The long and winding road
Twenty years after leaving Cuba as political refugees, a mother and daughter take the next step as members of the Class of 2017
By Scott Alessi
Patricia Brito easily blends in amidst the sea of students flowing through Damen Student Center. The 23-year-old Loyola senior carries herself with a quiet demeanor, her wavy black hair neatly pulled back to reveal an unassuming smile. She calls little attention to herself as she casually chats with friends between classes, in many ways the picture of the prototypical college student.
Across the room, Tamara Franco is hard to miss. A broad, bright smile stretches between her rosy cheeks, framed by a wall of long, flowing blond curls. She speaks excitedly through a thick Cuban accent, her words accompanied by an infectious, joyful laugh. Her gregarious nature makes her fit right in among her fellow undergraduate students even though, at 47, Franco would seemingly have less in common with her peers than she would with their parents.
As Brito walks through Damen, she talks to a friend who points out a student standing with Franco. “Hey, that’s my sister,” he tells Brito, gesturing toward the young woman. Brito looks over and responds, matter-of-factly, “That’s my mom standing next to her.”
By now, it is a familiar conversation for Brito. Since her sophomore year, she’s shared the Loyola campus with Franco, her mother, as both pursued their bachelor’s degrees. “I still have to explain to some of my friends that, yeah, I go to school with my mom,” she says. “It’s definitely weird. But you get used to it.”
Both Brito and Franco acknowledge that their situation is unique, but for them, it is just the latest stop on a journey that’s been anything but ordinary. It began 20 years ago in Cuba, a country Brito doesn’t even remember, when Franco was forced into exile for challenging the Communist regime. Their path wound its way through Miami, across the Atlantic to Paris, then back to Miami. When Brito was in high school she and her mother moved to Chicago, where both eventually found a home at Loyola.
Through it all they have stuck together. And now mother and daughter—together—will celebrate their college graduation this spring.
Enemy of the state
When asked about the remarkable road she’s traveled, Franco just flashes her characteristic smile and shrugs her shoulders. “Life is unpredictable,” she says.
As a child growing up in El Cristo Oriente, a small town on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba, Franco couldn’t have imagined where her natural curiosity would one day lead her. Her education was centered on the ideals of the Communist Party, and teachers told her she should shun religion and hate the United States. In middle school she became a member of the Communist Youth Union, which instructed children to be “honest vigilantes,” informing the authorities of anything they saw at school, or even at home, that conflicted with the strict rules of Fidel Castro’s regime. But Franco was never content to accept these teachings at face value.
When she was 13, Franco started asking questions. She wondered why, for example, religion was considered taboo when so many beautiful churches dotted the landscape of Havana. One day, her curiosity got the best of her. She walked into a church and approached a priest, who shared with her the teachings of Catholicism. She went home excited to share her findings with her family only to be scolded by her grandmother, who made Franco promise never to visit the church again.
That didn’t stop Franco. She kept asking questions about religion and politics, and when the answers didn’t match up with her own experiences, she became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist Party. During her final year of high school, she stood up at a meeting of the Communist Youth Union and renounced her membership. “I gave back my card and said, ‘I am done. I am not ready to be consistent with what this card means to you,’” she recalls.
Franco went on to attend college in Havana City, where as a freshman she joined a group of likeminded young people who shared her desire to change Cuba’s oppressive government. She and her friends each wrote and signed letters to Castro, calling for changes like democratic elections, freedom of speech and religion, and the freedom to travel outside of Cuba. As a result she was expelled from the university, ending her first attempt to earn a college degree, and suffered through interrogations and intimidation at the hands of Cuba’s political police.
Despite her family’s protests, Franco had also continued attending church. After getting married and giving birth to her daughter, she began attending classes to prepare for baptism. At first she went alone, but she soon began bringing her infant daughter along. Police would sometimes follow her to church, making sure she was aware of their presence, even sitting at the end of the pew during Mass. But Franco refused to be intimidated. She followed through on her plans to have Brito baptized and then, eventually, she too was baptized into the Catholic faith.
Then one day, in March of 1997, everything changed. The police came to Franco’s house and forced their way in. They gave her two choices: leave the country, or give up her daughter to be raised in the Communist system while she and her husband went to jail. “That was the ultimatum,” she says. “When they left, my decision was already made.”
Stranger in a strange land
Franco made the only choice she could. In May of 1997, she boarded a flight to Cancun, Mexico, with her husband and then three-year-old daughter. From there, they flew to Miami to begin a new life in America.
Franco took a job as a tobacco maker—“I was never good,” she admits—and started learning English. Eager to resume the education she began in Cuba, she started taking classes at a community college. But after separating from Brito’s father, Franco had to drop out of school and take a second job painting houses.
