TAMPA – Elier Cabrera remembers the day he thought it was too late to make a difference in his life.
He was living in Cuba, trying to support his family. One daughter, Ivon, had successfully come to the United States during the boatlift of 1994. And nearly every time they spoke, she tried to talk her father into making the move.
No, he thought, he was too old and set in his ways. Too late to make a change. Too old to learn English.
Everything changed with a glance into the pantry.
There, standing in his family kitchen, three eggs changed his mind. One for him, one for his wife, and one for his remaining daughter.
That was it. No longer wanted to be the victim of government food rationing. He was coming to America.
Since he had a daughter in the States he had the opportunity, if he could raise the money. He, his wife and remaining daughter talked about it and decided their existence would be a lot better in a land where they wouldn't worry about how many eggs were allowed.
“My daughter left because she didn't like the life in Cuba,” said Cabrera, reflecting back on the day in 1994 when she left. “I thought it was too dangerous for her to make the move to a whole new culture. I was scared for her.”
Ivon sailed to Florida with others on a fishing boat. At home, Cabrera and his family spent 15 days waiting to hear of her fate.
“I was scared for the worst,” Cabrera said. “I tried so hard to change her mind but young people are hard to change. She had to be here.”
After plenty of tears and doubts, Cabrera got word that she had arrived. She was one of the lucky ones.
Ivon immediately started asking her father to bring the rest of the family to the United States, but Cabrera was hesitant. He didn't know English, he didn't know the culture. He had no job awaiting him.
That changed the day he saw those three eggs.
“We didn't know anything about America,” said Cabrera, who works as the head custodian at Buchanan Middle School, 1001 W. Bearss Ave. “It was like trying to create a whole new life. It was scary.”
Ivon soon found work at a medical facility in Connecticut. Monies were raised and, with the help of the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, he made the trek to the United States.
“I met one of the doctors,” Cabrera said of his daughter's employers. “He said what I wanted to do was impossible. It was incredible to be here. My whole life changed.”
He ended up in Tampa working for the Hillsborough County School District. His daughter, Ivet, followed along with his wife. He's been working as a custodian for 10 years now.
“I was nervous and scared but when I saw all that America had to offer, I was amazed and proud to live here. I knew I wanted to be a citizen. The lifestyle was different, but here I make what I can and have money of my own. My family that is still in Cuba call me 'The Millionaire.' I do what I can with what I have.”
Cabrera is very spiritual and credits God with all of his blessings.
“Every day I asked God to save me,” he said. “At first, America was not my country so I prayed for His help. He found me a job. He found me a home. I give thanks to Him every day.”
It hasn't always been easy. Cabrera says he still hears people mutter that he doesn't belong in America, that he needs to learn to speak the language, that he needs to learn American customs – that he doesn't belong.
In reality, he has fit in perfectly with the Buchanan community, calling the teachers, students, and parents part of his family.
The biggest difference between Cuba and America?
“Cuba is so dark and dreary,” he said. “America is light. You go to any place and see flags and smiles everywhere. That's the difference. I came out of the dark and found light.”
As for returning, Cabrera said that even if things were different in Cuba, he would still only visit. And while he misses his extended family, he left Cuba behind for good that morning when he counted the eggs in the pantry.
“America is my life today,” Cabrera said. “When I look at my life I can always say that I was an American. I am proud to live in a place like this where my dreams came true. This is my country and I don't want to go back.”
“The Millionaire” still sends items back to Cuba, including soap, food, money and even appliances. Things that are taken for granted in America mean a lot to those who remain in Cuba.
And now that he's passed his U.S. citizenship test, he prepared a speech sure to bring tears to the eyes of anyone who hears it. When he recited a passage of it before a group of teachers at Buchanan, there were plenty of hugs and few dry eyes. And that was just a rehearsal. The speech was written on a wrinkled piece of paper that he has carried for quite a while, all the time searching for just the right words.
He wants only a small barbecue party when he is finally recognized as an American citizen. But with the amount of friends Cabrera has made during his time here, it isn't likely to be a small party.
“I wish people in America could know how lucky they are,” Cabrera said. “Knowing that my children and grandchildren will be here means everything to me. Being an American will be the proudest day of my life.”