When I first met Joe Zuniga it was simply to learn about the newly revived Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival. He’s working with the Ruskin Community Development Foundation to bring back this historical community event.
While I got the story on the upcoming Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival (May 6, story coming soon), I also got a whole lot more. You see, you never really know people until you let them tell their story.
On its face, Joe’s story seems pretty regular: young man works hard, goes to college, starts own business to help his community – until you pull back the curtain.
I had the chance to interview Joe a second time. This time I wanted to hear his story. It’s an incredible one and I think you’ll agree with me after you read it. We have some terrific residents here in South Shore and Joe Zuniga is one of them.
Born in Miami, Joe grew up in Ruskin in La Colonia.
“I’m not sure if that’s an official name,” Joe says, “but that’s what we all called it,” referring to the neighborhood on Shell Point Rd, just before Lennard High School.
His family moved here from Homestead, Florida in the late 70’s. He went to Ruskin Elementary, Eisenhower and East Bay High School, when he was here.
La Colonia was a majority Hispanic neighborhood. Joe’s family were migrant farm workers so he spent much of his childhood traveling around the country from Florida, to Georgia, to the Carolinas and to Michigan, as his family followed the crops, always making their way back to Ruskin.
Joe found himself in new schools often, but he had the personality for it.
“I was outgoing so I made friends easily,“ he says, “the constant change also taught me to be tough. I had to learn to adapt immediately to new environments. It was stressful, but it built me as a person,” he says. “I think it makes you stronger than the average person.”
Joe was an observant child, too, and he began learning from his parents at an early age. Joe’s father always owned his own business as a crew boss, taking his crews to different farmers to work contracts to pick their fruits or vegetables.
He also learned from his mom, who became a single mother to the two youngest of ten children after she and Joe’s father divorced.
“I learned how to be entrepreneurial from my parents,” Joe says. “My dad taught me about innovation. That there’s always a solution. If there’s no work, create a job. There’s just always a next step,” Joes says. “You just have to make it happen.”
His mother showed him the same, how to make it work, no matter what.
Joe took these messages and entrepreneurial spirit to heart. At 12 he convinced his mom to buy him a Kirby Vacuum so he could make money shampooing people’s carpets . “Some of the ladies even picked me up from my house since I couldn’t drive,” Joe says, chuckling a bit.
When Things Go Wrong
Up until high school, things were going okay for Joe. Although his father was mostly out of the picture by then, and they were poor, his family was strong and he had a big support system in his close-knit family – his mom plus 8 siblings (Today Joe has over 70 nieces and nephews. Imagine those family dinners!). He was a normal teen doing normal things, including falling in love with music.
“My brother-in-law had a band and I tagged along. He taught me to play the keyboard. I now play nine different instruments by ear. We couldn’t afford music school, so I had to learn by ear,” Joe says.
Joe loved music so much he began thinking about becoming a recording artist. He also began attending Manatee Community College.
But, then things went wrong. Life took a bad turn. Joe got mixed up with the wrong crowd and made a mistake that cost him five years of his life. He went to prison.
Making Things Right
After prison, Joe was determined to turn things around. “I had to create my own path after prison,” he says. He went back to everything he’d learned as a kid: entrepreneurship, strength, innovation, and music.
Joe worked hard. He enrolled in college (the first in his family to ever set foot in college). He took classes at Hillsborough Community College. He graduated with an Associates in Business Management.
Next, he transferred to the University of South Florida, where he graduated in May 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Social Science in Economics, and Political Science.
He became a mortgage broker and learned about finance.
He went on to study business innovation in Europe.
He wasn’t going to stop.
Joe launched his own company based in Ruskin, Zuniga Marketing, in 2005.
“I had to innovate,” Joe says. “I had to make it happen. I don’t care how many degrees you have or how smart you are. If you have a felony conviction nobody will hire you.”
So, after mailing hundreds of resumes and going on countless interviews, with no success, Joe knew he’d have to create a career for himself. Zuniga Marketing was born.
Today, Zuniga Marketing helps Tampa Bay businesses market their products and services to the Latino market – a powerful and mostly untapped market, according to Joe.
“There’s lots of business to be made with our local Latino market,” Joe explains. “Latinos’ buying potential is huge.”
Joe also explains that Latinos are very brand loyal. If you treat them right, offer good customer service and make them feel welcomed they’ll stay with your company forever.
“They’ll bring the whole family, too,” he laughs, “and our families are huge.”
Joe was on a roll, attaining goals and finding success, but He wasn’t satisfied just running his marketing agency.
In 2011, Joe decided to return to music and, like most things, Joe went all in.
Not only did he return to music, in 2012 he was nominated for a Tejano Music Award and he won a Tejano Globe Award for his first single, Atado A Tu Amor. Check out the song and music video here.
Today, Joe runs his company Zuniga Marketing and performs throughout the country. He’s performing at the State Fair on February 19th and he’ll be in Sebring on February 17th. He’s performed at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin and as far away as Bally’s in Las Vegas.
Local organizations began learning about Joe’s experiences and began asking him to speak and tell his powerful story. He quickly found out he loved public speaking and he could give it a unique twist with his music.
At first, he began speaking at local high schools, churches, and organizations. Then, he found bigger stages.
Inspirational speaking is something Joe hopes to grow as a career.
“I had no idea you could make a career from speaking,” Joe says, “but I love it and my story is real. I think people like to hear it and learn how I overcame adversity and big challenges.”
Joe speaks at colleges and universities and touches on topics such as overcoming adversity, and reaching higher levels of success. He also performs a few songs during his speaking engagements.
Joe’s most recent project is a newly released book about Debra LaFave, a local Ruskinite with international notoriety.
Debra LaFave is a friend of Joe’s family. They all became closer after Joe’s mom passed away.
“We hung out a lot. Debra was really there for us during that tough time,” Joe says. “We had a lot in common, too, in terms of overcoming big adversity. We knew what the other went through. Debra still gets hate mail and people call her names. She had to deal with the international public shaming. It was huge and I wanted to tell her story,” Joe explains.
The book, Debra LaFave – A Crown of Beauty for Ashes, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books a Million.
Today, when Joe isn’t running his marketing agency, performing his music, speaking to crowds or writing books, you’ll find him right here in Ruskin. He’s helping the Ruskin Community Development Foundation revive the historical community event – The Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival.
I’m so glad I got to meet Joe and learn his story. You just never know who people are, until you ask them.