Standing in front of the Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard, I looked at the birds fly free. The wind blew erratically without command, subject to its own will, and I got carried away by the ghosts of a past not so far away.
Every day after class in Santo Suarez, La Habana, Grandpa Roberto took me home and told me the things my teacher did not want me to know.
“The tocororo is our national bird because it cannot be kept in captivity. If someone imprisons it, the bird hits its head against the cage until it is dead,” Grandpa said. He also told me stories about our family from North America that fled the island towards a beacon of freedom and hope, Miami, soon after January 1959. The lack of freedom in Cuba had not only separated our family but taken their properties after leaving the country. However, the extent of our captivity was much deeper than I knew at the time.
Growing up, I was forced to do “volunteer work” which was mandatory to predicate our government’s beliefs. Professors threatened to open a disciplinary file on me every time I mentioned the inconsistencies between the content they taught in class and the reality I experienced outside the classroom. Fake news about Cuba’s economy and our support of the government took over the newspapers and television. There was no legal access to other sources of information, so I hid to read or watch the news from international media. As time passed, I felt a prisoner of my own thoughts; the imaginary walls that Castro’s dictatorship had surrounded me with got closer every day and the feeling of claustrophobia grew exponentially inside me. As the tocororo, I needed to fly away, or I would end up hitting my head against the walls until there was nothing left of me. Propelled by my desire to fly free, I escaped to Mexico to cross the border to the United States of America. I left everything I knew and loved behind to pursue what had only been a dream to me, freedom. My mother’s hugs, the smell of the coffees I had with my friends every weekend, the afternoon soccer discussions I shared with my brother, and colorful sunsets are now memories on the pages of a book I flip every night before going to sleep.
After fourteen hours of detention on the border, my husband and I embarked on a three-day trip to Miami. The first months in Miami without my family were difficult as I tried to understand the world surrounding me. Words like credit card and health insurance fought to get my attention without making any sense. This transition period was alleviated by the generosity of the United States who provided me with health insurance and food stamps. Of all the aid I received in my new home, the one I am more grateful for is the REVEST program. This program provided me with the basic skills I needed to successfully learn English and adapt to my new life. REVEST became a milestone in my educational path as my professor Kirenia told me about the Honors College at Miami Dade College. I went home excited to share the news with my husband only to find his complete lack of support for my aspirations. He tried to convince me that the Honors College was not a great fit for me because of our precarious finances and lack of external support. The feeling of incarceration invaded me again. I had escaped one cage only to fall prisoner to another one.
After months of arguing with my husband and struggling with mixed feelings, I decided no one would stand in the way of my educational improvement. The tocororo inside me pushed me to find the freedom only education and knowledge could provide, intellectual freedom. I worked overtime every week at a restaurant by taking shifts back to back and four busses to get to work. On weekends, I went to the public library to study for the SAT. My hard work and determination paid off when I was accepted into the Honors College. I found myself surrounded by a group of achievers with whom I could express myself freely and discuss without the fear of being discriminated. In the honors community, I found liberty through research where I investigated the applications of calculus to the economy and the business world. I also found liberty through debates and academic discussions regarding issues in our society and the nature of the economic crisis where everyone expressed their opinions without being attacked. The pinnacle of my expression as an independent human being was a research paper I presented in an annual conference at my college about gender labeling and feminism, a paper I would not have been able to write or read in Cuba.
During my time in the United States, I have nurtured my mind with information from different sources to satiate the hunger for knowledge I accumulated for years. I found out that not only Cuba was submitted to a totalitarian regime, but other nations around the world were deprived of access to different forms of freedom, including economic resources. For that reason, I decided to pursue a major in economic development to aid other nations that, like Cuba, had perished in the claws of misinformation and deficient economic structures. My search for freedom has widened my mind to fully understand the extent to which liberty empowers individuals to exploit their potentialities to their maximum capacity. It has been that journey for freedom that has made me the determined woman I am today, willing to fight not only for myself but for others who need help. For that reason, I decided to provide workshops on budgeting and financial advising to low-income female communities so they can find the financial stability and realization they need to fully free themselves.
As the tocororo, I needed to spread my wings and fly to be complete, but I learned to fight for my right to freedom as opposed to the tocororo who would kill itself once in captivity. As Jose Marti said, “Los derechos se toman, no se mendigan.”