Roadrunner Families, There will be no school on Monday in honor of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. On Tuesday we will be holding our annual vision and hearing screenings in the library. Then Thursday we will hold our monthly Principal’s Coffee, where I will be joined by Christopher D’Erasmo, the Gifted and Talented (GT) Advocate for our campus to share information about the Gifted and Talented identification process. That evening, we will be hosting our first ever Summer Camp Fair. Come by the school gymnasium from 5:30-7:30 pm to learn about summer programs in Central Texas. For more information, email Paola Bueche, our PTA VP for Educational Enrichment – email@example.com.
I am very excited to announce that Austin’s own White Denim will be playing this year’s Lee Live! For those of you new to Lee Live, it is our amazing live music event and auction that serves as the primary fundraiser for all of the PTA funded positions and programming at Lee. Without this event, we would not have our math specialist, reading specialist, full time assistant principal or so many of the important initiatives that make our school the special place that it is. Please mark your calendars for Saturday, March 2nd and join us at Springdale Station for what will be an awesome night of live music and celebration.
As we are looking at the spring semester, I want to share some important information. This year our spring break will be March 18th-22nd. While it does align with the spring break of the University of Texas, it does not align with SXSW, which takes place the week before. At the district level we are anticipating issues related to traffic and congestion as thousands of visitors take part in the nine day festival. Because this is around the time of the planned groundbreaking on our new addition, we will factor this information into our preparation process and share any helpful information. The construction process will displace thirty five staff parking spots, so we are hoping families living in the immediate area will consider letting us use their visitor parking permits during the construction. Please contact me directly if you have any available permits you would be willing to share and thank you all for your continued support.
Lastly, I want to share the latest installment of our We Are Lee series. This first interview of the new year took place with our fantastic custodian, Idania Castillo. Our Lee parent and contributing writer, Clayton Maxwell sat down with Idania to find out more about her life and her remarkable path to Russell Lee Elementary.
Long after the rest of us have left Lee Elementary for the day, custodian Idania Castillo, along with her co-worker Veronica Ramirez, are still taking care of business, making sure the school is ready to welcome almost 500 kids back again the next morning. Idania, who’s been working at Lee for almost 4 years, is from Cuba, the little town of Jovellanos in the province of Matanzas to be exact. She has been in the U.S. since 2006 when she, her now late husband, and their two sons moved here as political prisoners. Last Sunday, Idania invited me over to her home where I was greeted with a great spread of Cuban food: black beans and rice, pork ribs, and tomato salad. Over this feast, she filled me in on how it was for her in Cuba before she left, how she’s been able to make it in the U.S. and why she tears up whenever Mr. Hewlett plays Feliz Navidad in the cafeteria before Christmas.
(this interview was edited for length and translated from Spanish)
Why did you come to the United States?
My husband was a political prisoner in the group Pedro Luis Boitel; they fought against the ideas of Castro. They had reunions and gave out flyers to the people. In Cuba, there is no freedom, and if you say something against the state they can put you in jail and beat you. My husband was in jail for three years, then he got out, and then he had to go back for another year. They put our house on a watch list, always looking for anything that could be against the state. One day they told us, “We know everything about you including when you go to bed.”
You told me that your husband tried to flee Cuba on a raft several times. What did you do?
I stayed in the house with the children. I couldn’t put my kids in danger. I said the only way I can leave is if we do it legally; we aren’t going on rafts. Finally, we talked to the U.S. consulate and they said we could come as political refugees, so we filled out the forms and the consulate helped us. There were two interviews, and the process took 2 years.
Why was your husband against Castro’s government?
Many people are, but you’re not allowed to say so. Cuba is even worse now. There is a lot of hunger, no milk for the children. Only children under three can get milk, and sometimes there is no transport for the milk to the little towns, so sometimes it arrives late at night and it gets ruined.
Can they not refrigerate it?
The conditions are bad in Cuba. Not everyone has refrigerators. We are at least 40 years behind in Cuba. The salary is 250 Cuban pesos, that’s about 10 dollars U.S. If you get internet you can’t afford to eat; if you eat, you can’t get the internet. In Cuba there is a little book for each nuclear family and it has each month of the year in it, so in January you get 5 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of beans, half a liter of cooking oil, half a bar of soap to take a bath, 2 eggs per person. Once that is used up you have to go to the free market to buy and it’s more expensive. Could you live on 5 pounds of rice a month? This all started during the “period especial,” Fidel called it, when we no longer received support from the Soviet Union. But the pueblo, the people, are the ones who suffer. Not the jefes. What was the hardest part about leaving Cuba?
