Sitting in a leather recliner in her spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, Oxana Horta sighs as her son, Brayan Campos, leaves the living room and races across the hardwood floor to his bedroom. After a couple seconds of rustling, the 8-year-old sprints back holding a perfectly crafted, hodgepodge LEGO character.
“It’s a Hero Factory hero that I made myself,” Campos said, noting that he has a big imagination.
Brayan was just one month shy of his second birthday in 2008 when Horta, his father, Alberto Campos, and sister, Beatriz Santiesteban, left communist Cuba for better opportunities in the United States.
As a result, Brayan isn’t old enough to remember his mother trying to figure out why she was removed from her job because she was a woman — he gets his talkative side from her — or his father’s attempts to flee Cuba in boats he built from the ground up — he gets his creative side from him. But Brayan is old enough to remember a childhood filled with friends, good grades and a green belt in karate.
“I think the reason we went to the United States is because we wanted to see more of the world,” he said.
A little more than six years removed from leaving a community full of Cubans for a city with barely any, Horta is just happy that Brayan won’t have to live in the small two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that she grew up in, and more importantly, will never have to see a man in a military outfit on his television screen.
“We needed a place to start everything over,” Horta said. “We came with nothing. We just had a bunch of dreams.”
Life in Cuba
San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, a small town 26 kilometers from Havana, is a very tight-knit community, said Oxana Horta. The families are so close that kids go out in the streets and play under the watch of their neighbors.
“Violence isn’t big there,” Horta said. “Kids don’t disappear.”
Horta, whose mom is Russian and father is Cuban, was born and raised in the town, which had a population of 46,300 in 2004. Her parents met while her dad was studying abroad in Russia and moved to Cuba after they got married.
While Horta said the Cuban people were nice, the communist government made life difficult.
When she was a kid, Fidel Castro would interrupt her cartoons to make hours-long announcements on the television screen. As she grew up, one of her friends had a honeymoon cut short because their hotel room had been given away to tourists. Also, worn-down, unfixed and unpainted roads graced her hometown.
“I don’t like many things in Cuba,” she said. “I didn’t understand why I needed to shut up my mouth. … It’s still like that there.”
19 years ago, Horta studied to become a veterinary technician at the Villena-Revolución Agricultural Polytechnical Institute in Rancho Boyeros, an academic center founded by Castro in 1962. She got a job working at Empresa Genética Pecuaria Los Naranjos, a community farm that took care of livestock. While she was the only woman in her town that could work with large animals, she was removed from her position because she was female.
“They preferred men, so that’s why they took me out,” she said.
Fed up with the system, Horta and her second husband, Alberto Campos, decided that they wanted to bring their family to the United States. Campos, whose entire family is from Cuba, attempted to cross the ocean seven times using boats that he built from scratch — including the motor — along with some of his friends and neighbors.
Some of the times he was chased by the government, others by the border patrol, but all the attempts were unsuccessful. As a result of his rebellion, he was stripped of his job, and the family was kept under the close watch of the government.
“For example, if we bring something home, like a bag of something, people would always try to see what we brought home,” Horta said.
Four years after his last attempt and six months after Brayan was born, the family had their first interview with the Cuban government about leaving legally. They were allowed to leave 1 1/2 years later.
On Dec. 4, 2008, Mendez, Horta and their kids, 13-year-old Beatriz and 1-year-old Brayan, left from an airport in Havana with a single suitcase. They were assigned to Tucson by the United Nations and spent two days flying with stops in Mexico, Florida, and Texas.
“We came like refugees,” Horta said.
Life in Tucson
When the family was looking for a place in the United States to settle, the Cuban government told them Florida, which is home to the largest Cuban population in the country, was too crowded. It would have been hard for Campos and Mendez to find a job and for the family to receive the help they needed.
When they arrived in Tucson, the family was assigned to receive help from the Jewish Refugee Resettlement of Arizona. They were crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, and none of them spoke a word of English.
“It was kind of scary to start over, especially with nothing in our pockets,” Horta said.
Bryan Kaplan, who worked as a mentor for Lutheran Social Services after Jewish Refugee Resettlement of Arizona closed, met them at the airport when they arrived and helped the family find jobs. Meanwhile, they were required to take English classes through Pima Community College’s adult education program.
“I spoke to them to see what their interests were and qualifications were,” Kaplan said. “We arranged for their apartments and any classes they would need to assimilate to living in the United States.”
Just a little over a month after coming to the desert, Kaplan found a job for Horta as a technician at Guadalupe Veterinary Clinic. He also found a job for Campos as a chef at Chaffin’s Diner, and after one more stop, he worked at El Coqui Puerto Rican Restaurant for 2 1/2 years. Campos eventually quit his job as a chef, and after working a few different positions, took a maintenance job at The Apple Apartments complex three years ago.
“I’m really thankful to him for that,” said Horta, who moved to a similar position at Rolling Hills Pet Clinic in January 2013. “He was really nice.”
