Every night after dinner, the four of us would gather around the cramped dining table in our apartment on Kendall Drive, quizzing one another, working on our English pronunciation, memorizing medical concepts, multiplication tables, SAT vocabulary — whatever had to be memorized — drying every stubborn tear because there was not a second to waste.
We were like a startup. When my parents decided to leave Cuba and moved us to Miami in 2002, they were determined to build our own future from scratch. My father, Héctor Chicuén, an electrical engineer, would find work at Florida Power & Light. My mother, María Victoria García, a pediatrician, would certify her medical degree. My younger sister María Cristina Chicuén and I would attend college. This was our business plan. What we lacked in resources, we made up for in drive, an unspoken no-excuse philosophy, an overabundance of togetherness.
Within our family enterprise, teamwork was essential. Whether at a Home Depot, a local Christmas tree shop or a cement factory, my dad would pack his weeks with two and sometimes three jobs in order to make ends meet so that my mom could devote her time to the medical certifications. Some days, when the orange juice disappeared from our kitchen as we ran out of money, when stress drove my dad to twitch his eyes like a flickering emergency light, my mom would close the textbooks.
“No es fácil,” she’d say as she grabbed a mop and drove the short distance to Pinecrest, where good cleaning services were always welcome at the ranch-style estates carved deep in the lush, tropical landscape. Or we’d head to a local gym together. My mother took care of toddlers while their parents exercised, and I prepared protein shakes at the gym’s cafeteria.
These were my high school years, which now blur in my mind, forming a mosaic of sleep deprivation, five-minute phone calls to relatives in Cuba and endless homework for as many advanced courses as I could fit in my schedule. On a rare occasion, as a reward for good grades or a promotion, as a little pause in all the hustle, we would treat ourselves to a family meal at Denny’s.
“Hi, hello, I would like a coffee with milk,” my mom would request in her rehearsed English version of “Hola, qué tal, un café con leche por favor.” The waiter, of course, would proceed to bring a glass of American coffee and a glass of milk.
We also used to rent movies from Blockbuster. We had given up on movie theaters since our first experience, on the release of the original Harry Potter movie. Dressed in our best clothes for what we thought was a special night out, we were baffled by the teenagers in shorts and tank tops — “hasta en chancletas” — flooding Kendall Regal Cinema.
Time had never been so precious to us. Every hour of my father’s work meant $6, $8, $9, $14, $18 to sustain the entire family. One more hour of study brought my mother closer to certifying her medical degree. One more hour at school meant my sister and I were more fluent in English, more prepared for a complex education system we were determined to conquer. That’s why we would arrive at family gatherings with a textbook under our arms, or pass on parties altogether if there was an opportunity for overtime work or a tutoring session.
We took advantage of every resource and free lunch. Even free dinners. On the morning of our first Thanksgiving, the staff from my sister’s elementary school gifted us with a sumptuous turkey we had no idea how to cook. “We’ll roast it like pork,” we thought, as we did in Cuba for every major celebration. Soaked in our traditional marinade of garlic and bitter orange, accompanied by yuca, fried plantains, steamed white rice and black beans, our own bicultural turkey was soul-nourishing. And we were deeply thankful.
Steady, we kept studying and working as hard as we could. It was well into our third year in Miami when the unmistakable light of good fortune crept through our windows. My father received the dream offer from Florida Power & Light. My mother passed her medical board exams and was accepted to a residency program at a prestigious hospital in New York. I received a letter of admission and a generous scholarship to attend Harvard University.
Miami refused to let us go. As we readied to embark on a new adventure in the Northeast, just a few weeks before my high school graduation, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
We would not give up. We had won the most difficult battles — separation from our family, poverty and unemployment, loneliness, the inability to express our most basic needs and feelings. We would not give in to illness.
For months, my mother fought through chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hours of surgery until she recovered and claimed the spot she had earned so rightfully at her medical residency. Today, she is a primary-care physician in Little Havana, an area of critical medical need.
My father’s career at Florida Power & Light spans over 10 years. As he has risen through different roles and departments, he has been able to coach other recent immigrants on successful applications for employment at the company.
My sister is now in her third year of college at Stanford University. Every summer, she returns to Miami, where she has interned with the Miami Heat and farmers markets to complement her studies in health policy and urban food systems. She is preparing herself to promote wellness in our city after she graduates.
I am at Miami Dade College. From my post in the college president’s office, I recognize in the faces of many of our students the same determination and thirst for opportunity that first brought my family to Miami, and which continue to drive every one of our individual and collective endeavors.
This city has given us a brighter present than we could have ever imagined.
It’s our turn to pay it forward.
Maria Carla Chicuén is the author of ‘Achieve the College Dream: You Don’t Need to Be Rich to Attend a Top School.’