What happens to a Dream Deferred? Students Immigration Status May End their dreams of college

G. Tejeda

Giancarlo was three when he moved to the United States, the only home he has ever known. Now his dreams of college are in jeopardy. Photo by Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald

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?

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To help Giancarlo achieve his dreams, visit his crowd-funding sitehttp://www.gofundme.com/rb6p5dtg?pc2

Watch his interview with CBS4http://cbsloc.al/1CtekSi

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Teaching, a Never-Ending Rollercoaster

Teaching is like riding a roller-coaster.  The highs are exhilarating, the lows sudden and stomach churning.   

A teacher’s day can be turbulent. The highs are amazing, the lows often sudden, unpredictable and laced with anxiety.



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/

Breaking Through

Sun rays break through the storm clouds on Miami’s Turnpike

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.

Bridal Showers Remain A Rite Of Passage Cuban Wives, Mothers Share

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.

mimosa

Bridal showers may seem frivolous; but, it is an opportunity for women to celebrate and share.

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

The Power of Words and Feelings: Semantics of Cuban Policy

There is comfort in the cold objectivity of numbers.  Numbers are honest, stoic.  The number 53 is a value.  It can be measured, counted, defined.  But, add words and everything changes, becomes tainted with feelings.

Add to that 53: years of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, 53 years of an economic embargo, sanctions and severed diplomatic relations, and it awakens thoughts, opinions, anger, sadness. Words matter. Unlike numbers, words mean far more than their definition. They carry emotional baggage. cuban - american flags

So when President Obama announced that he would “begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” he evoked a rapid response: shock, happiness, rage, disappointment, hope. Immediately, analysts, politicos and journalists raced to take the public’s pulse.  And, it seems that by and large the public supports the President on this.

But in Miami, it is more complicated.  Here people carry deep wounds, trauma.

My parents, like many Miami Cubans, are exiles. My father was a political prisoner that spent 20 years in a Cuban gulag.  Both of my grandfathers were also political prisoners.  One of them was executed by firing squad.

These stories are not uncommon here. And it is why there is such a vast division in public opinion.

The embargo has not succeeded in toppling the Castro regime.  It has not forced the brothers out of power.  It has not brought a move towards democracy and free press on the island.

It has succeeded, however, in providing a perfect scapegoat.

Rather than accept that the country’s poverty is due to their failed policies, they blame the U.S. for all its people’s woes. It is because of the “blockade,” as the Castros call it, that there are food shortages.  It is because of the “blockade,” they say, that medicine – ranging from Tylenol to prescription drugs – and reading glasses and bandages have to be sent to Cuba from family members living abroad.

However, the U.S. does – in fact – do business with Cuba, as does Canada and much of Europe.  According to the Census, the U.S. has exported more than $1.5 billion in goods to the island in the last five years. And Cubans receive upwards of $2 billion per year in remittances.  Obviously money does, in fact, flow into Cuba.  And tourists flood the island and stay in big hotels from which actual Cubans are banned.

I can understand the argument for easing economic restrictions.  Why shouldn’t American companies be allowed to invest?  Why, if other Western companies and banks are already there, keep a policy in place that is only partially enforced anyway?

I also understand the counter argument.  A change in diplomatic relations may not make much of a difference in the systematic oppression and human rights violations typical in Cuba.  Today, the Cuban government arrested, detained and harassed dissidents to prevent them from speaking at a rally, to prevent them from sharing their thoughts on what the future of Cuba should be.  Opponents argue that only the Castro government will benefit from increased trade.

And that may be true; but, we do business with plenty of human rights abusers around the world.  We even trade with countries that are, at least according to public discourse, our enemies.

In short, I am conflicted.  I understand the logic, like I understand numbers.  Hopefully, the flow of people and ideas and money into Havana will – eventually – bring about change.  This change will not be the result of American tourists sipping Cuba Libres while on lounge chairs on Varadero Beach.  If it comes, it will be as a result of Cubans that no longer believe that the non-existent U.S. ‘blockade’ of the island is the cause of all their woes.

This is something that Fidel Castro always feared.  It is why he worked hard to keep the embargo in place.  Whenever an American President moved to ease restrictions, like both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did, Castro swiftly sabotaged those actions.

But still, there is the problem of words.

My family were exiles, not just immigrants.  They lost everything: their businesses and careers, and not just material possessions, not only money or land; they lost their home, their sense of belonging.  And that sense of loss, of displacement, never goes away.  It is something that we, the next generation, inherit.  It is a deep-seated sense that home is a place that no longer exists.

So when President Obama said that the U.S. would “normalize” relations. That word struck a chord. I felt dizzy.  Normalize: to bring (someone or something) back to a usual or expected state or condition.  Normal?  Now things will be normal?

And then again, that too was a play on words. He said normalize, but he can’t change much on his own. He can’t unilaterally lift the embargo. He has to with Congress to make these reforms.  That won’t be easy.

None of this is easy.

Logically I understand the data.  The embargo is a relic of the cold war.  There is money to be made in Cuba.  There is the opportunity to wield influence in the region now that Venezuela’s economy is imploding and Russia is dealing with its own sanctions.

