Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Story by Matthew Hansen
Photography by Ryan Soderlin
Octavio paced in the airport hallway, back and forth beneath the blinking signs that show departures, arrivals, connections.
His palms sweated. His brain crested and crashed and flooded, and he tried to dam it up by solving the first problem, the one immediately before him.
Should I shake her hand when she gets off the plane? Give her a hug? Kiss her on the mouth?
Niuris yanked her carry-on from the overhead bin and rolled it up the ramp into this unfamiliar airport they called Eppley. Her mind backfired and revved and seized like a bad engine in one of those classic Chevrolets back home in Havana.
Will I even recognize him after six years? What am I doing here? What are we doing?
She looked up the long airport hallway and saw him standing there, and he looked down and saw her, and in that instant a thousand memories of an old life and a thousand more hopes and fears of a new one — the entire haywire circuitry of two minds — simply shut down, blinked off like a TV unplugged from a wall.
They went on instinct then on that November day in 2012, an instinct that even now, years later, they can’t fully explain. All they can do is tell you what happened.
Octavio Sordo, who had trekked from Cuba to Paraguay to Tampa to Omaha in search of something better, started walking toward Niuris Mirabal, who had journeyed from Cuba to Chile to Omaha for the same reason. She quickened her pace and yanked her carry-on up the ramp faster. He clenched his fists and began to jog down the ramp. He began to run.
They met in the Concourse B corridor. She dropped her carry-on. He held out his arms.
There was no handshake, no polite hug. They kissed, really kissed, just like in the movies.
Then, as they walked hand in hand through the hallway and down the escalator, Octavio Sordo and Niuris Mirabal asked themselves another question, a question likely posed by each of the 150,000 Cubans who have migrated to the United States in the past decade.
They had departed, arrived, connected. Now they exited through the airport’s revolving doors, a single inescapable thought buzzing in their heads.
What now? What now? What now?
Kenia Mirabal, see here at her apartment building located in the rural town of Bahia Honda, long worked as a government official in charge of food rations in the area before retiring. She says she knew her daughter Niuris would leave Cuba from the time Niuris was a teenager.
This Cuban migration love story
begins two hours outside of Havana, in a little town called Bahia Honda, inside the little apartment of a proud mother named Kenia.
She greets you at the door, ushers you into her living room, sits down and practically busts open and explodes with confetti at the first mention of her only daughter, Niuris.
Niuris studied hard, she says, so hard that she got into a special high school an hour from here.
Niuris got into a good college in Havana, she says, then outshone the other biology students even though she didn’t have enough food to eat or nice clothes to wear.
And from the time she was a teenager — from the time she was old enough to realize how much her mother struggled and sacrificed in Cuba — Niuris began to make a promise.
Mami, she would say, one day I’m going to pay you back for what you have done. One day I’m going to help you.
Kenia sits in Niuris' childhood bedroom, which is still filled with Niuris' photos and a closet full of her things.
"She’s a great kid. She’s really smart," Kenia says. "And I know she felt desperation."
The mass migration out of Cuba is built upon dutiful, bright children — daughters like Niuris — who are desperate to leave, build a better life and then send money back home to support their families.
For a half-century Cubans did this at great peril, often floating on makeshift rafts toward the promise of the United States, which has long granted Cubans a special legal status once they hit American shores.
Untold thousands never made it, either caught by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned to Cuba to face the wrath of Fidel Castro, or even worse. Kenia knows dozens of people who died when their boats sank en route to Florida. Her own cousin died this way.
But in the past few years, three factors have turned this trickle of migration into a deluge.
One, the Cuban government has loosened restrictions on who can leave, making it easier (though still difficult) to migrate to the United States via Central or South America.
Two, the Cuban economy has stayed in the tank, particularly for educated professionals, many of whom make the equivalent of $20 or $30 per month despite advanced degrees.
And three, the potential end of the embargo — the chance the frosty Cuba-U.S. relationship will thaw — is driving people out of Cuba, too, because Cubans worry that the embargo’s end might mean the end to their preferred U.S. immigration status.
Last fiscal year more than 43,000 Cubans stepped onto U.S. soil, easily the largest number in the 21st century.
Both Niuris and Octavio had known since they were teenagers that they wanted — that they needed — to leave.
Not because they hated Fidel or his politics, they say. They needed to leave because they knew they would never make a decent salary, buy a car or own a house if they stayed.
"Do you want to live together with your mother and your grandmother in a two-bedroom apartment for your whole life?" Octavio asks.
The desire to leave was already there when Octavio and Niuris passed each other and briefly locked eyes in a hallway one day in 2005, on the campus of the Latin American School of Medicine, where they were teachers.
They didn’t know it then, but that glance would set into motion a twisting, turning story that led to Eppley and a new, uncertain life in Omaha.
