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Lessons from Rocks

My family immigrated to the US from Cuba in 1979 in the hopes of escaping communism and a dictatorship.

I was four going on five and my older brother was six.

Saying goodbye to family the week before we left Cuba for the United States. August 1979.

My father’s sister, Tia Mimi, short for Margarita, was already living in Miami with her family for ten years.

We were truly lucky to be able to stay with them when we first arrived with the clothes on our backs.

Papi with his sister and mother, my Abuelita Ofelia and Tia Mimi (Margarita).

We moved out into a tiny apartment as soon as Dad got his first job because he did not want to be a burden to his sister and her family.

The apartment was in the projects and the neighborhood was not exactly the safest, but my parents did their best to make it a home as they worked two jobs each to give us a shot at a better life in the land of freedom.

In those days, when you were a poor immigrant, you didn’t start out with anything. They had no credit and all of their money went to paying the bills and feeding us.

To say our tiny new home was sparsely furnished would be a severe understatement.

Mami showing off her new vacuum cleaner in our first apartment.

In fact, we didn’t even have a tv for the first few months.

About six months later, my father was on his why to the grocery store where he ran into two men who were selling TVs out of a white van.

I know what you’re thinking, “Alert, Danger Danger!”

I get that most people would find that suspicious, but, it was normal in Cuba to buy things from people on the street or in the black market. That was the only way you could get essentials that you couldn’t get at the empty grocery stores.

Dad simply assumed that it was normal here too.

He was excited about being able to buy our first TV, so he paid them his last $200 and happily drove home with our new tv.

When he got home, he gathered us four into the living room-kitchen-dining room to present his new gift to the family.

I remember the excitement on his face, even though I was only five.

We already knew it was a new tv since we could see the picture on the box, but we were still excited to witness the great unveiling.

As he opened the box, his proud smile turned into a confused frown, then an angry one and soon after, a defeated look.

The box had a surprise alright, but it wasn’t the tv he was so proud to present to his little family.

The tv box was full of rocks.

Papi had been swindled at that parking lot.

As my mother stepped in to console my father, I heard him lamenting about how stupid he felt.

He had spent our grocery money on what he thought would be a new tv for us.

This meant we had to spend the next month eating beans and rice.

After a few minutes father retreated into his bedroom and my mom scuttled us off to get ready for bed since it was a school night.

The next day, Papi got up and went to work and the tv incident was forgotten.

Life went on as usual with my parents going to their factory jobs, my brother and I walking to school.

Eventually we did get a tv, only this time he went INTO the store and checked the box before paying for it.

A couple of years later, we had a tv and a record player and friends to enjoy them with.

Years later, my father would tell the story as a funny thing that happened to us as new immigrants and we would always laugh at the absurdity and our ignorance.

Many years later, when I was in my thirties, the story came up again at a party. I asked my father how it made him feel to have been taken advantage of like that.

He looked at me and matter-of-factly replied, “Mija, that was one of dozens of times that people tried to take advantage of us. We just learned and moved on; punto.”

I watched his face as he said it. There was no sadness or anger or any emotions. He didn’t lament at all of the ways he may have been a victim of someone with bad intentions.

That reaction stuck with me. Papi was the embodiment of getting back up, dusting yourself off and moving forward no matter what life threw at you.

He had been a political prisoner in Cuba and his biggest dream in life was to come to the land of freedom and opportunity.

My father had been to the darkest places one could go, in a cell with bread and water for food and hard labor as a punishment for his political beliefs.

Yet, he held on to his hope and determination and worked his way towards achieving his dream of moving to the land of freedom.

When he achieved that dream, he worked towards a new one, owning a house.

It took my father fifteen years of working like a beast, but eventually, my parents bought a little house in a working class neighborhood.

My brother and I were already grown by then, but it was still cause for celebration and a huge accomplishment in our eyes.

Now, my brother and I did not have a college fund or really any financial support for college. We didn’t expect it since we knew that we came from humble beginnings and had to find out own paths to success.

We were raised with the understanding that whatever we did with our lives, we had a tremendous leg up because we had freedom and opportunity.

We both did find our own success armed with gratitude, our father’s immigrant work ethic and lessons from the rocks.

You see, life WILL punch you in the gut.

Sometimes, it’s in the form of rocks in a box.

You CANNOT let those rocks crush your will.

You CAN do what my father did and turn those rocks into stepping stones and continue climbing up your own ladder to success.

Resilience, my friends, is the name of the game.

So here’s to the TV that never was, the rocks that taught us a lesson, and the resilience that keeps us climbing towards success.

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