Growing up in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Marcela Alcantar developed a passion for the dirt. “It just looked like so much power, coming home dirty,” she says, remembering her father returning from the mines each day in his hard hat. “For me, dirty was always something.” That long-held sentiment still offers inspiration: Alcantar now owns a thriving civil engineering design firm in North Portland.
Soon after Alcantar was born, her mother, just 14 years old, left Mexico to pick corn in the United States. Thereafter, Alcantar spent her childhood with her grandmother and uncles, surrounded by male cousins, playing rough and fending for herself. “When it came time to become a girl, it was difficult,” she says. “I was a troubled girl with a stigma of not going anywhere. I was expected to be just like my mother.” But she slowly crafted her own, more positive identity—embracing modern dance, for example. “It was a way of communicating when I didn’t know how—it was an awakening.”
At 17, Alcantar left home and headed north, determined to build a better life. She joined a dance company in Colorado. She paid her way through college and earned a degree in civil engineering. (“I had to study three times harder than anyone else, because of the language barrier,” she remembers.) And after years of piecing together a career—often three jobs at a time, while raising her daughter—Alcantar launched her own business in Portland in 1999, landing her first contract for engineering design on the Interstate MAX line. “I would just stay late, do anything that was needed, and be willing to help in any way possible,” she says. The work paid off with a sequence of TriMet contracts tallying nearly $4 million, including work on Tilikum Crossing (pictured).
Last year, Alcantar launched the Diversified Builders and Engineers Council, a nonprofit group focused on bolstering Hispanic and minority contractors and engineers in Oregon. And in January, she finished her most rewarding project to date, and a first foray into general contracting: an expansion of her own home, for which she hired only indigenous Mexican subcontractors. “It was amazing,” she says. “These people are so talented—and I’m right there with them, working in the dirt again.”