Story Submitted by Alyssa Cabrera

Imagine leaving your country, entering a new one, and feeling like you’re in a completely new world without understanding the language. That is what my grandmother, Maria, went through.

On Sunday, May 12, 1968 my grandmother left Cuba with her husband Johnny and her seven-year-old daughter, Ana. At the time, Ana weighed 26 pounds which is extremely underweight for a girl that age. She was malnourished and became very sick because she was allergic to any food that my grandparents could buy since they were extremely poor and could barely afford to put food on the table.

On that very Sunday, they flew on a plane from Havana, Cuba all the way to Miami, Florida. In Miami, they stayed at the Freedom Tower where many Cuban refugees stayed until they were claimed by their family members that lived in the United States. My grandmother said when she visited that tower many years later, that all the memories came flooding back to her. She recalled the cold nights when she was shoved and crowded against strangers, had one suitcase for her entire family, and living with the fear of entering a new country. She, her husband, and her child stayed there for a total of three days. They were claimed by her uncle that lived Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. So off they went to yet a new town, with more strangers, fear, and hopefulness for the opportunities that lied ahead.

Though in Cuba my grandmother was a doctor in philosophy, she wasn’t able to transfer her college credits over to America when she came, so she had to start a completely new life. In Pennsylvania, she got a job in a factory sewing army coats. The only English she understood at the time was, “Mary is a girl and John is a boy”.
She worked in the factory for six months, and one day, she had an interview at a bank, which was a better job opportunity for her. She ended up getting the job and her starting position was a filing clerk. On the last day of her first week there, still only knowing a little bit of English, she was told to operate a ditto machine, except all the instructions were in English. Because of language barrier, when she put the purple ink into the machine, it had spilled on her only white shirt that she had. Her boss told her to go home and come back on Monday. Her head was filled with much uncertainty.

The Monday that she came back to work, she found a gift box on her desk. She then questioned the gift and went to her boss to ask who had left it there. Her boss said that she had placed the gift on her desk for her. My grandmother opened the box and found a new white shirt. Her boss then said that she really appreciated everything that my grandmother was doing and if anyone laughed at her English, she could tell them that she knew two languages because she tried her hardest to learn English.

Times were hard for her and she went through ten different positions at the same bank in one year and her last position at the bank after seven years was a human resource supervisor. Her resilience spoke volumes and paved the way for her new life in America. After her seven years in Philadelphia, she moved to Tampa, Florida with my mother, who at the time was only six days old.

My grandmother then got a job working as an insurance rater and soon became an underwriter and retired after 32 years. She has been the rock for her entire family and has passed down so much knowledge and love throughout the years. She has never forgotten where she came from and her journey to get to where she is today. She is the strongest woman I have ever met, and I am eternally grateful to have someone like her by my side each and every day.