TAMPA — Lazaro Escobio began the day like any other.
He rose to the crow of the backyard rooster in the pre-dawn darkness, had his breakfast of buttered bread and café con leche and listened to the morning news. Then it was off to Tampa Bay Christian Academy, where it’s his job as maintenance director to open the school every morning at 6 a.m.
At midday, he broke routine. And the day became like none other.
He went home and changed from his jeans to his best gray suit. With his wife and two daughters, he headed to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services field office on Hoover Street in Tampa.
On this day, he would realize his dream and become a citizen of the country that gave him asylum when he arrived in November 2007.
Lazaro claimed a seat on the front row in the crowded room, nervous and excited at the same time. The minutes seemed like an eternity. After he and his 49 fellow immigrants received their instructions from the judge, the glass doors opened and the guests poured in.
He saw school headmaster Natasha Sherwood first and waved. She had told him she would be there. And then came what he didn’t expect: student after student from the academy filing in, carrying homemade banners, flags and signs for their beloved Lazaro. They wanted to witness this monumental occasion.
He tried to compose himself, but to no avail. His eyes welled up — “I cry as easily as I smile,” he says — and he stood a little taller. It was perfect now. He was surrounded by the love of staff and students who adopted him as their own when he first came to the school five years ago.
“They are my family, too,” a beaming Lazaro, 49, says through an interpreter. “What they did for me was my biggest surprise of my life.”
Growing up with his two sisters and parents in central Cuba, Lazaro always felt there was a target on his back.
His father, once a prosperous cattle farmer, spent three years in prison. His crime was speaking out against President Fidel Castro. His mother spent time in jail, too, though she was allowed to bring 1-year-old Lazaro with her.
He was raised with hope and whispers: hope for a better day for their country, and whispers when they spoke about it, frightened of retaliation. Lazaro eventually married his sweetheart, Marivel, went to college for his bachelor’s degree and got a job teaching machinery construction. He earned $11 a month.
Though his wife worked as an accountant, they could barely make ends meet. To save money, Lazaro built a third floor on top of his parents’ home where they could live.
The couple worried about what kind of future their two young daughters had in a communist country led by a dictator.
His father would assure him: One day Castro will be gone. But that day never came.
In what would be the most difficult decision of his life, Lazaro applied for asylum in the United States. With his father’s history, he had a good case for not feeling safe in Cuba.
When his employers learned of it, they fired him. And when he broke the news to his parents, they cried.
“They understood, but they were so sad about it,” he says.
Cuban parolees must provide an affidavit of support to show they will not be the responsibility of the U.S. government when they arrive. Lazaro’s family was hosted by his father’s longtime friends, Waldo and Adela Yanes, who came to Tampa decades ago to escape Castro’s rule.
They arrived Nov. 29, 2007, with no money and just the clothes on their backs. They didn’t speak English. The children — Rachel, 11, and Raxay, 5 — started picking up the language right away in school. It was harder for Lazaro and Marivel, who needed to find jobs. Because they were political refugees, officials expedited their documentation, allowing them to work legally.
With the help of their family friends, Lazaro got a job in a factory making juice and milk cartons, and Marivel found janitorial work at a nearby Christian school. A few months later, Lazaro joined her there.
She eventually left and got training as a certified nursing assistant and now works for three agencies. Lazaro felt comfortable at Tampa Bay Christian Academy and stayed put.
The feeling was mutual.
“The word ‘no’ is not in his vocabulary,” says Selma Grantham, a guidance counselor and the high school principal. “Whatever you ask him to do, he responds with ‘I’ll take care of it.’ And you know he will follow through.”
Just like he’s the first person to arrive at the school in the morning, he’s the last person there to lock up at 6 p.m. He has a fancy title, but he’s a staff of one. His hourly wage of just less than $11 an hour is a princely sum compared to his Cuban earnings.
“On days he isn’t here,” says student Amy Rotondi, 17, “you don’t know who to ask for help. He does it all.”
He cleans up lunchroom messes, fixes overflowing toilets, cuts the grass, repairs broken air-conditioning units and helps with the “car line” at the start and end of the school day. He moves purposefully from one building to the next, staying focused on tasks from an always-filled punch list. Still, he makes time for a gregarious “Hello!” and a big smile to every student and teacher he passes by.