So although many polls and media outlets reflect a generational chasm in opinions on thawing relations with Cuba, I venture to guess that those answers depend on the semantics of the questions these young people were asked.

I think the only honest answer is that we, the children of Cuban exiles, are torn.  I can’t quantify my feelings, because – unlike numbers and figures — emotions are difficult to define.

Miami’s Wynwood: Food, Art, Culture and — yes — Hipsters & Commercialization

Miami is the magic city because it is constantly changing, morphing, reinventing itself and attracting people who long to do the same, either because of political and/or economic strife and instability or because the sunshine, sand and surf lured them here. IMG_4008

The latest change to the landscape, as Miami — and its tastes — continue to grow up, is a concentration on art, culture and good food.  Ever since Art Basel first came to Miami Beach in 2002, art galleries, museums and public art installments have flourished throughout the city.

Nowhere is that more evident than Wynwood, the once blighted area north of Downtown Miami.  Today, it is a mecca to art lovers, tourists, and those eager to be a part of the latest trend.

Wynwood is one of those places that is thriving and suffering for the same reason: it’s the new hot spot.  And in Miami, when something becomes cool, it gets inundated.  That commercialization, some fear, will change what made the area special: it’s authenticity. (Watch: Wynwood, the Mecca of Art a short film that my students filmed and produced.)

That may be; but, as I walked the streets there today, as the first Basel tourists began to trickle into the city, I was happy to enjoy an amazing cup of Panther coffee, which roasts all of their beans in-house and brew coffee to order.  This attention to quality and detail produces an amazing product.  And Panther Coffee is well-known for their fair and responsible trade and sourcing practices.

IMG_4007IMG_4018No, this isn’t for everyone.  Plenty of people scoff at the long line, the cramped quarters.  Many will surely argue that coffee is coffee is coffee.  And I am certain that many of today’s patrons were there for the novelty, the hype, the cool factor.

But, so what?

Walking the streets, people were everywhere.  They were admiring the murals, photographing, and watching artists work, many of them with young children in tow.

So maybe Wynwood is a Hipster haven, and maybe it is incredibly ironic that this area that attracted artists specifically because it was affordable is now a hot piece of real estate that becomes more mainstream every day.  But it is home to great restaurants that focus on good, fresh and locally sourced foods.  There is art everywhere and people who just a few years ago avoided this part of Miami, now show it off to friends visiting from out of town.

So if the Hipsters change Miami for the better — forcing us to focus on art and culture, making us think a little more about ingredients — if only because it’s cool and trendy, I welcome them.

black and white  IMG_4011

Teenagers are selfish, we taught them to be

holidays

Black Friday now begins before Thanksgiving dinner is even over.

Teenagers are supposed to be self-centered.  As long as I can remember, and even before I was born, the stereotypical angsty teenager — the James Dean-like Rebel Without a Cause, the Breakfast Club, the mischievous too cool for rules Zack from Saved by the Bell – has been king.

And with good reason.

Teenagers are moody.  They are self-centered, bordering on narcissistic.  And a study published this summer claims that today’s teenagers are also more materialistic than any generation before them.

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge — along with co-author Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College published the study, using a sample of more than 355,000 high school students, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Although materialism began rising in the mid-1970s, the study claims that it is at historically high levels.

“Compared to previous generations, recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they’re willing to work hard to earn them,” said Twenge, who also authored the book Generation Me.

Why are they so superficial?  The better question is how could they not be?

For the first time, retailers are open on Thanksgiving. Social critics and grandmothers everywhere are fretting over the loss of family values and the rise of commercialism.  But that is short-sighted.

Yes, Christmas is earlier this year than ever.

Kmart aired their first Christmas advertisement in September.  Christmas ornaments decorated the mall in October.  Thanksgiving isn’t here yet, but pine trees already greet shoppers outside of home improvement stores.

Why?  A stubborn recession and the rise in online shopping hurt retailers’ bottom line.  And Christmas is big business.  It always has been.  From Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus to nutcrackers, advertisers know that Christmas sells.  So much so that in 1939 FDR moved Thanksgiving up a week to provide retailers with an extra week of shopping before Christmas.

In the movies, the holidays are about friends and family.  In our fondest memories, they usually are.  But, in reality, Christmas is about shopping.  People run out before dawn to partake in Black Friday madness.  This year they’ll work off the extra stuffing and pumpkin pie while weaving through crowds at their favorite store for some competitive shopping.

So, why are teenagers materialistic?  They learned it from watching us.  They’ve learned that the holidays are about presents.  They’ve learned to wait in line for hours, even days, to be the first to buy a video game console.  They’ve learned that despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate, Apple sold a record breaking 9 million new iPhone 6s on their first weekend alone. They’ve learned that things are important, that things will make them happy.

Adolescence is tough. Kids are under a lot of pressure – to get good grades, get into good schools, make friends, be cool – as they are trying to figure out who they are.  And we’ve taught them that the right pair of shoes and the perfect smartphone can help them do that.