October 12, 2005

Opinion by Humberto Cruz: 
Amid the misery and destruction brought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with so many lives shattered and families displaced, the question I've heard many news commentators ask is a natural one: After you've lost everything, how do you start again?
From the enduring lessons that my late parents taught me, I would say it is with patience and perseverance, with faith and courage, and by taking one step at a time.
Let me make it clear that I don't pretend to know what Ka-trina and Rita survivors have gone and are going through.
Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne did hit my hometown of Vero Beach, Fla., last year, but damage to our home was minor.
My personal "hurricane" was political - when I was a teenager living with my parents, we left everything we had in our native Cuba to seek a life of freedom in the United States.
The older I get, the more deeply I realize the immense sacrifice my parents made in leaving and making sure I did not grow up under a communist dictatorship. In their mid-40s, with just a working knowledge of English, they left behind the life they knew and the new middle-class home they had worked so hard to afford.
We arrived in this country in 1960 with literally the clothes on our backs and a total of $300 in cash, plus the promise of a job for my father with Texaco in Kansas City, Mo.
Our story is hardly unique, of course. Millions of refugees from Cuba and other countries have done the same. Despite our financial struggles, this was a time we treasure because it brought our family closer together and taught us life lessons that still serve us well.
Among the things we learned to do:
● Recognize and accept reality, and go from there.
Cherishing memories is good, even therapeutic. Dwelling in the past is not, unless it is to learn from mistakes. On that score, I still get plenty of e-mails from readers who lost a big chunk of their retirement savings to the 2000-2002 bear market. Rather than try to "get even" by clinging to the same risky investments that did them in, they need to come up with an appropriate and well-diversified asset allocation based on what they have now, not what they had then.
● Better ourselves.
Every day brings an opportunity to learn something new and make yourself more marketable. It can be done, a little at a time. For me, learning English was a painful necessity at age 16, and I did it partly by getting through an article in Reader's Digest each evening, English-Spanish dictionary in hand.
This nightly exercise, a kind of self-imposed homework, nurtured my love of language. Today, after nearly 40 years as a professional writer, I still go to the dictionary most days (English-only this time) looking for nuances in meaning and searching for the right word.
● Build on small goals.
For my parents, saving for months to afford badly needed new mattresses was a highlight of our first year in the United States. For me, it was saving (after contributing my share to the family expenses) from my $1-an-hour job at the high-school cafeteria to buy an Orquesta Aragon Cuban cha-cha long-playing album. (I still have that music, now on compact disc.)
Saving for those two purchases taught me more about financial discipline than anything else. Over time, the goals became more ambitious - the first starter home for my wife, Georgina, and me in 1978, for example; a larger home in 1985; retirement from full time at work in 2000; and a new beachside home in Vero Beach in 2001.
But the method and the discipline - set a goal and a deadline for accomplishing it, put a price tag and set money aside regularly to pay for it - never changed.
● Share with others less fortunate, and grow.
As a teenager in Kansas City, on a frightfully cold and windy Christmas Eve, I walked with our parish priest, knocking on doors and giving out toys to needy children from Cuban refugee families who had arrived after we did.
My fingers and feet numb, I wanted to go back to the church where it was warm; the priest kept saying "one more," over again.
"One more" became at least 20 more stops. I experienced that night the joy of giving - and learned that the seemingly most arduous and difficult task can always be done, "one more" thing at a time.
● Contact Humberto Cruz at or in care of Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1500, Chicago, IL 60611.