“He is never without that smile. He’s just such a good person with a good heart,” Grantham says. “We have a saying in Spanish — ‘Alma de dios.’ It means soul of God. Lazaro is our soul of God.”
For all of Lazaro’s contributions to Tampa Bay Christian Academy, and there have been plenty, none stands out more than the Big Move this past summer.
That’s when he was declared their savior.
It started last April, when the academy, home to 217 students, kindergarten through high school, got some jolting news.
After 57 years in one location, it would have to vacate the property it shared with Christ Fellowship Church because the church had decided it no longer wanted a school.
Michael Miller, pastor of North Rome Baptist Church and a 1999 graduate of the academy, heard of his former school’s dilemma. With the blessings of his small congregation of 30, he made the offer: Let us be your new home.
It was a perfect fit. Best of all, it was only six blocks away.
They had a daunting task before them. With just two months to go before school started, parents and staff volunteered long hours to help with the move. And leading the way was Lazaro.
Hiring a moving company was not in the budget. So every day, he packed up dozens of boxes filled with books, computers, furniture and supplies, loading them into his ’98 Chevy truck with 278,000 miles on it and transporting them to the new location.
If it wasn’t sweltering hot, it was raining buckets. But he worked through it all: trimming hedges, building walls, fixing desks, repairing roofs, pressure washing siding, laying carpet.
He was often heard singing under his breath. His upbeat mood was contagious, helping with everyone’s frayed nerves.
“Without him, we never could have made it. Lazaro made it happen,” says Natasha Sherwood, the school’s new headmaster.
In just five years, Lazaro and Marivel have achieved more than they ever could have imagined.
By saving diligently and working long hours, they managed to buy their first home — a three-bedroom, one-bath block house on a corner lot in the Egypt Lake neighborhood. Their oldest daughter, Rachel, a senior at Hillsborough High, has a 5.7 grade-point average. She’s gotten several scholarship offers and plans to attend the University of South Florida next fall, where she’ll study medicine.
Youngest daughter Raxay, 11, is smart, too, her proud father says.
He pulls out his wallet and shows off their school pictures. “They get their good looks from their father,” he says, laughing.
Of all the goals he had when he came to America — finding work, building credit, buying a home, making sure his girls were educated — only one remained unfulfilled.
Lazaro wanted to be an American.
“This country opened its doors to me,” he says. “And I want to honor it by becoming a citizen.”
So in the midst of moving the school from one location to another, Lazaro began studying for the citizenship test — an exam that covers some 100 questions about American government, history and civics. He listened to English-language CDs in his truck, read his books and practiced writing on his lunch breaks, late evenings and weekends. His daughters worked alongside him, giving him verbal quizzes.
“My dad is the most hard-working man I know,” Rachel says. “No matter how complicated something is, he sticks with it until he solves the problem. He never gives up.”
His determination had an impact on the students as well. Ten-year-old Michael Delrosario, who dreams of playing in the National Basketball Association one day, says Lazaro’s success shows him “your dreams are never too big.” And 8-year-old Imani Norris sums up their maintenance director in one word.
“Awesome,” she says. “He’s taught us to never stop working hard. And that you can never be too happy.”
Lazaro speaks of Jan. 7, the day he became a naturalized citizen, with solemn reverence. Now doors are open to things that were denied to him in his country of birth. Lazaro rattles them off at rapid-fire speed: freedom of speech, a peaceful life, justice, endless opportunities for his children, who automatically will become citizens once the paperwork is approved.
He is anticipating the first election when he can cast his ballot — “An honor that humbles me,” he says.
And there are more goals. He tells his visitor to come back in five years, when he will be able to converse fluently in English.
He says he is thankful to be part of the school’s tight-knit family, where he feels needed and loved. Never could he have imagined how much happiness he would find as a maintenance worker, even with his bachelor’s degree and his former life as a white-collar professional.
Lazaro has been back to Cuba twice to visit family. He will always go back when he can.
But this is now home.
“Anything is possible,” he says, smiling. “Anything at all.”