Miami is a mirage, attracting wanderers and exiles, adventurers and Dreamers. She was born here, her roots planted deep in the shifting sands, bridging Ayer and Tomorrow. She lives and grow between realities — between Sueños and Memories, somewhere between Cuban and American. And the waves, they just keep washing it all away.
My kids are off to college. It is a bittersweet moment. I am – of course – incredibly proud of them. I’m excited for all of the experiences and opportunities that lay before them; but I am also sad, and a little worried, because they will be on their own and so far away from home.
I won’t suffer from empty nest syndrome, however. I still have more kids to help get into college, about 150 of them this year. I’m not referring to biological children, but to my school kids. And, for about 180 days that begin on Monday, school will be their second home, where they’ll learn, work, laugh, cry, write, calculate, interpret and grow up.
And teachers are an integral part of all that.
Teachers returned to school last week, to unpack, rearrange, set up and plan for the first day of school. I walked in to school this morning, fueled with a double dose of caffeine, to send and answer emails and begin all the heavy lifting. They call these days work days for a reason. There is a whole lot of work to do. There are desks to move, boxes to carry, activities to be planned.
And, as we sit down to plan lessons – juggling texts, secondary sources, standards and activities—it could all become a little daunting. Will I reach them? Will they get this? Is this rigorous enough? Is it too rigorous? Does this lesson infuse the common core standards? In the midst of all the work there is to do, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed, maybe even wallow a little in self-doubt.
Just as I was in the midst of all that, four of my girls sauntered in. Each of them is heading to college this week. Each has spent some time at their respective schools, from one year to three, depending on the visitor – Harvard, Columbia, University of Florida, Florida State University and University of Central Florida—to get acclimated. And each came back home, to their school home, to surprise me and to talk hurriedly and excitedly about their summer.They wanted to tell me how well-prepared they felt. They wanted to thank me. These are the moments that teachers live for. They are the reason that we trudge to and from trainings and professional developments, why we learn and adapt for changing standards, tests and curricula. It is not for higher teacher merit pay or for school grades – although both are nice – but for moments like these, when Aileen tells me, “I was one of the few freshmen in the class and I got an A,” or when Crystal says that she used her notes on Othello to tutor her friends and classmates, for the moment when Gaby said, “at first I was intimidated by their GPAs and SAT scores,” but then she realized – they all realized—how much they learned in high school. They realized that they were prepared for college, and – best of all—they came home to tell me all about it.
I am preparing for my eleventh first day of school. As kids can attest, it is both exciting and nerve-racking. What will Monday bring? The only thing that I know for sure, are that at each desk will sit a student who – whether she knows it or not—is building her future. My job is to help her shape it, to make sure that she, and all of her classmates have all of the tools that they need.
Over the years, I’ve lectured and graded, proofread hundreds of college application essays, helped students complete their FAFSAs, written letters of recommendation and worn the dozens of hats that teachers do each day. I’ve been there to console them after rejections and losses, and to encourage them to push through. I’ve been there to celebrate acceptances, triumphs and awards and to shake their hand on graduation day.But, most rewarding of all is hearing from them. Opening my inbox to find an email from a student who graduated in 2008 with exciting career news; running into a former student and finding them happy, healthy and successful; and, of course, welcoming a former student home for a visit as they talk excitedly about their lives.
Yes, most rewarding of all knows that we reached them. They learned. They navigated through the seas of adolescence, the drama of high school relationships, the trials and tribulations of pretests, post-tests, lectures, essays and assignments and that – through the cacophony of all that—they heard us, they listened, they learned, and they appreciate it.
They call Miami “the Magic City.” Fitting because, it’s always able to reinvent itself.
I was born in Hialeah Hospital in 1981. History is full of eras; but, this specific moment was the beginning of change, an almost traceable line of demarcation.
My mother fled Cuba in 1969 when she was 19 with her sister and my grandmother; my grandfather, a political prisoner, joined them five years later. She met my father after he arrived here in 1979, after 20 years as a political prisoner.
I belonged to two different worlds. I was an American. But, at the same time, I was Cuban. I didn’t quite fit either group. In many ways, it’s the story of the city in which I was born. Hialeah, a city in the United States that just doesn’t quite feel like the U.S. Hialeah is part of South Florida, a metropolitan area; yet, it feels totally different from Tallahassee, or Tampa, or Titusville, and worlds away from “the South.”
It is different. And the Hialeah of my childhood, even more so. Hialeah, like South Florida isn’t just one place, it is many simultaneously. As such, every major street carries at least three names. Red Road is NW 57th Avenue, West 4th Ave or, la cuatro.
