It’s his eyes.
At first, they hang down under a brown baseball cap. They match the way his whole body sort of slumps as he walks toward the colorful bus called the Dream Machine.
Tony Rojas is wearing a baggy shirt and sweatpants and holding a marker, preparing to write his dream next to other scribbled notes about finding bliss or having lots of money or going to Mars.
“What’s your dream?” comes the question from the famous man in the driver’s seat.
Rojas has a simple answer. He wants to open a food truck. He just wants to cook for people. He even has a cool idea for the menu: nacho tacos.
His eyes, though. They are brown and hold a deepness. It looks like they are carrying something. They look tired and a little scared. When Rojas says he’s living in a van, his eyes want to look away from the camera. Maybe they want to look away, too, from the past, from the idea of trying again just to fail again. Maybe they’re unsure that walking toward this bus was a good idea.
You don’t know Rojas. You’re just meeting him through this short video on social media, just another view among millions of others. But you can just tell. They are the kind of eyes that have seen hope and lost it. His eyes are telling you part of a story that you want to know more about. And you can tell there is so much to know.
Then his eyes finally make contact.
“I just don’t want to give up,” Rojas says, looking straight into the camera.
His eyes fill with tears. You want to reach through the screen and wipe them away. You don’t want him to give up either.
Viral videos belong to a game of chance. Why do some pull the whole world in and others never get their moment of fame? Why do some resonate more than others?
Hashtags and algorithms and internet magic offer some explanation.
Then there’s the unexplainable, like the look in someone’s eyes. Rojas’ video garnered 65 million views on TikTok. That’s another level of internet magic. When Rojas called his family in Texas to tell them about the video, they had seen it.
“It was surreal,” he said. “It’s like, this can’t be happening to me.”
In a follow-up video, more happens. Rojas gets the food truck. Hundreds of people donate thousands of dollars so he and his wife can afford an apartment.
There’s suddenly something new in his eyes this time. A light. It’s like seeing the sun break through the clouds. You don’t want to look away. You want to keep watching this little miracle unfold.
‘What’s your dream?’
On a tour across the country, the bus pulled into a Walmart parking lot in Colorado Springs. A team with the nonprofit Dream Machine Foundation once again was searching for someone’s life to change.
On that October day last year, Rojas, 51, had been walking around trying to find a way to make $120 to pay his cellphone bill. He and his wife, Patricia, didn’t have much. They had their van, and they had each other.
It had been this way since early 2020, when Rojas lost his job at Bar Louie after the gastropub closed without notice. As he looked for work, the coronavirus pandemic began. Job options were limited.
So he and Patricia got used to their way of life. He’d panhandle to make money for groceries, laundry and other necessities. On their cellphones, they passed the time watching movies or football games or reading the news.
“We got to realize a lot of things in life, you don’t need,” Rojas said. “They are wanted.”
Their cellphones? Enough to bring Rojas to the parking lot that day.
The bus, beaming with blue and yellow graffiti-type paint, was impossible to miss.
Rojas put the pieces together. He noticed strangers writing on the bus in response to the prompt, “What’s your dream?”
“I was already in tears,” Rojas said. “When somebody writes down their dream, it’s special to them.”
A member of the Dream Machine Foundation saw Rojas crying. They struck up a conversation. Rojas was told to walk toward the bus.
Charlie Rocket, a motivational speaker and public figure behind the foundation, was filming.
When Rocket later talked to news outlets about the interaction, he said Rojas touched his soul.
“I knew the second I saw Tony’s eyes, I wanted to help get him off the streets,” one quote reads.
Many of Rocket’s TikTok videos from the Dream Machine start with the text, “This person has no idea their entire life is about to change.”
Rocket, who has a following of 5 million on TikTok, brought attention to Rojas. He helped raise the money.
But to truly change his life, there needed to be another stroke of luck.
Dana Keith prefers a different word.
“I manifested that,” Keith said.
The local filmmaker didn’t just happen to be in the Walmart parking lot that day. As a big fan of the Dream Machine mission, Keith had his dream: to meet Charlie Rocket. He’s the kind of fan who once sent a message on Instagram saying, “If you’re ever in Colorado Springs, I’d love to work with you.”
No reply. Months went by. Then, Keith noticed a familiar view in the background of Rocket’s Instagram updates. The summit of Pikes Peak.
“I’m going to go find them,” Keith decided.
Using the size of the bus as a clue, he spent hours driving around to area RV parks until stumbling upon the Dream Machine in Manitou Springs. After meeting his hero, Keith followed the bus to Walmart. He wasn’t really supposed to, but he filmed the whole thing.
He was around when talk began about finding a food truck. They talked about finding a celebrity chef to pair with Rojas. Gordon Ramsey was mentioned, you know, to get more power out of the Dream Machine’s engine.
“Well,” Keith said at one point. “I know a celebrity chef.”
He doesn’t just casually know Brother Luck, the Colorado Springs chef and restaurant owner who has appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” among other high-profile TV gigs.
Keith and Luck host a podcast together. They count each other as family. Keith threw out the chef’s name because he knows the power of Luck’s positive, even-handed influence.
