From Cuba to U.S.: a story of dreams, love & determination

Photo of Kathy NeiraIt was 2011 and Oxsormira “Kathy” Neira and her husband were college graduates living in Cuba, the island located 90 miles from the U.S. state of Florida.
They had just finished their master’s degrees and had their dream jobs:
Kathy was working for the national news department in the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, and her husband was a college professor at the University of Havana.
However, that was not their true dream. That dream was 90 miles away. But, it wasn’t the miles that mattered as much as it was being far away from their communist country. They did not want to raise their newborn daughter in a place where there is no hope, no prosperity -- but most importantly -- no freedom.
Their daughter was 7-months-old when Kathy’s husband had an opportunity to come to the United States as part of a collegiate exchange. This was the opportunity they have been waiting for a long time. One day he called her to confirm he was not coming back; he was going to stay in the United States. Kathy and their daughter could not leave Cuba, but she knew it was the right decision.
“You think you are prepared because we waited a long time for that moment, but I had no idea it would be so painful until it happened.  Everyone in my family was devastated and I had to be the strong person for everyone,” Kathy recalls. “One day a coworker asked how I was doing and I said I was fine. She said, ‘No. How are you?’ and I just started crying. I didn’t know if we would ever see him again.”
But, the family was reunited, in just two years – something that is a blink of an eye for Cuban nationals who want to leave but never get that chance. Simply put, Kathy says: “We were lucky.”
 
Two sides of Cuba
Growing up, Kathy has great memories of her childhood. It was a sheltered life in a smaller town.
Two photos showing the family Comparsa competitions where groups perform in the neighborhood.“My parents provided us with a happy life. It was the 1990s and you didn’t hear much about what was happening off the island, anyway,” recalls Kathy, who is now the Work Control Supervisor in Facilities.
Sure, there may not have been running water at times. But, all of your neighbors, family and friends have buckets to hold fresh water in case it’s not available so it doesn’t seem out of place.
When she sends her children back to visit Cuba so that they can see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there are children still using toys passed down for generations because you may not have access to purchase new toys. You would say it’s sentimental, it’s not wasteful and there is a beauty in having that kind of connected community; but there wasn’t many other options.
“There was a rationalized card that would allow you to buy a toy three times a year. Parents had to go to the store before the sunrise and wait in line hoping they will find what their children wanted when it was their turn to buy. Now the government sells them in dollars or euros, currencies that most Cuban people don’t have,” Kathy says.
Growing up, you begin to see the challenges in that lifestyle.
“The first time my daughter went back to visit she was 4 years old and she was fine, but she’s older now and she can see that things aren’t the same there as they are here,” Kathy says. “She told me, ‘Mommy, can you bring some toys and school supplies for my friends here,’ and I was really proud of her because was this 8-year-old girl who could see how important it was to have these things.”
Kathy was a teenager when she began to see for herself that life was challenging in ways that it maybe didn’t need to be.
“I lived in a dorm in high school and we had to keep water in buckets just in case it wasn’t running. We would have pieces of wood and wire inside the bucket and plug those in to help get the water warm.
You learn pretty quickly to remember to unplug the wire or else you’ll get electrocuted,” she says.
In college, she moved to the capital city of Havana and received even more of an awakening. She lived on the 18th floor of a 20-floor dormitory that didn’t have a working elevator and, many days, didn’t have running water. Her education in art history – and, later, her job in broadcasting with one of the nation’s government-owned TV stations – was paid for and approved by the government but it always came at a much higher cost.
“You live in fear that something will happen to you because of the way you think – you could lose your job, they could expel you from the university if you say something against the government,” Kathy says.
“Education is free. Health care is free. Only the government has guns. And life is miserable because you have no freedom.”
 
Moving onward
When her daughter waPhoto of Kathy with her citizenship certificate.s 2 years old, Cuba lifted restrictions that allowed Kathy to travel with her child to
Mexico, and later they made their way to the United States seeking for political asylum. The program allowed them to apply for citizenship after 5 years – and that’s exactly what they did.
“Becoming an American citizen was a goal of mine and that was one of the happiest days in my life since
I’ve moved here,” Kathy says. “When you become a citizen, it’s different. This country has given me more than my homeland did in 30 years. I know that I now have a power. I can vote. I have a voice in who is going to be the next president – and how can you have that privilege and not use it?”
That’s not to say it was easy from the start, for a college graduate who had spent years rising to the level of television producer and making changes to the way the news team evaluated their work Kathy originally had a different vision of what her life in America might be.
“I didn’t have a degree that translated well because it was all about talking – in Spanish – and even though they had taught us English in Cuba it wasn’t very good,” she says. “I had a mission. I had to learn
English. One tip I have is that if you want to learn another language, watch cartoons. I was watching cartoons with my daughter and learning a lot of the basics.”
 
Finding a place at UNT
She and her husband settled in Denton and she began working with Custodial Services in Facilities.
“I thought ‘OK, I’m going to work at UNT, go to the College of Education, get a bilingual certification and then I’ll teach.’ I had a plan and I was going to follow that plan,” she says.
“Well it didn’t go that way,” she adds.
Her part-time job turned into a full-time job with Custodial Services. She worked at Sage Hall and at the
Facilities buildings.
“I would go around to everyone and say, ‘I don’t know English. Please let’s practice.’ And, people would practice with me. I saw everyone try to help me and I consider them my second family today,” Kathy says.
Kathy and her familyAfter the birth of her son, it got harder to work the overnight shifts in the department so, for a while, she worked for Lewisville ISD as a substitute teacher. Then, she saw an administrative coordinator position open up with Facilities.
“I was a little afraid to apply because this was a professional job. In Cuba, you don’t apply for jobs like you do here. After you graduate college, you do about two years in social work and you get the minimum wage. There is a list with your GPA and extracurricular activities – they have this pool of positions of state jobs and the first person on this list gets to choose the job they want and then second person, and so on. If you find something later that you want to do, you have to get permission during the social work period,” explains Kathy.
The interview at Facilities turned out fine – and she later became a work control specialist in charge of assisting the Custodial Services team. Her recent promotion moved her away from that team and has set her on a different career path – one that she never expected but appreciated and enjoys.
“I fell in love with the Facilities field. I like knowing how things work, how to fix lights and to fix the A/C.
These things are important to the university’s mission. In Cuba, I had free college but I didn’t always have water available to wash my hands. Here, I see how important it is for student success that they have everything they need – the lights are working, the A/C is on, you have water,” Kathy explains of her decision to stay in Facilities. “I decided that this is what I want to do and I was recently promoted into a position that focuses on customer service. When we get complaints for the most part something good comes out of this. You have to read between the lines to get to the issue and how to fix it, and that builds a better relationship with students, faculty, staff – our whole community.”