How did that all happen, Kenia? She leans forward on her couch in a little apartment in this little Cuban town. She smiles a proud mother’s smile.
"It happened," she says, "because Octavio fell in love with Niuris."
Octavio Sordo teaches a physics class at Omaha South High School. Sordo moved from Havana to Paraguay to Tampa and finally to Omaha, where he got his teaching certificate. Octavio once dreamt that immigrating to the United States meant a big house and a fancy car. "I thought everyone had a big house in America!" he said. "Everyone had a Mercedez-Benz!" Today he has a cozy house and a white SUV — not the dream, but a far more comfortable existence that he would have had in Cuba, he says.
Octavio teaches physics
like it’s a full contact sport. He scribbles acceleration/aceleración on the whiteboard and then jets to the back of his Omaha South classroom to answer a freshman’s question. He sprints back to the whiteboard and starts calling students up and peppering them with questions: What is inertia? Equilibrium? Friction?
He yells out the answers in both English and Spanish to this class of Hispanic high schoolers. He teaches so hard he sweats.
Octavio was born to be a teacher. Becoming one at Omaha South High School required three moves, a small fortune and several hours in a jail cell.
A decade ago he taught at the Latin American School of Medicine just outside Havana, making a salary of $25 a month — just enough to survive. To make extra money, he left the school every Friday afternoon, grabbed his collection of illegal VHS tapes and walked to a nearby neighborhood.
If you wanted to rent "Titanic" or another movie, Octavio charged five pesos, the equivalent of a quarter, and let you keep it for a week. If you wanted to rent "Sábado Gigante," the famous Spanish-language variety program, it was going to cost you.
" ‘Sábado Gigante’ was a dollar!" he yells, remembering his joy when a Cuban rented it. "If I rented one of those, I could buy a bottle of rum!"
An eight-day series from The World-Herald
Day One Put aside those old views of Fidel and a Cuba stuck in the 1950s. In large and small ways, this country is changing fast.
Day Two Two women pursue their entrepreneurial dream inside the state-run economy.
Day Three How a $2 weekly service is connecting Cubans to the rest of the world.
The photographs Photographer Ryan Soderlin takes you on a visual journey through Cuba.
Then one day he passed a new macrobiology professor in the hallway. I need to meet her, he thought. He spent the next week scheming, and settled on a plan.
Late one afternoon, Octavio walked into her department and loudly asked to borrow a textbook. The new professor looked up from her desk and smiled. You can borrow mine, she said.
The textbook went unread. But a week later, Niuris and Octavio went to a movie.
He found her gorgeous and whip-smart. She found him magnetic and cute, too. They dated for three months, but it didn’t get serious. It didn’t get serious because Octavio was leaving.
He had secured a teaching position in Paraguay, part of the wave of Cuban professionals getting out at their first chance. In 2006 he said goodbye to Niuris and got on a plane. He ate lamb for the first time in Paraguay. He ate his first Big Mac. But his time there was short, because his real dream lived elsewhere.
He was going to move to Florida. He was going to become an American teacher.
And then he was going to buy a Benz.
"I thought everyone had a big house in America!" he says. "Everyone had a Mercedes-Benz!"
There were a couple of problems with this dream. The first was actually getting to Florida. He flew to Chile, where it became clear that he didn’t have the proper visa. The Chilean authorities tossed him in the airport jail. When released, he flew to Mexico, where he knew how to avoid jail: He bribed immigration officials. Finally he flew to Tampa, where under the special Cuban immigration policy he could quickly start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
Total cost of this journey, including tickets, visas, other documents and greased palms: $20,000.
The second problem came once he arrived in Tampa.
He didn’t get a big house. He didn’t get a Benz. He didn’t even get a teaching job.
Instead, for the first few months of his new life in America, this proud science teacher with several college degrees worked the graveyard shift at a suburban movie theater.
His task: Clean the theaters after the movies ended.
He mopped nacho cheese off the floor. He thought, "I was teaching in Cuba. I was teaching in Paraguay. What am I doing here?"
Octavio began to hate nacho cheese. He began to hate Tampa. He had a cousin in Omaha who happened to be working as a para-educator for the Omaha Public Schools.
In 2007 he moved to a state so unfamiliar that he had trouble pronouncing the name: Nebraska.
He started tutoring Spanish-speaking students, and eventually got a job teaching in the dual-language program at Omaha South. He bought a two-bedroom house near 72nd and Blondo Streets. He got married, then divorced.
And then, a couple of years ago, he got a Facebook friend request from an old, familiar name now living in Chile.
Bahia Honda is a town of roughly 46,000 people located 60 miles southwest of Havana. The booming tourist economy in Havana hasn't yet reached the island's more rural areas.
Her friends kept calling her insane.
You can’t be serious, they said when she told them about this Facebook relationship growing and deepening by the day. This will never work.
