If Cesar Millan had chased his dreams today, we would never have had the Dog Whisperer. The canine behaviorist phenom appears on Jada Pinkett Smith‘s Red Table Talk and details the story of how he illegally crossed the border decades ago.
Millan, 48, and Pinkett Smith, 46, have been friends for nearly 30 years, having met soon after his arrival in Los Angeles. He recalls telling the actress how he came to the United States because he “wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world.” When Millan shared his dreams of being on television or having a radio show, Pinkett Smith gave him some blunt advice: You need to speak English.
“The next day, a friend of hers came to my place in South Central and said, ‘I’m your new English teacher. Because of Jada, I speak English,” Millan says.
The Girls Trip star calls him the “epitome of the American dream” because he came here illegally and made something of himself.
“I jumped the border,” Millan admits. “I didn’t know anybody.”
Millan explains how he first dreamed of being a veterinarian, but because he came from a low-income family, it wasn’t possible for his parents to send him to vet school. It was after watching classics like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin that he realized his true passion would be to train those types of dogs, and in order to do so, he needed to get to Hollywood to be the best.
“So, when I was 21 years old, on Dec. 23, I went to my mom … and said, ‘I’m leaving. … I’m going to America. I have to go right now,'” he recalls.
Millan was given $100 by his father, and that’s all he had before heading out on a two-day bus ride to the border. When he got there, he knew it was more likely that he’d get killed than make it across, given the crime around the Mexico side of the border. “They can sell you. They can kill you for organs. That is more likely than jumping it,” he exclaims.
Jump it he did.
“I’m respectful about it — I know I broke a boundary and a rule, but it was for a dream,” Millan states.
He adds, “There were many times I let the border patrol catch me because Americans feed you. So when they catch you, they feed you. Mexican police don’t feed you. Many times I didn’t eat because I wanted to save my $100.”
As fate would have it, Millan met a man who claimed to be able to get him across the border — for exactly $100. Millan thought it was a sign and felt in his gut he could trust the stranger.
And it worked.
Before he knew it, Millan was across the border and in a cab to San Diego, thanks to the man, who gave him back $20 for the ride. He eventually made it to Los Angeles and began calling kennels for work.
He asked himself: “What do I [have] to do? Car wash? No. Washing dishes? No, I’d get fed, but that’s not the profession I came to America for. So I knew I have to start from the bottom, and cleaning kennels is not a problem. Those are the jobs that as immigrants we get. We don’t get the middle-of-the-pack jobs, we don’t get the top-of-the-pack jobs; we get the back of the pack.”
Millan also started dog walking and training pups around South Central L.A. and Englewood. His big break happened when the Los Angeles Times caught wind of his skill set and did a story on him. When they asked what his next goal was, he made it clear he wanted a television show. The next day, producers were lining up, and the rest is history.
Even with all his success, Millan took personal failures hard — particularly the end of his marriage. In 2010, he and his wife, Ilusion, split up after 16 years of marriage.
“The ex-wife, she was not an animal person,” he says. “I didn’t know either! … We were not compatible.”
Recalling the time after their split, he recalls: “Right away, you don’t take it as a lesson, you take it as a curse. … Often you take it upon yourself as you did something wrong. And that’s when, you know, ‘I want to commit suicide…'”
He said the feeling of “failure” got him to the point of wanting to take his own life: “The feeling of failure: ‘I’m not good enough.’ You’re talking to yourself, nobody’s putting you in that hole. You’re pretty much digging the hole and doing that to yourself.” He remembers the feeling: “‘Nobody loves you, your [family] pack doesn’t love you. Because my pack just left.”
Pinkett Smith remembers that tough period in her friend’s life. “I felt really helpless at that time with just not knowing exactly how to help,” she says to Cesar.
“You did,” he replies. “I never really went away because I always had that anchor with Jada.” He explains that he simply “didn’t love” himself anymore and had to find his way back to a place of love.
“I went into a place where I wasn’t doing things for me,” he adds. “I needed to gain back how I came to America. I did it because I love myself and I believe in myself.”
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