MY LIFE 

My mom was from the countryside, Pinar Del Rio. My dad was a military man. He was a captain in Fulgencio Batista's Army.  Fidel Castro told him he wanted my dad to train his men. My dad said he had to think about it, take a break and be back. He took a break to the United States and never came back.

 

I was five years old when he left in 1959. My mom was a housewife, but she also worked at a tobacco factory. She would cut the tobacco, roll the cigars, fill them in, put them in the box, put a label on it and seal it. She stuffed tobacco boxes all day.  We realized my dad wasn't coming back.

 

I was seven years old when the rest of us left in 1961. The government would make a list: We had a couch, two beds, a television. They took notes and said, "When you get ready to leave, call us again, and we will make sure all these things stay here. You can't give them away to your family."  We were only allowed the clothes on our back and no money, no jewelry. We actually got on a plane. They were still flying during that period of time, and we all flew from Havana to Miami, where my dad was waiting to meet us.

 

I should have been going to second grade, but they decided, since I didn't know the English language, I should start school all over again in the United States.

My dad was my hero. He was a disciplinarian. I remember I had to make my bed in the morning before going to school, and it had to be tight and tucked in. He would take a quarter and threw it on the bed. It had to bounce, and, if it didn't bounce, it wasn't tight.  I said, "Dad, I'm not in the military." He would say that discipline was important. He taught me discipline, perseverance. He taught me to pursue my goals. He came to a country where he didn't know the language at the age of 35 to start all over again.

 

He is still with us. He is 93 years old. I told him I was elected county board chair, but he is now a part of the Miami crowd, you know. When he was in Chicago, he was a Democrat and my brothers and I were raised to defend Civil and Equal Rights---above---the Four Freedoms.  My dad soon associated liberals as leaning to the left like socialism, communism because as he saw it, this group appeared to sympathize with with Fidel and he would then break down in tears remembering the innocent lives slaughtered who did not want to join the new regime. "That", he'd say, "was why I fled Cuba".

You just retired from the UI on Aug. 22. What did you do?

I worked in the chancellor's office as assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access for about five years. I was the guy in the basement submitting reports for the federal government to the Office of Compliance.

I recruited for the university for faculty and staff and civil service. We went to job fairs in the state, especially in the Chicago areas. We were part of the affirmative action effort that made sure that we had equitable diverse representation, including veterans, people with disabilities and women. We made sure people had training in diversity and racial bias.

I spent 14 years with La Casa Cultural Latina, which is the university's Latino cultural center. I worked with U.S. Latinos. The increases in the Latino population at the university have been very small. It is about 6 to 7 percent. After I left La Casa, I became assistant dean of students for 10 years. I was the emergency dean on call.

What does the emergency dean do?

Everything outside of teaching, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Students would call me from Mexico when they went to have a good time on spring break and they had no visa to get back into the United States because they forgot to get their visa stamped. They worried about being deported back to China.

I would get calls on Christmas Day or New Year's and let the students know there was a pass they could get at the customs office that gives them a 30-day entry pass that could be stamped by us once they came back in. Then they had to submit that back to the customs office in order to be back legally in our country.

When there were fires in the middle of the night, we would work with the MTD to come out and bring a bus to house the students. We would get the Red Cross to come in with blankets. And then we would provide hotel accommodations for those affected by the fires.

Later, I was promoted to the Office of the Dean of Students as an assistant dean of students.

How did you yourself decide to attend the UI as a student?

My older brother went to the UI. He was a member of Project 500 in 1968. He said school teaching is a real good career and made good money, so I decided to enroll here. I also had an aunt who came to this university in 1964.

How did you meet your wife, Melodye?

She was my college sweetheart here at the University of Illinois. I worked with the Latino Cultural Center, and she worked with the African American Cultural Center. We met as undergraduates in 1976. I was the percussionist who played for Melodye's dance classes. She danced with the Omnimove Dancers through the African American Cultural Center.

They needed a percussionist to accompany the dancers, and that person was me. I would do that on a regular basis. We fell in love, and shortly after we got married. We have been married for 40 years and have three children: Giraldo Jr., 38; Harmony, 34; and Symphony, 24.

If we had another child, I would have named her Rhapsody. We have four grandchildren.

Your political experience includes a stint on the Champaign City Council. What do you remember most about it?

First I served on the Human Relations Commission, but I learned it was just in an advisory capacity. I learned it was the council that made all the rules, and you had to talk to (then-Mayor) Jerry Schweighart. So I said I had to be on the city council.

You want to know the biggest change I created? I was the smoking czar. I banned smoking from the bars, and people hated me. The High Dive had a mannequin of me hanging in effigy, and they would all say, 'That's Giraldo. And the reason you smokers are all outside freezing your butt off is because of Giraldo.'

And I was concerned about a lot of landlords who did not want to rent to Section 8 people.