She had stayed behind in Cuba, gotten her master’s degree, lost all contact with her old boyfriend. She had applied for and received a scholarship to continue studying in Spain, only to be crushed when the Cuban government denied her request to travel there. And she had made a Chilean friend, a woman willing to help her move there.
On Jan. 15, 2011, she hugged her mother. She cried hard, like you do when you know things will never be the same. She left for Santiago.
"I had to," she says. "It was this dream, thinking about my future. What will happen in my life now? What does the future hold for me?"
This proud science teacher with an advanced degree found her first job at a shoe store. She didn’t know how to run a credit card machine, because she had never before seen a credit card. She didn’t have the first idea how to sell Nikes, or anything else for that matter.
She found a more fitting job, at a biology lab, and that felt good. She started sending back money, $50 or $100 a month, to her mom, and that felt even better.
She made friends, went on dates, paid her rent, went to movies, settled into her new life. But at the same time, that Facebook friend request had turned into Facebook messages back and forth with Octavio. The short messages had turned into long emails. The long emails had turned into phone calls.
Kenia says she uses money sent by Niuris and Octavio mostly to buy extra food, because the rations the government provides her often aren't enough.
Now they were talking every night, and as the months passed Octavio started asking: Would you like to move to America? Would you like to move to the town where I live, Omaha? Would you like to live with me?
That’s crazy, Niuris’ friends in Santiago said. Are you out of your mind, Octavio’s friends in Omaha said.
Niuris said no, many times. And then, one day, for reasons she still doesn’t understand, her answer changed.
She sold pretty much everything she owned. She packed one bag. She flew to Mexico City, where she paid for a black-market Mexican visa. She flew to Laredo, Texas, where she declared herself a Cuban and they handed her a legal, temporary visa.
And then the next day, Nov. 4, 2012, she boarded a plane bound for Omaha.
Octavio and Niuris hadn’t seen each other since the day he left Cuba in 2006. They had discussed contingency plans in case it didn’t work out. Octavio had promised to help Niuris get on her feet in Omaha no matter if they dated or not. As she stepped off the plane at Eppley, she had no idea what would happen.
"I was worried that he would be fat," she says. "I heard all Americans were fat."
He didn’t know, either. "I was so scared," he says.
They ran to each other and kissed, just like in the movies, and if this were a romantic comedy, that’s when the credits would have rolled. But the anxious question — What now? What now? — still buzzed in their heads until they got into Octavio’s car and drove toward the lights of downtown Omaha.
Niuris loved the bouquet of roses that Octavio had left for her in the passenger seat. They talked like old friends on the car ride. They laughed easily, comfortably, as Octavio pointed out the tall buildings on the way to his Benson-area home.
Their need to leave Cuba had torn them apart, but somehow during that car ride they snapped themselves back together, like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
It felt relaxed. It felt comfortable. It felt like home.
"After we had been together five minutes, I knew," Octavio said. "I just knew."
Octavio Sordo, right, with his wife, Niuris Mirabal, in front of their Omaha home. Niuris, who will soon get her teaching certificate, is pregnant with their first child. The couple plans to name her Leah and raise her in Omaha.
It’s a frigid January day,
the sort of day that makes them miss Cuba, but it’s warm inside their little house.
Octavio is wearing a Cuba baseball jersey, hanging up a visitor’s coat, asking his mother (who is visiting from Florida) to make Cuban coffee, bouncing from room to room so excitedly he starts to sweat.
Niuris is settled into the couch, watching him out of the corner of her eye, grinning at his energy, struggling for the right English words to describe their journey from Havana to Omaha.
It is not easy when you give up a prestigious job in your home country to move to an unfamiliar place when you barely know the language. It is not easy to start over, learn English using Rosetta Stone, slog through years of college courses just to crawl back to the point where you can teach again.
She misses the electric streets of Havana, where everyone is outside on their stoops, where everyone is a friend, where if you need extra sugar or coffee or just a smile you can get it in seconds flat.
And she misses Kenia, misses her so much. Just this morning, she thought of her mami as she was getting ready for work, and before she knew it, she was sobbing.
But two things make it easier. The first is this house, this relationship. After Octavio picked her up from the airport, she moved into his little house in Benson and it became theirs. They have rarely fought, and when they do it’s over stupid things, like the right brand of shampoo.
"It feels like we have been together more than three years," she says. "Like forever."
The second thing that makes it easier is the huge bump in her belly, one growing bigger by the day.
It is a girl, and when she is born they will teach her Spanish, so she can speak to her grandmothers. They will teach her English, so she can succeed in this new country that is so bewildering and so filled with promise.
They will work hard, and save money for her college and for a bigger house if she has sisters and brothers.
"We will try and give her all the stuff we didn’t have," Niuris says. "We will try and give her the best."
Her name will be Leah. It will be spelled the common American way, her parents have decided, because she will be an American.
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