In 1981, Miami was just barely recovering from a riot and an influx of Cubans that arrived on the Mariel boatlift — events that shaped public discourse, policy and dinner table conversation for years.
My parents’ first home was in a community called Lago Grande. It was so new that there was nothing nearby. In fact, it seemed like it was in the middle of a forest.
My grandparents lived in East Hialeah, back when there were no Spanish-speaking neighbors. To visit, we passed the Holsum Bread factory and the smell of bread filled the car. We passed Hialeah Racetrack, filled with photographers and Quinceňeras donning poofy white gowns, taking their iconic pictures, and visiting the pink flamingos and peacocks. There was a biandero that drove by and sold yucca and chorizo, as well as an ice cream truck whose Pink Panther ice cream bars with gumball eyes that, inexplicably, always tasted better than those at the store.
Hialeah’s 49th Street was always busy. Vendors walked up and down selling fresh churros — coated in fine granulated sugar that always managed to make a mess, making them contraband inside my father’s car – and little white paper cones of roasted peanuts. There was Lionel Playland, Luria’s and La Canastilla Cubana.
Most of those original stores and businesses are gone now, like Jumbo Supermarket — where Cuban bread disappeared as soon as it was out of the oven — and Latin American — where I first saw ham hanging from the ceiling. The McDonald’s where I met Ronald McDonald and had my face painted is still there. These two restaurants lay one across from the other and pretty much reflect the story of my childhood. They were the homes of my first Cuban Sandwich and Happy Meal.
The landscape has changed, just like the hot spots have changed.
Ocean Drive wasn’t as popular as it is today, but the beach was always full of visitors. I bounced over waves — wearing pink floaties and building sand castles on beaches — wearing Coppertone sunblock, because that’s what the little girl on the billboard used. We parked at Penrod’s, today Nikki Beach. And one of the major rites of passage into teenhood was taking a leap off of the South Beach pier.
Everyone loved the Dolphins, Don Shula and Dan Marino. Everyone remembered their perfect season. All this started to change in the 90s.
At 5 we moved, our family now included my new little brother, and I enrolled in a new school, Ben Sheppard Elementary.
In third grade we moved to Miami Lakes. Again, right next to the “forest”. This was the edge, and newest part of town. Everything south of NW 149th Street was filled with dense trees. It wasn’t uncommon to see a lost raccoon or possum run out from amongst them.
As kids, we rode our bikes into “the forest” and half believed we’d find monsters, wild animals, and maybe even Tarzan. We never did, but that didn’t stop us from telling tall tales of outrunning wild boars, moose and all kinds of creatures. Those were the trees eventually plowed down for new homes and for Barbara Goleman Senior High.
In the 1990s Art Deco became cool and South Beach was the place to see and be seen in. The Hurricanes became champions, we got a basketball team, and there was a struggle to protect decency; Sheriff Navarro banned a 2 Live Crew record, Palm Beach banned female hotdog street vendors wearing thong bikinis.
Like today, there were plenty of political scandals; somehow, hundreds of dead people voted in a mayoral race. There was an exodus of immigrants; thousands of Cubans braved the sea on rafts, tires and just about anything that would float, prompting President Clinton to enact the Wet Foot / Dry Foot law.
Hurricane Andrew arrived on what was supposed to be my first day at Miami Lakes Middle School. Other than downed trees, we were fine. But South Florida wasn’t as lucky. School was delayed almost two weeks and many kids were displaced, left homeless by the storm.
Eventually there was a building boom and Miami’s skyline changed. High rises went up. At that time, my mother was a Vice President at Capital Bank and excited to move into a modern building in the “new” downtown and even more so when it appeared in the movie Bad Boys. But, after 5:00, downtown died. Stores and businesses closed and shuttered their entrances.
I attended Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High before the FCAT, when kids carried beepers, not cell phones. Football was big. Everyone attended the game versus Hialeah High, our biggest rival. The coveted T Trophy always resided at HML.
After graduation I attended the University of Miami and completed a double major in journalism and English. My husband and I, high school sweethearts, married and moved to Miami Lakes. I teach at Miami Lakes Educational Center and he is a CPA with a small firm in Hialeah.
We stayed close to home. But home keeps changing. The Miami of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore; but, neither does the Miami of 10 or even 5 years ago.
The landscape changes, the cause of political strife changes, but Miami’s allure always remains. In many ways, Miami really is a Magic City; it is forever new and forever different, always changing, growing and evolving.
