, Rojas said it was only a matter of days before she was hired. She began working in August 2013 as a customer service representative and cashier in the Montgomery Office.
“The first day I started, I felt at home,” said Rojas. “I felt I was where I needed to be. I wasn’t judged because I spoke another language. It was actually a prize for the company.”
A year later, Rojas transferred to collections. There, she collected unpaid balances from customers who moved to a new home without paying their final power bill. Then, in 2016, she began working in merchandise collections.
When she’s not at work, Rojas enjoys time with family and loves merengue and bachata dancing. She is at home in the kitchen, where she bakes luscious desserts, particularly bizcocho, Dominican cakes topped with Italian meringue and filled with fresh fruit. Rojas often sells the cakes at her sister’s Montgomery restaurant, Sabor Latino.
In two worlds
Although she was born in New York City, Rojas is Hispanic through and through. Her mom hails from Honduras, while her late dad was a native of the Dominican Republic.
“It was nothing but Hispanics all around,” said Rojas, who lived with her parents and six sisters in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in an eight-story complex in the Bronx. “At home, we usually spoke Spanish. But my mother and father made me try to speak English so it wouldn’t be so hard when I went to school.”
Because she was raised in a Hispanic community, Rojas said the languages became so intertwined in her mind that she spoke Spanglish as a child.
Rojas made her first entrance into a truly American world when she started first grade. She was the only Hispanic student at the school.
“I had a very deep Spanish accent, and it was very difficult trying to fit in,” Rojas said. “It was a time when I was embarrassed of being Hispanic.”
Knowing her daughter’s struggles, Rojas’ mom transferred her in third grade to a school with a large Hispanic student population. “That helped so much because it made me proud of being Hispanic and know that I’m not the only one.”
Because her parents spoke English as a second language, communicating was sometimes difficult for them, Rojas said. As far back as age 9, she was their translator. Rojas accompanied them to doctor appointments or on other errands, acting as interpreter.
Rojas remembers that life in those days was often hard for her family, with her dad working several jobs and her mom being a housekeeper.
Despite their struggles, the family felt at home in New York, Rojas said.
“The beauty of New York is that a lot of people are bilingual. Even people who are not Hispanic would learn Spanish words,” she said. “I remember seeing the faces of my mom and dad when someone would say, ‘I know how to say it in Spanish.’ That was a relief to them.”
A big change
Life changed dramatically for the Rojas family after the terrorist attacks and the fall of the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Many people, including Rojas’ mom, developed significant health issues because of the increased pollution and the debris fallout.
Rojas said her mom had severe allergies, asthma and heart issues. Finally, at a doctor’s suggestion, the family decided to look for “cleaner air” and joined relatives already living in Montgomery.
Rojas moved to the city on July 7, 2007 – her 16th birthday. With few Hispanics living in Montgomery at the time, she remembers the move as a “big transition” for the family.
School was a huge adjustment and fitting in was hard, Rojas said. She was required to attend English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, although she spoke the language fluently.
“I felt I was being isolated and taken away from my class,” said Rojas. “It got to the point that I didn’t speak Spanish because I didn’t want to be separated from my class.”
Many of the students laughed at Rojas’ accent and called her “the Mexican.” She remembers one instance at Walmart when a store employee loudly blurted, “I wish these Mexicans would go back to their country.”
“That hurt so much and I started crying,” Rojas said. “I asked my mom, ‘Why did we have to come to a place where they don’t like us?’”
Rojas said Hispanic people have become more accepted and welcomed in Montgomery in recent years. There are now many living in the city, including Dominicans, Colombians, Cubans and Puerto Ricans.
“Thankfully, Montgomery has become more diverse,” Rojas said. “I think we all deserve respect, whether we’re Black, white or Hispanic, and I’m starting to see that here. We need to be patient and kind and try to understand where the other person is coming from.”
Rojas said she is grateful to her parents because they encouraged her to reach for the stars.
“They showed us that we can do better and be better,” Rojas said. “That was the whole reason they came to the States. They were hard on me and my sisters because they didn’t want us to go through everything they had gone through. They raised us as independent women.”
Rojas said her ability to help people is what drives her to come to work at Alabama Power every day.
“Sometimes people are going through hard times, especially during this pandemic,” Rojas said. “Just hearing the happiness in their voice when I’m able to help them or answer their questions motivates me to continue. Hearing their happy voice is what brings me joy.”