And so Rojas met the most famous chef in Colorado Springs. At one of Luck’s restaurants, Rojas prepped for an event at America the Beautiful park where he served food and raised thousands of dollars to help fund his future. More than 400 people showed up, as did local TV news stations.
Everybody wanted to know. How did it feel?
Overwhelming, he probably wanted to say. He wasn’t used to being around people or talking on camera.
He thought back to his years of coaching baseball back in Texas and some terminology for being called up to the major leagues.
“It feels like you’re at the big show,” he said. “It’s time for me to perform.”
Rooting for Rojas
Rojas was a baseball player, too, and made a run at professional bowling. He knows when it’s time to show the world what you got. And how sometimes the world shows you what you want. Like, when Rojas was working as a plumber and saw a movie called “Burnt” starring Bradley Cooper. It’s about a disgraced top chef who gets a second chance in a fine-dining kitchen. On that screen in 2015, Rojas discovered a new dream.
“I was just amazed,” he said. “It’s a kind of artwork.”
He got some restaurant jobs, where he learned how cooking could be an escape from his own demons. He didn’t yet know that his random anxiety attacks could be traced back to a bad car wreck from years ago. A post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis came later.
Then the pandemic loomed. Rojas learned the world has its way of showing you a bad hand.
That feeling was far away at a housewarming party for his new two-bedroom apartment after the Dream Machine swooped in. Rojas didn’t have to worry about rent for a year, thanks to the donations.
Along with Rocket and his team, Keith and Luck attended. At some point during the party, Luck pulled the star of the evening aside.
“They’re all going to leave real soon,” he told Rojas. “But we’re going to be here for you.”
Here’s where another kind of luck — with a capital L — comes in. Brother Luck, a man younger than Rojas and with years more culinary experience, kept his promise.
There was a one-on-one meeting on the top floor of his restaurant, called Lucky Dumpling.
Luck asked two questions.
“Tell me who you are.”
“Tell me what you want.”
They discussed many details over an hour over that table, but here’s what matters: These are two men who have known life on the streets. Who have known struggle. Who have been given chances.
“We’ve been like family since then,” Rojas said.
And Luck was right. When the fancy film crew left, Rojas was alone again. He didn’t know how to run a business or manage the money. He didn’t know how to use social media. He didn’t sleep in the apartment’s bedroom for weeks. The living room floor felt more comfortable. The change was almost too much. Shame crept in again.
So he didn’t answer Luck’s phone calls. Then the chef showed up, promising himself he wouldn’t leave until he talked to Rojas.
Luck has often been motivated to help others because of his own past. His own ups and downs.
“I never wanted to be a chef until someone told me I was good at it,” Luck said. “Food was the thing that saved my life. Nothing in my life happens without good mentors.”
On that day, he asked Rojas this question: “Do you still want to do this?”
The answer was yes.
“Tell me what you need,” Luck responded.
In the months since, the two have been spotted on Luck’s social media pages as they check items off a long to-do list for a beginner business owner. Licensing. Registration. Menu planning. Stressful days.
“This isn’t flowers and tacos,” Luck said. “Things go wrong and I want to empower Tony to resolve those things. My constant question to him is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
In late January, something small went right. The food truck, called Tony’s Nachos Tacos, finally opened. Rojas stopped into the kitchen to see Luck and tell him the good news. He had made $200.
Tears flowed for the top chef. A memory from 10 years ago came back.
“I remember that feeling,” Luck said. “I remember my wife and I sitting around a table crying, because we had just made our first $200.”
A few days later, something again went wrong. The food truck broke down and needed repairs. Rojas had help in his corner. A post on Luck’s social media led to enough donations to get the truck back on the road.
The “thank you” video Luck and Rojas shared afterwards didn’t go viral. But it showed a glimpse of what could happen after someone’s story goes viral. You have to keep going.
“I refuse to give up on Tony,” Luck wrote in the caption. “And I know you all feel the same.”
There’s a reason people are still rooting for Rojas.
“His story is amazing. Knowing him, he’s a pure soul,” Keith, the filmmaker, said. “Whether or not he succeeds, it’s about how he got a chance. Everybody deserves a chance.”
Recently, Tony’s Nacho Tacos truck has been seen more around town. Rojas preps for each shift at Four by Brother Luck, where the head chef gives him pointers in the kitchen and homework for when he leaves the kitchen. When Luck leaves, he tells Rojas, “Call me if you need anything.”
Luck also connected Rojas with Josh Vail, a local chef with years of experience.
“Brother’s got a good heart,” said Vail, who serves as the sous chef for Tony’s Nacho Tacos. “He builds people up. He’s done it for me.”
That reminds Rojas of something from his baseball coaching days, when he was the one building people up.
“I always told my team to not give up,” Rojas said. “That was my job as their coach.”
Months ago, he told strangers he didn’t want to give up. He talked about a dream he is now living. He never dreamed of it happening this way. Learning from experienced chefs. Cooking food that makes people smile. Smiling when he talks about his days, even during stressful moments.
Life doesn’t tell us what will come next. Maybe harder days. Maybe better ones. Maybe one day Rojas will see the look in someone’s eyes and ask, “What’s your dream?”