But some things remain unchanged; you can find anything that you need in Hialeah and all the streets there still have three names. But, la doce, Ludlam Road, 67th Avenue is now also Flamingo Road, but that’s a whole other story.
This story First Appeared in The Miami Herald in April 2013, as part of their partnership with History Miami’s project: Miami Stories: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/miami-stories/article1948842.html and on History Miami’s site: http://www.historymiami.org/research-miami/miamistories/miami-stories/details/neyda-borges/
There are thousands of students in Miami-Dade County that are forced to live in the shadows: bright, talented students whose legal status in the United States prevents them from realizing their dreams. As educators, we often only hear these stories at the end of the school year – if at all — when graduation is upon us, and it is too late for us to help. Too often these kids remain silent and afraid, because there is so much on the line.
This year, I met one such young man.
Giancarlo Tejeda arrived in the United States when he was three years old. His parents fled their native Colombia, escaping the bloody turmoil at home, to provide their children with the opportunity to grow up free from the fear of repression and violence.
It’s a story that is very American. All of us are here because we searched for freedom. Unfortunately, Giancarlo and his family are undocumented immigrants. For his entire academic career, he has kept this secret, concerned that if people knew, his family’s safety would be in jeopardy. So he and his family have lived with the constant fear and anxiety of being discovered. They’ve worked hard at whatever work was available and possible, who now had to face the reality of starting anew in a foreign land. Many young people face these challenges, and although their legal status and the need for reform may be controversial, the trouble they face is indisputable.
You would never guess at Giancarlo’s struggles by looking at him or observing his behavior in school. He is a fantastic student, excelling academically and socially. He is graduating magna cum laude, in the 92nd percentile of his class, and has — throughout his time at MLEC — won various awards in competitions ranging from programming and engineering to science and technology.
He never told anyone about his immigration status, not his friends or favorite teachers, not his school counselor, not even the schools to which he applied. He never complained. He never asked for help or for sympathy. He always wanted to be held to the same high standards as everyone else.
I just learned of his situation and felt that I had to help. Giancarlo was accepted to New York University and the University of Florida. NYU is not offering him any financial assistance because they consider him an international student, ineligible for financial aid. This is yet another obstacle. He cannot apply for federal aid or student loans. He is worried that his dream, which is so close that he can almost touch it, may be forever out of reach.
I look at Giancarlo and see a talented young man with a long resume of academic success. He had the brilliance and steadfast tenacity to learn and grow and excel. Imagine what more he could have done with just a few more resources. Imagine if the fear of discovery had not been a heavy presence in his home. Now imagine what he will do and what he will accomplish with a college education and what an impact he can make on the world.
There are far too many students like Giancarlo in Miami-Dade, too many children that have grown up here, that don’t know any other home. We have already educated and cared for these children in our public schools and in our communities. Why not give them the opportunity to come out of the shadows and give back to the only neighborhoods they’ve ever known?
To help Giancarlo achieve his dreams, visit his crowd-funding site: http://www.gofundme.com/rb6p5dtg?pc2
Watch his interview with CBS4 : http://cbsloc.al/1CtekSi
Teaching is like riding a roller-coaster. The highs are exhilarating, the lows sudden and stomach churning.
A classroom is a second home, for the students and for us. And here, we face all kinds of obstacles: from mathematical equations and philosophical quandaries to convoluted metaphors, heartbreak and errors in judgement.
There are days that, when locking that classroom door at the end of a long day, I walk out feeling like a gladiator — exhausted but victorious –having defeated the day’s monster: senioritis, high-stake tests whose computer programs malfunction, or whatever the day’s foes were.
There are other days when I feel wrought with anxiety. Did I cover this subject well enough? Did they get it? Did they learn? Was it meaningful? Are they prepared for the next course? The next subject? The next test? Am I setting a good example? Have I helped prepare them for college? For the world? Is there something else that I could have done? Could I have explained this better? Given more feedback? Did I give too much feedback?
So often, I find myself giving so much and wishing that there was just a little more that I could give, wondering if my best was simply not good enough. And every great teacher that I know has shared this same self-doubt. Regardless of test scores or student achievement, we are only as good as our last lesson.
I don’t know if that angst is engrained in us by a system that uses test scores to determine our efficiency, or that vilifies and blames us for every educational short-coming or if teachers just never feel satisfied with their performance. And neither answer brings much comfort.
But that’s no matter. Tomorrow’s victory: a college acceptance letter, an A on a test, an insightful comment in class discussion will erase all that doubt… At least until the next class period.
