Custodian Gave Up Profession to be in America

September 16, 2002

David Leiva

Osvaldo Cruz was only on the job a couple of weeks when a department called facilities services complaining about his janitorial skills. They were, in a word, lacking. Truth is, he didn't know the finer points of cleaning offices. And his English was poor, at best.

"Someone had to teach him," remembers Ivis Garcia, applications specialist in facilities services. Until four years ago, Cruz, 55, had a different job and a different life altogether. He abandoned that life, one where he had his own office and was responsible for the biology education of about 20,000 school children. That was in Cuba, where he was a director of a program to teach 27 biology instructors. Cruz says he hadn't planned on leaving Cuba. Yet the opportunity to do so arrived by mail. Cruz had forgotten that he sent in a visa application. The approval showed up in an envelope.

"My son was grown and working," says Cruz, "and so I asked my wife 'Do we leave or do we stay?'" Ultimately, the economy made the decision for them. "We figured we could help our families more from the outside," he says.

Cruz and his wife, Maritza, arrived in Miami in June 1998. They made their way to New Orleans because many in her family--10 in all--were already working in Tulane's facilities services department. He began working as a temporary employee in July 1998, and was permanently hired in August 1999. Cruz's story is a common one, international experts say. People will often forsake the life they know for the opportunities America offers.

"That's why people leave in rafts into shark-infested waters," says George Fowler, an attorney and director of the local chapter of the Cuban American National Foundation. Fowler's group strongly advocates a Cuba free from the rule of Fidel Castro. But Cruz arrived by plane, not raft, and his struggle wasn't a political one.

For him it essentially meant starting over, checking his once prominent social and academic status at the gates, and, in exchange, lugging around a mop and bucket. According to Ana Lopez, associate provost and director of the Cuban Studies Institute, it is not unusual to see foreign-educated doctors and lawyers take jobs as painters or waiters, simply because they do not know English.

"It's a direct consequence of the language barrier," Lopez says. Not speaking English makes it difficult for non-natives to start where they left off.

"They don't have access or can't get legally accredited [in the United States]," she adds. Cruz, however, has moved on, remembering that the reason he left was financial. In Cuba, he made the equivalent of $17 a month. One month, because of the exchange rate, he figured he made $3. Yet, purchasing a television might cost nearly an entire year's salary. That's what he likes about America.

"There are thousands of examples of people that came here eating dirt," he says, "And now they are millionaires." He has learned that everything doesn't have to be a sacrifice, a fact of life engrained in many of his fellow Cubans. "When I pass through this life, I want to have lived it as well as possible," he says. He points to the vacation, insurance and retirement benefits at Tulane. And then there are the small benefits that he hasn't taken for granted, such as the use of bathrooms and access to coffee and water.

"You would be dying of thirst. There wasn't drinking water for teachers," he says, reminiscing. Cruz even learned how to drive a car, at age 51, and is getting a better handle on English. "Fifty percent I understand, the other 50 percent I imagine," he says. But there are times, he admits, when he wouldn't mind being back in education or maybe working in a lab. Even with the language handicap, Cruz believes, given a shot, he would take advantage of it. Chuckling, he says, "I think I have enough neurons left to learn something else."

David Leiva may be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000