What led you to run for the county board?

The county board was bigger and better. I wanted to be able to caucus with my party. The city council is non-political. I wanted to be able to sit with like minds to discuss issues.

But now that I'm on the county board, I think that's a problem. The like minds can get kinda tribal. It becomes "them" against "us." There is already a pre-set conflict when really there is no need for that. We are doing the business of the county, not fighting opponents.

AN IMMIGRANT'S JOURNEY

My mom was from the countryside, Pinar Del Rio. My dad was a military man from Havana. He was a captain in Fulgencio Batista's Army.  Fidel Castro told him he wanted my dad to train his men. My dad said he had to think about it, take a break and be back. He took a break to the United States and never came back.

 

I was five years old when he left in 1959. My mom was a housewife, but she also worked at a tobacco factory. She would cut the tobacco, roll the cigars, fill them in, put them in the box, put a label on it and seal it. She stuffed tobacco boxes all day.

 

We realized my dad wasn't coming back. I was seven years old when the rest of us left in 1961. The government would make a list: We had a couch, two beds, a television. They took notes and said, "When you get ready to leave, call us again, and we will make sure all these things stay here. You can't give them away to your family."

We were only allowed the clothes on our back and no money, no jewelry. We actually got on a plane. They were still flying during that period of time, and we all flew from Havana to Miami, where my dad was waiting to meet us

 

But material things were not all that we left behind, we left everyone, and everything, we loved. Though my parents sent care packages and money regularly--It took over two decades before we were allowed to go back into Cuba to see our loved ones and to hug my grandmother before she died. I barely recognized any of them--or anything else. The once vibrant energy I remembered, had turned into bleak remorse, absent hope and dreams. The Cuba that was--was no more.

I should have been going to second grade, but they decided, since I didn't know the English language, I should start school all over again in the United States. That was a stigma I carried throughout my formal education--and because of that, I was determined to succeed.

My dad has always been my hero. He was a disciplinarian. I remember I had to make my bed in the morning before going to school, and it had to be tight and tucked in. He would take a quarter and throw it on the bed. It had to bounce, and, if it didn't bounce, it wasn't tight.

I said, "Dad, I'm not in the military." He would say that discipline was important in any career. He taught me discipline, perseverance. He taught me to pursue my goals. He came to a country where he didn't know the language and at the age of 35 had to start all over again. My father is still with us. He is 94 years old. 

I've recently retired from the chancellor's office as assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While in that office I submitted reports for the federal government to the Office of Compliance and recruited for the university, faculty, academic staff, and civil service. We went to job fairs in the state, especially in the Chicago areas. We were part of the affirmative action effort, ensuring we had equitable diverse representation, including veterans, people with disabilities and women. We made sure people had training in diversity and racial bias on an ongoing basis.

I spent my first 14 years at the university as Director of La Casa Cultural Latina, which is the university's cultural center servicing students from all of the Spanish-speaking countries. During the early part of my tenure as Director, students felt their needs were being ignored by the university. It was 1992, just two years as Director, I found myself in the middle of the most controversial student unrest since Project 500 in 1968. However, not unlike the Project 500 sit-in, the 1992 protest did not yield long term changes beyond the immediate terms made to calm the students' demands. The increases in the Latina/o population at the university have been very small. It is about 6 to 7 percent since 1992.

After I left La Casa, I was promoted to the Office of the Dean of Students as an Assistant Dean of Students  for 10 years. During this period I served as the Emergency Dean on call. All of the Deans rotated these duties.

As an Emergency Dean I did everything, outside of teaching, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Students would call me from Mexico when they went to have a good time on spring break and they had no visa to get back into the United States because they forgot to get their visa stamped.

 

Other students who attended the university, from a number of countries, were also worried about being deported back to their country of origin after spending holidays abroad. I would get calls on Christmas Day or New Year's from students who were not U.S. citizens and found themselves blocked from re-entry into the United States. I would coach the students through the process, long distance, instructing them how to obtain a pass from the customs office that gives them a 30-day entry waiver that could be stamped by us (UIUC) once they came back. After, they were instructed to submit that document to the customs office in order to be back legally in our country.

 

Sounds fairly routine, right? Perhaps, except when you factor in many of these students were not proficient in English, coupled with their high anxiety, these conversations could take an hour or more and then several follow-ups. These were the times my work in the Chicago Public Schools for 11 years as a Bilingual Coordinator, working with students from many countries, ensuring they were prepared to mainstream within a year---helped me considerably.