Leaving my whole family: my mom, my dad, my uncles, my brothers. I speak to them on the phone. My mother is 73 and she still rides a bike! What do you think about that? 73. She’s incredible. My brother is a cochero, he drives a horse-drawn carriage that transports people from one side of the village to another.
I wanted to go back when my step father was about to die and the Lee Elementary principal and teachers got together the money for me to fly back but my passport from the Cuban government took too long and I didn’t get to go. But guess what? It finally came, just two weeks ago. It took two years. Also, I can’t put up a Christmas tree here. It makes me too sad. I loved Christmas with my family in Cuba. It is very hard to leave your family. I still haven’t been back, it’s been 13 years. But at least here I know my children are going to have a future. My oldest son, who is now 27, was on a really good career track in Cuba, but once they found out about his father’s political activity they kicked him out.
Are there days when you really miss Cuba?
Oh yes, many. Every time the principal plays Feliz Navidad. No one can tell I’m crying, but every time a new grade comes into the cafeteria, he plays it again and it makes me cry again. December—it’s the most beautiful time of the year, but it’s also the saddest, because my family is so far away.
Seems like you really need to return to see your mother.
Maybe at the end of the year. It all depends. You can’t just pay for airfare to return to Cuba. You have to come back with money. IT’s expensive. Are your sons happy here?
Yes, they are. I can buy what I want and no one comes and knocks on my door and asks me where I got my car, where I got my beef.. In Cuba if you kill a cow you go to jail for 30 years. There is no meat in Cuba, just pork. There’s nothing to eat in Cuba.
What are the main differences between your life here and your life there?
We were lucky in Cuba. We had side businesses. My husband sold electrical equipment so then I had extra money to make buñueloscubanos. We lived between two elementary schools and every morning I sold buñuelosto the kids, and we made ham sandwiches that we sold for 2 Cuban pesos. We also sold garlic and onions. We were very active. This was all black market, outside of the state (she laughs)– but all people hustle this way. Sometimes you get fines for working outside of the state. And in every neighborhood there is a committee that informs the government on what’s going on in the neighborhood. (Here Idania begins singing the Cuban song, “En Cada Barrio Hay Una Comite….”) That’s how you live in Cuba.
Your husband died in 2008, two years after you arrived. How has it been to survive in this new country as a single mom?
Very hard. Sometimes I didn’t have a dollar. I had to figure everything out. In Cuba you don’t pay for anything–the doctors, the kids school lunch… I didn’t know how systems work here. I would get evacuation notices from our tiny apartment on Manchaca. But I know how to fight. This house? I helped build it, I did the sheetrock, I painted, I caulked. I worked with Habitat for Humanity—I applied four times with them. And I persisted until I succeeded. I worked at the University of Texas from 5 in the afternoon until 2am in the morning. And then, from 6 in the morning on I worked on this house with Habitat. I had to do 400 hours of volunteer work. But the program is fantastic. Everyone works together. All of my neighbors helped. I was a single mom by this point and I needed a house.
You seem very happy. What’s your secret?
This country is not easy. Everything is money. I have been depressed. But here is one curious story: I was cleaning at the University and I walked in an auditorium and there was a kid in there working in the dark. A kid with blonde curls and he said, “God Loves You.” But he had to look it up on the computer to translate it into Spanish. And he told me some scriptures to read. And since then, I’ve studied and joined a church. I know I have everything I need. I work happily, I like my work. I like Lee, I feel tranquil there, like I’m in family.
When I was in Cuba, I liked how much people hung out on the streets together. Does it ever feel lonely here in comparison?
Yes. My oldest son who lives with his girlfriend in Elgin tries to come see me every Sunday. But some days he’s tired from working so much and he can’t make it. You don’t have to work as hard in Cuba. In Cuba, there’s always time for friends, people are always together. Free time. Here, it’s not like that.
I remember so many Cubans being positive despite all of their hardships. Does that feel accurate to you?
The Cuban has adapted to hardship after so many years of it. They say, “No bread? Ha! It doesn’t matter!” They are adapted. It would be much harder for me now to not have bread or electricity because of what I know now. It’s much harder to go a store and see all the food and not have money to buy it, but a Cuban in Cuba has never seen all of that–the eye that doesn’t see, doesn’t know—so they don’t feel as bad about not getting it. It’s worse to be here and see all of the abundance and not be able to have a part of it. In Cuba, you got a stick and a can and you can dance.
Have a wonderful weekend,
John Hewlett Principal – Russell Lee Elementary School 512-414-1117 @LeeRoadrunners
Russell Lee Elementary School
3308 Hampton Road
Austin, Texas 78705
Sara Bircher, President
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