The twists and turns of life took Franco and Brito to new places, each one with new challenges. “When you move to a new environment, there is always a time of integration, a time of adaptation,” Franco says. “Those adaptations are difficult for everyone, but you know what? You get through. You just have a very defined goal and know how to get there, even if it is difficult. You maintain your steps, step by step, even if you find people that say ‘no, you’re not going to [succeed].’ You know you are, and that is the key.”
Although she’s easily understood, Franco still apologizes for her lack of fluency in English. Occasionally she pauses mid-sentence to translate a phrase from Spanish, or slips in a word or two in her native tongue. The language barrier has slowed her progress, but it never deterred her from continuing her education. After moving to Chicago in 2010, she enrolled at Wilbur Wright College. There, a professor gave her a copy of the Paulo Coelho novel The Alchemist and told her to spend 10 minutes every night before bed writing out the book by hand as a way to learn sentence structure. It worked. Her writing improved, and her educational journey continued.
At the same time, Franco was helping Brito prepare for college. They visited several local campuses, but Franco didn’t feel at home at any of them—“We were going to these for my future college career,” Brito interjects as a reminder. At one university, Franco describes having an overwhelming feeling of not being welcome. Another, she says, felt like a military bunker. Then they came to Loyola.
“When I arrived to Loyola, I felt at that moment that this is my place,” she recalls. “This is the place where I want to finish my studies.”
Brito wasn’t thrilled by this news, considering that she had also chosen to attend Loyola. But she also recognizes just how much her mother loves the University. When Franco completed her associate’s degree a year later, she remained true to her word. With the help of a transfer scholarship, she joined her daughter as a fellow Loyola student.
Like mother, like daughter?
Brito and Franco commute to campus each morning from their home on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Franco wakes up around 5:30, goes to the kitchen, and prepares her traditional cup of Cuban coffee (“It’s disgusting,” says Brito of her mom’s favorite beverage). Franco takes her time slowly sipping her coffee and tidying up the house, while Brito wakes up later and quickly gets ready to rush out the door. Often, she has to push her mother to leave on time.
“She takes forever,” Brito says.
“For me, drinking coffee is a ritual,” Franco replies.
“Twenty minutes!” clarifies Brito. “You’d think my mom would be the first out the door, but I’m always the one saying ‘Come on! We have to leave because we’re going to be late.’”
The odd-couple nature of their relationship reflects the unique bond the two share, a comfort level more like two old friends than a mother and her college-age daughter. Both find humor in the sometimes awkward moments that have arisen out of their situation. When seeing her mother across the quad, for example, Brito wasn’t sure whether to call out “Mom” or “Tamara” to get her attention (it turns out “Tamara” worked better). The two took one class together, and Brito found herself admonishing her mother for making too much noise snacking during the lecture. Franco would sometimes forget to do the homework and ask her daughter if she’d done it, to which Brito would respond, “Yes, but shouldn’t this be the other way around—you do the homework and I ask you?”
Though both were students in the College of Arts and Sciences— Brito majoring in political science and religious studies, Franco studying anthropology and philosophy—they were able to maintain their independence and respect each other’s space. But Brito never tried to avoid her mom on campus. “I’m not the kind of person who’d say we’re not going to have any kind of relationship while we’re in school,” she says. “You know, I’d miss seeing her around.”
As they approach graduation, both reflect on how far they’ve come. Brito made up her mind at age 6 as to what she wanted to do with her life. Watching her parents go through a divorce, she told her mother, “I’m going to become a lawyer one day so I can defend you in court.” Now she plans to take a gap year to study for the LSAT and apply to law schools, with Loyola being one possible destination.
Franco, who completed her degree requirements in the fall but will walk with her daughter at commencement in May, is one step closer to her dream of being a college professor. She had no question about where she wanted to continue her studies, and has recently been accepted to the Master of Divinity program at Loyola's Institute of Pastoral Studies.
“I don’t see myself outside of Loyola,” she says. “It’s like an extension of me.”
It’s possible both will remain at Loyola as they continue their education, but for now they are more focused on graduation day. To make the moment even more meaningful, Franco’s mother, whom she has not seen in two decades, will travel from Cuba to witness both her daughter and granddaughter graduate. It will be the first time Brito has met her grandmother, or at least the first time she can remember since leaving Cuba as a toddler.
It’s going to an emotional day for Franco, who will finally receive the college degree she’s tirelessly pursued for most of her adult life. To do it alongside her daughter, who has been by Franco’s side through all of her struggles, is one of those unpredictable moments in life that fills her with joy and pride. Brito is her legacy, Franco says, and she just hopes she’s set a good example.
“If I can show my daughter that you never—even if things are so difficult—you never give up,” she says, “then my job as a mother has been well done.”
Brito has indeed been paying attention, quietly observing every step of the way. “I admire the fact that she’s come so far,” Brito says. For a moment, she sets aside the gentle teasing and turns to look her mother in the eyes.
“Even though I don’t say it a lot,” Brito tells Franco, “I am very proud of you.”
Elizabeth Czapski (BA ’17) contributed to this story.