Related story: “Why So Many Teachers Feel So Bad So Much of the Time,” via Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/18/why-so-many-teachers-feel-so-bad-so-much-of-the-time/
No matter how dark the skies, the sun always, eventually, breaks through.
It was a gloomy, overcast day. There have been many such days lately, both figuratively and literally. But, on the road, the rays of light broke through the wall of clouds and — as gushingly melodramatic as it sounds — I saw an allegory.
I recently attended a bridal shower, one of those consequences that I face as a result of accumulating too much bad karma. I am only half kidding. There’s just something awful about one hundred or so women in one room. There’s only so much gossip, small talk and platitudes that I can take.
Anyway, to make matters worse I was assigned a seat in an “older” table. So apparently I no longer quite fit in with the young, hip crowd, making me all the more eager for the mimosas – the only respectable alcoholic beverage that one can consume at 11 in the morning while surrounded with flower arrangements and petit fours.
So at my table of mothers and grandmothers, working moms and homemakers, talk was pleasant. They discussed the bride, the décor, recently failed marriages, and the best recipes for torrejas, the Cuban version of French toast.
Then, as is usually the case in any and all gatherings involving Cuban exiles, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to politics and talk of the old country. Ever since I can remember, there was not one party or social event, in my family or in any of my friends’ families, which did not involve at least one long and heated discussion about Cuban politics. Most interesting of all is that this seems to be an experience that is largely unique to my generation.
I was born here in the United States, specifically in South Florida. My parents’ generation struggled to begin anew and assimilate into a new culture. That’s part of being a hyphenated American. And I am definitely hyphenated, a part of a generation who is American, but still has an affinity for a land, a country, a culture that we never knew and no longer exists. I am a hybrid, which sometimes feels more like a violent clash, of cultures.
And so this environment of passionate debates about policy and past battles, errors and injustices, one that I am so accustomed to, is something that I don’t think that my generation’s children will hear much about, not to mention the generations that follow.
But today, at this bridal shower, the conversation was different. Not only was the volume significantly lower, but it also crossed a few invisible borders in the Cuban-American community. There are several unspoken, but definitive, boundaries that exist between exiles – mostly determined by the time period in which they emigrated to the U.S.
This conversation involved various generations of exiles. These women, of various ages and socio-economic backgrounds, arrived here at different times, ranging from the late sixties to the mid-nineties.
And so their views and experiences varied.
But the biggest difference between this discussion, and the countless others I’d heard throughout my lifetime, was the content. Being a female only event, the focus of the discussion was different. Rather than discussing politicians, dictators and ideology, the conversation revolved around the home and family. It had more to do with what one mother called a “lack of everyday needs.”
As the conversation evolved, I was struck – not only by the tragedy that is Communist Cuba – but by the fundamental difference between men and women, between the fighters, hunters and gatherers and the nurturers.
It isn’t that women do not care about politics. It is not that they do not appreciate the importance of a free press or that they don’t also feel oppressed. It’s that, for the most part, a mother’s primary concern is her family. So what she tries to do is make life as normal as possible. So, just like June Cleaver and Donna Reed baked cookies for their TV families, Cuban mothers bake flan. When they could no longer get eggs or milk, then they invented new desserts and new ways of making them.
When women could not go out to buy their children clothes, then they simply made them. When there was a shortage of fabric, then they took apart their own dresses, skirts and blouses to sew new outfits for their daughters.
Rather than discussing the suppression of free speech or the lack of freedom, the talk was about the rationing of food and the creativity required to bake sweets for one’s family when there is a lack of materials to do so. It was about mixing chicharo (split peas) with coffee beans before grinding so that the cafecito, a staple of Cuban culture, will last longer. The conversation was about the sadness that comes from not having enough fabric to sew a decorative – and therefore frivolous – bow onto your little girl’s dress.
One of the women said, “Life here in the United States isn’t easy, but there is hope. And in Cuba,” she said, “there is nothing to hope for.” And that made me feel sadder and yet, also more optimistic, than anything I’ve heard in a long while.
And maybe this is really what bridal showers should be. Maybe if we simply look past the seeming frivolity, if we look past the gossip and triteness, maybe there is something to be said for seeking the wisdom of older women. Maybe there is courage in dressing up and putting on our best face and participating in rituals, traditions and events. Maybe in this way, we shower the bride not only with presents and unsolicited advice, but most importantly, with lessons of what it means to be a wife and mother.
Maybe. But, honestly, I am still grateful for the mimosas.
Originally published in Oct, 2013 on WLRN: http://wlrn.org/post/why-bridal-showers-remain-rite-passage-cuban-wives-mothers