 

. . .and then, there were campus emergencies. We would be awakened in the middle of the night and have to be prepared to handle any tragedy that came. Fires in all seasons. Coordinating with the MTD to come out and bring a bus to house the students. We would get the Red Cross to come in with blankets. And then we would provide hotel accommodations for those affected by the fires. As tragic as these incidents were, nothing could prepare us when we were called for student suicides. In most cases, we were instructed not to speak publicly so many of these cases were not reported to the media. It would take me untold hours to recover from these senseless losses--and nothing prepares you from having to speak with these young students' parents.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is my alma mater. My older brother was recruited out of high school during the Project 500 initiative in 1968. Though most of these students were from African-American communities, recruiters did reach out to a few Latina/o populated areas. I also had a cousin who came to UIUC in the early 1960s just before Castro's takeover. So, when it was time for me to think about college and career, I followed in my older brother's footsteps. He said becoming a teacher was a good field, especially because of the shortage in poverty-strapped Spanish-speaking areas. So, I decided to enroll at UIUC..

My wife, Melodye, was my college sweetheart here at the University of Illinois. As students, I worked with the Latino Cultural Center, and she worked with the African American Cultural Center. We met as undergraduates in 1976. I was the percussionist who played for Melodye's dance classes. She danced with the Omnimove Dancers through the African American Cultural Center.

They needed a percussionist to accompany the dancers, and that person was me. I would do that on a regular basis. We fell in love, and shortly after graduation we got married.  We have been married for 40 years and have three children and four grandchildren: Giraldo Jr., 39 (Giraldo III and Violet); Harmonia, 36 (Madison and Mark III); and Sinfonia, 26.

My life has always focused on giving back to communities that experienced a lack of opportunity--communities that reflected my sense of struggle. While friends graduating with me went on to prestigious jobs opening up for Latinas/os, I chose, instead, to immerse myself into the epicenter of one of Chicago's hardest hit and most overlooked areas, Humboldt Park.  When I entered the Chicago Public School system, I had been trained for high school--but was recruited into the largest K-5 elementary school on the northwest side, instead. It sat in the middle of a gang-torn war zone--and every classroom was overcrowded by at least 10-15 extra children. Not only was I responsible for mainstreaming non-English speaking children, but more than half of these students came from countries where I had no knowledge of their language. Because this school was also one of the poorest in the district, I  would make friends with the wealthier districts' school maintenance workers and they gave me their schedule when they would be throwing out books and teaching aids. The district did not allow for discarded school resources to be given away--they had to be thrown away, and though these teaching materials were no longer current to those schools, they were far better than the dated books and resources our school used.

My elected political experience began as a Champaign City Council member at-large. That was a memorable experience. 

First I served on the Human Relations Commission--but soon learned it was just in an advisory capacity. It was clear the council made all the rules, and you had to talk to (then-Mayor) Jerry Schweighart. So I said I had to be on the city council.

I learned quickly that an issue you believed in and fought for, could be stacked with other issues you may not have supported when it came time to vote.

 

That is how I was infamously coined, "the smoking czar." I worked tirelessly to ban smoking from restaurants, but shortly before the vote came on the agenda, the Mayor stacked bars onto the vote. The maneuver was an attempt to discourage my vote, knowing I had assured bar owners I had no intention of targeting them.  Knowing I had nothing to do with the bars, I supported the vote. This was a hard lesson to learn about about politics. No one cared about the Mayor's role or that the other council members voted in support of the ban. I was singled out for hate attacks. The High Dive had a mannequin of me hanging in effigy, and they would all say, 'That's Giraldo. And the reason you smokers are all outside freezing your butt off is because of Giraldo.'

That experience only made me more determined to not be bullied or bought and to stand on the side of what I felt was fair and equitable to my constituents--and not  just a select interest group. That is when I took on the platform to protect our low-income constituents who were denied fair housing because they were Section 8 renters.  The landlord's argument was that they did not want to be forced to rent to those who were undesirable and protected by Section 8. That argument was baseless because Section 8 does not force any landlord to rent to anyone who does not meet the credit and background check any other applicant would have to be reviewed under. I was able to bring enough votes from my fellow council members to make Section 8 a protected class in the city of Champaign. After I left city council, the Republican majority rescinded that vote and Section 8 no longer was a protected class and landlords could reject applications based solely on this factor.  

It was due to my work ethic and commitment to equity that I was approached to use my political skills on the County Board because I could reach a countywide constituency. Another advantage was the County Board was party driven, unlike the City Council which was non-partisan. I wanted to be able to caucus with my Democratic party. The City Council is non-political. I wanted to be able to sit with like minds to discuss issues.

But now that I'm on the County Board, I think that's a problem. The like minds can get kinda tribal. It becomes "them" against "us." There is already a pre-set conflict when really there is no need for that. We are doing the business of the county, not fighting opponents. . .or each other within our own party.

My family fled Cuba to escape dictatorship and control over freedom of speech. As an immigrant, I will always stand up to anyone or anything that restricts our the Four Freedoms. . .especially if that injustice tries to seep into our Democratic preamble and platform.

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