By Carol Radin
For Ivette Cruz, the 1,500 miles from her native Cuba to Syracuse can be measured in spirit and determination. Three years after her emigration, her new life is finally coming together, with graduate study at Syracuse University, teaching, new friendships, and time for her beloved tango dancing. When she arrived in 2015, though, it was not at all clear that things would fall into place.
In Cuba, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in philology from the University of Havana. She was working in Havana in an entry-level proofreading job, for which she was underpaid and overqualified. Ivette knew she had to change her life. Her mother and sister were already situated in Miami, so she joined them there for a short time and then struck out on her own when she found out that Syracuse’s Interfaith Works Refugee Program would sponsor her. Interfaith Works found her an apartment, gave her a monthly stipend, helped her navigate the requirements of a new foreign resident, and assisted in her job search.
It was a beginning — but a difficult one for a young woman without a car and a job. Ivette arrived in a wintry November. To do errands and carry groceries home, she literally had to walk uphill to her apartment off of Erie Boulevard. Then there was the laundromat.
“It was like science fiction,” she said. “I didn’t know how it worked!”
Nevertheless, Ivette persisted, even when she felt overwhelmed.
“I knew I wanted to study and to work, but I didn’t know how,” she said.
While studying English in a St. Lucy’s Church program, she volunteered at the Manos Dual Language Early Childhood program, part of Partners in Learning on the city’s West Side. Although she had never worked with children before, Ivette excelled, and was soon hired for a paid position working all day with 18 3-year-olds. Within a year, she became the lead teacher. She also got to know two people whose mentorship she values: Theresa Pagano, president and CEO of Partners in Learning at the time, and Eira Cotto, Ivette’s supervisor.
Ivette worked at Manos three years. She obtained her permanent resident card. She learned to drive. Her life began to take shape “without being aware it was happening!” she said. Yet it was Ivette who was truly making it happen. Looking back on Cuba, where she had lived in her mother’s house all her life, she reflects, “I was in a bubble. Now I have to be responsible for myself. A big change for me, earning my own money, working… I wasn’t aware in Cuba that it could be like that.”
Ivette was ready for her next step. One day she surveyed Syracuse University’s graduate programs online and found that the Spanish department had one opening in its master’s program in Literature, Language, and Culture. She applied and was accepted. Currently, Ivette is in her second semester at SU. She also has a teaching assistantship, teaching one Spanish language course and a conversation class. With her degree, she wants to teach Spanish, and with her love of linguistics, she is thinking she might even study beyond the master’s degree someday.
With teaching commitments and her own coursework, it might seem impossible to have time for anything else, but Ivette has managed to pursue another passion, tango dancing.
“Everywhere I go,” she said, “I have to look for tango.”
Early on, Ivette managed to find a small tango group in Syracuse. Now she dons her dancing heels and takes to the dance floor with her boyfriend for La Casita Cultural Center’s milonga gatherings and for Wednesday night tango practices at the Skybarn on the SU Skytop campus. With energy to spare, Ivette is hoping to do some tango workshops in Syracuse and share her passion for the dance with young people here.
The dance keeps Ivette connected to her past in Cuba, though nowadays she looks forward more than back.
“My life has changed,” she said. “It’s completely different. I am in charge of my life!”