While the agency only offers help for five years, Kaplan said that Oxana’s family settled in well before that. Four years ago, the family was able to save up enough money to buy a house in an east-side neighborhood.
“I’m just delighted with them,” Kaplan said. “I am so happy. They consider me their father. … They really assimilated to our American culture.”
“I’m really happy (in Tucson),” Horta said. “It’s really quiet and a good place to start your family over again. It’s not the biggest city in the world, but it’s really nice.”
Growing Up in Tucson
Beatriz Santiesteban remembers how hard her mother worked to make sure she had fun growing up in Cuba Her father, Julio Santiesteban, illegally left Cuba by boat and has been out of the picture since.
That’s why when she was 13, Santiesteban understood why her mom and stepfather would want to move her away from her friends and give her a chance to explore her interests in the United States.
“It gave me more opportunity to do a lot more than I would over there,” said Santiesteban, now 19.
Santiesteban enrolled in middle school midyear despite not knowing any English and was held back a year. She forced herself to only hang out with people who primarily spoke English, and was able to learn the language in just four months.
“I picked it up pretty quick,” she said. “I made sure not to hang out with the people I already knew that spoke Spanish.”
Santiesteban graduated on time after attending both Catalina Foothills and Palo Verde High Schools and enrolled at the University of Arizona this past fall. She said the transition has been seamless and that after a rough first semester, this year has been “easy.” While she isn’t sure what she wants to study, her initial plan is international business with an emphasis in advertising and marketing.
Unlike his sister, Brayan Campos spent nearly his entire childhood in Tucson. Now a second grader at Booth-Fickett Math and Science Magnet School, he never struggled picking up the language and even taught his father his first English word.
“I made friends over the years” Campos said. “I’ve been a really good kid. I’ve done good on testing and never got held back.”
Life Back Home
While the family was able to rebuild itself from the ground up, Oxana Horta said a lack of Cubans in the Tucson community and the inability to communicate with family members in Cuba made their transition difficult.
“It makes it harder just because we grew up in a country that likes to dance, meet people and have fun together,” Horta said. “It’s hard to not have anybody.”
Horta can text her family back home, but they cannot respond. They can also send emails, but they run the risk of correspondence being read by the Cuban government. Horta’s goal is to bring her mother to Tucson, but her initial request was denied last year.
They were able to visit Cuba once 3 1/2 years ago, but probably won’t be able to afford another trip any time soon.
In December, United States President Barack Obama announced that the countries would re-establish diplomatic relations. While Horta thinks it will be good for American tourists, she is not sure anything is going to change for the people in Cuba, some of whom struggle to find food every day.
“They don’t care about the people living there,” she said. “They just care about them.”
With everything that’s going on back home, Horta and Campos have no regrets about coming to Tucson.
“We lived for many years with eyes closed,” Horta said. “They always said to us that the United States was bad. … I don’t think that anyone’s perfect, but (the U.S.) at least opened the door for me to leave and to live free. My kids have an opportunity to grow up and be what they want to be.”
A Future Community
The number of refugees received by Arizona has more than tripled in the past 20 years, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The 387 Cubans were the third-largest group of refugees who resettled in Arizona in 2013.
However, especially in Tucson, those families don’t stick around.
Bryan Kaplan estimates that only a handful of Cuban families have stayed in Tucson in the past five years. He said that families often think they’ll have better job opportunities in larger Cuban communities like Miami.
“A lot of it has to do with the lack of good employment here,” he said. “They’re looking for jobs that are a little bit better off than what we have to offer. Most of the jobs that we have are in the hospitality industry.”
Arnaldo Mendez, who is a business manager at his father’s full-service Shell station and helps local Cuban refugees, thinks that a big problem in the recent wave of refugees is a sense of entitlement as they’ve come to expect government help.
“They’re given food stamps, they’re given so many different items to make their transition a good one,” he said. “Sometimes I’m very discouraged when I see what the behavior is of the people that are coming over.”
Mendez, who was born in Cuba, was 2 years old when his parents brought him to the United States in 1962. He also thinks that the climate and culture in Tucson is different from what most Cubans seem to enjoy.
“They tend to seek areas where there are other Cubans,” he said.
Oxana Horta said that her family has been put in contact with Cuban families who resettled in Tucson, but they almost all leave within a couple months because they miss Cuban culture.
“We don’t have our culture here,” she said. “We don’t have stuff we eat here. We’ve not found it anywhere — just in Florida.”
In an attempt to bring more of Cuban culture, Horta and her husband, Alberto Campos, who cook at home every day, eventually hope open a restaurant. Their son Brayan said Horta makes great dessert and soup, while Campos’ specialty is his croquetas.
That way they can make life a little easier for Cubans who resettle in Tucson.
“Starting over is not always easy, because it wasn’t,” Horta said. “But if you really want to do it, you can do it.”
Note: This assignment was completed for JOUR 597C: Reporting the World class.