Bárbara Cruz, a secondary education professor at USF, spoke to a crowd of about 200 students in the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater about her immigrant journey from Cuba and her start in the teaching field as part of Housing and Residential Education’s Last Lecture series, a series in which speakers are asked to share the stories they would if they knew it was there last chance to do so.
Cruz said she moved to the U.S. from Playa de Sante Fe in Cuba in 1966 after President Lyndon B. Johnson funded the biggest airlift in history, which flew about 1,000 Cubans into Miami each week from 1965-1970. Cruz, along with her sister and her mother, were a part of this airlift.
“My mother and I lived in what they called ‘La Casa de Libertad’ in Miami for two weeks, waiting to figure out where we would go next,” she said. “We were given a one-way Pan Am ticket to L.A. where we were taken to a city called Torrance, California.”
Upon arriving in the U.S., Cruz said she was reunited with her father, Ignacio Acosta, who had already emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1960 under Fidel Castro’s socialist rule.
Her family moved into an apartment together in Miami, and Cruz said the living conditions were much better than they were in Cuba.
“We were living the American dream,” she said.
After the short time in Miami, Cruz and her father were offered work once they moved to Torrance, California.
Cruz and her father then spent the next five years in Torrance digging up graves to make income for the family. But when an earthquake struck Torrance in 1971 that was measured a 6.6 on the Richter scale, Cruz said her family made the decision to move back to Miami.
“Although it wasn’t too terrible, it was just the lid on the pot that sealed the deal to move back to Miami.”
Cruz continued her middle and high school education in Miami where one of her high school teachers convinced her to take the SAT, even offering to pay for it.
“I only took the test one time and that was enough to get a full scholarship to the University of Miami,” Cruz said.
In 1983, Cruz began her career as a teacher then transferred to teach at the University of South Florida in the fall semester of 1991, after earning her master’s and doctorate from Florida International University. Dr. Cruz was soon recognized as the first Hispanic faculty member in USF’s College of Education.
While at USF, Cruz saw a children’s book that caught her attention. The text inside read “What do Cuban women do with fireflies?”
“When I saw this I thought, ‘Well, what do Cuban women do with fireflies?’” Cruz said. “I mean, I’m not naïve, but this was kind of a stretch.”
When Cruz turned the page, she saw the book’s answer had read “They wear them as jewelry!” The statement inspired her to write books and papers about these sorts of textbook biases.
She has also done a “Towards Democracy and Diversity” project with the Global Schools Projects, which brought teachers from all over the world, especially Haiti, to see the American experience.
Maria Du, a lecture attendee, said she was Cruz’s neighbor and did not know her story until listening to her lecture. Du said she could relate to Cruz’s story because she immigrated to the United States from China 20 years ago.
“Her speech was so touching,” Du said. “It was such a wonderful, successful immigration story.”