FULTON — More than a million foreign nationals immigrate to the United States each year in search of the American dream. Two Philippine citizens who now reside in Fulton say they actually found it.
Self-taught drawing artist Malbert Dela Pena, 35, his wife Hazel and their daughters, Jae, 9, and Avril, 8, moved to Fulton from Tarlac City, Philippines, in 2016.
In 2020, they opened Upward Graphics at 21 S. Second St. in Fulton, fulfilling their dream, one they said took a lot of work to come to fruition.
Dela Pena and his wife were born in the Philippines, although Hazel’s mother was an American missionary who gave birth to her and her six siblings while serving in the “Pearl of the Orient.”
Hazel met Malbert when both were in their early 20s and had their two daughters soon after.
Malbert had been an accomplished artist since the first grade, when people recognized his talent almost immediately.
“I started drawing my friends’ favorite animals,” Dela Pena said. “When my teachers saw what I drew they told me right away I was very good.”
He said he started drawing on a regular basis after that and when he turned 17 he saw how digital technology was developing and he began to teach himself how to draw with the programs of Adobe illustrator and Photoshop.
“I started to design T-shirt logos as a kid and later, screen printing. I used a YouTube video to show me how it was done. Soon I opened a business in my hometown, but it didn’t last,” Dela Pena said. “That’s when we moved here.”
Hazel came first. Because her mother was American, Hazel had dual citizenship. She had a sister who lived in Fulton. For a year she worked, while she was pregnant with their third child, and she sought out, organized and filed all the paperwork to get her husband a spousal visa so he and her daughters could join her in America.
“At first I worked for CNY Shirts in Syracuse,” Malbert Dela Pena said. “But they closed down so I started to do it myself in 2018 doing screen printing.”
Dela Pena said that business failed, but looking back he feels like he understands why it failed.
“We were in the business for the wrong reasons,” he said. “We were in the business to make money, when really we should’ve been in the business to help people.”
“People come in and need logos for their business,” Hazel explained, “except they don't know how to draw or to make the shirt. They only have an idea of what they want. That’s where I come in. I take their ideas and I conceptualize a logo for them. Then I draw it and through our printing process design and produce a shirt.”
Dela Pena said when he was young he fell in love with colors. Colors spoke and identified with other things. That’s part of his talent many people don’t understand until they see the finished product.
“If someone comes in and wants a logo for their business the first thing I do is show them some samples that will fit their business,” he said. “Then I’ll match the colors with their business. For example, a pizza parlor is food. You want to make it appetizing and stand out. I’d suggest yellow and red. It’s a psychology of colors. For a car wash I’d propose red, you know, bold like a Ferrari. And for a bowling alley, black and white, of course, to represent the ball and the pins.”
For a short time Dela Pena worked out of his home, until someone told the zoning commission he was running a commercial business in a residential area. So, he and his wife decided it was time to go on their own in a real shop. They had a small shop behind the Fajita Grill restaurant in Fulton, where Good Guys Barbershop is now. But they outgrew that quickly.
They compiled their savings and applied for a loan with Operation Oswego County plus a local bank, and bought the building they are currently in.
“And you know it was right in the middle of the COVID pandemic,” Hazel said. “So the owner of the building was really great. He worked with us and made the transition a lot easier.”
Working 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Dela Pena was working five days a week keeping his head above water, until one day someone came in asking him if they did car wraps.
“I never heard of such a thing,” Dela Pena said. “But more people came in asking about it and I got curious so I looked it up on YouTube.”
Car wrapping started in Germany in 1993 and at first was used to turn regular cars into taxicabs. The material is adhesive-backed vinyl and it’s applied with heat, according to Kay Premium Marking Films, the product’s inventor.
Since then Dela Pena said people use it for advertising logos on their vehicles and also for customization. He also said it took more than watching a few YouTube videos to master this craft.
“I tried to do it on my own at first, but it just didn’t work,” he said. “I was pulling and stretching and I made a lot of mistakes.”
After some research, Dela Pena found there was a 3M training class he could take in Florida, so he packed up his family and took them to Fort Lauderdale for the week so he could learn the process.
Now car wrapping is his main business and T-shirt printing is a “the cherry on top,” he said.
“People come from all over,” he said. “They come from Syracuse, Cicero and other places all looking for car wrapping.”
The process takes approximately 16-plus hours and the average midsize sedan costs about $2,500. The warranty covers six years before it starts to fade.
“Wrap is for everything,” Dela Pena said. “We can do motorcycles, trucks, boats, even buildings.”
Both Malbert and Hazel say they feel extremely fortunate their hard work is now starting to pay off. In another three to four years they said maybe they can stop working and just manage the business and concentrate on what they feel is really important — taking care of others.
“We want to help those who are less fortunate than we are,” Dela Pena said. “I know what it is to come from a Third World country and I understand what going hungry is really like. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. If there is something we can do to help someone stay fed, we’re going to do it.”
Both Malbert and Hazel are members of the Elim Grace Christian Church. They send money back to their family and to charities back home, plus they give to charities in the United States.
Dela Pena said America has given him the resources to do what they love.
“It’s important to give,” he said. “Someday I just want to be a philanthropist and give as much as I can to help people. That’s our goal. I know what it is to be poor. When I was kid I lived in a house with a dirt floor and now I feel like we’ve accomplished the American dream.”
Upward Graphics is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. They can be contacted by calling, or check out their website at upwardgfx.com, or their Facebook page Upward Graphics.