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Living My Dreams, Living My Disability…

by Maria Cebreco, Southfield, MI

My family immigrated to the United States from Cuba. We left Cuba in the hopes of living a good and safe life in the United States. My childhood was full of interesting and sometimes disturbing events.

I grew up living in the Bronx, New York. As a child, I was witness to many things that a child should not see. I remember living in an apartment building that was the frequent hang out of drug addicts. On many occasions, my mother had to pick me up over people passed out with drug needles still sticking out of their arms in the hallways of our apartment building.

There was also the language barrier that my family had to overcome. Even though I was only one year–old when my family came to the U.S., I was not able to speak English until I entered public school at the age of five. My parents could not teach me the language because they could not speak English either. At age 13, I left New York with my mother and sister and we moved to Detroit where my mother's only relative in United States lived. When my family fled Cuba we left a lot of relatives behind who could not come to the United States.

Early Focus on Work and Education
From the beginning, my mother taught my sister and me that hard work the way to success in the United States. My mother had worked in sweatshops in New York where there were no resources to help workers who did not speak or understand English. She had been discriminated against and mistreated based solely on the fact that she had little education and spoke no English. This taught me the importance of getting an education and not dwelling on your problems. Today my mother works at Ford Motor Company and is living her dream of a good life.

When I was 14 years old I was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, a condition that causes the muscles to become atrophied and very weak. We lived in a city, but there were very few resources within my community to address my needs as a young Latina with a disability. Even today, resources in Detroit for Latinos with disabilities are virtually non-existent. One is hard pressed to find organizations and community resources that reach out to this population. In addition, I believe that much of the Latino community in Detroit has low expectations of people with disabilities and do not expect us to contribute.

Latino Festival Planned at Inaccessible Meeting
I was recently asked to be part of a Latino Festival in Pontiac, Michigan, a large Latino community. Unfortunately the first meeting was held in an inaccessible location. I was surprised to find steps leading up to the conference room because the organizer had met me on many occasions. I was assured that the subsequent meeting would be held in an accessible location. Unfortunately it was not. The meeting took place at the city public library, an inaccessible location. The group was apologetic, but I was never contacted about how they could accommodate people with disabilities that might want to attend their meetings. This is an extreme example, but a real life illustration of how much further Detroit has to go to be accessible and inclusive.

Beginning Wheelchair Use at 25
At the age of 25, I found myself unable to stand or walk, and began to use a wheelchair to move around. This changed my life, in many ways for the better. Utilizing a wheelchair has actually freed me by allowing me greater mobility and independence. Before using a wheelchair, I could not move around as freely due to extreme weakness in my legs. I often would fall and could not get up without help. I was often tired and had to be very careful about walking too far. I could not go many places, because everyplace required walking and I could not walk far. I had to limit my activity because of my physical weakness. Using a wheelchair may seem like a bad thing to many people, but for me it's the way that I can interact with people and remain a vital part of my community. I see it as being free, free to move around without the fear of falling or becoming tired.

Breaking Stereotypes
Being a Latina with a disability has been a Godsend, because it has allowed me to break many stereotypes about both minority groups. I have always been told by people that meet me both Latinos and non-Latinos " You don't look Latina," whatever that means. At first, this comment would annoy me, but I have been able to use it to my advantage. Since, I feel comfortable in my culture as well as other cultures. I can relate to many people who allow me to share experiences and, hopefully create opportunity for other Latinos with disabilities.

Project Strong Sense of Self
I attend many business and professional functions and find that people with disabilities, especially Latinos with disabilities, are not represented. At these functions, I move among people of all backgrounds freely. I always project the fact that I am a person first, a person that happens to use a wheelchair. I have a strong sense of awareness of myself as a whole person. It has been the driving force behind my interactions with others. Sometimes it has created problems, but only for people who feel uncomfortable and unable to interact with me because I am a person with a disability. In those instances, how I react is very important. I think of myself as an ambassador for others with disabilities and how I behave can have a direct impact on how people with disabilities are perceived.

Support of Family Critical
My family has been my strength. My strong connection to my family is part of the Latino culture; a culture that embraces family. In my case, my mother has shaped my life. She taught me the power of determination, sacrifice, of just going for it no matter what the circumstances. She also gave me the power to become self-reliant by not dwelling on my disability or treating me as a child. She gave me wings so I can fly, and I have. I am grateful she is there everyday to help me with all the physical things that I can no longer do. Things that most able-bodied people take for granted.

I guess that my article is really about the fact that many of us have had difficult issues happen in our lives. But that with the support of our family and our own ability to see the good in any situation we can succeed in whatever we do.

Also Succeeding Through Work
Currently, I am working at a major Corporation as an intern in the diversity initiatives department. I also am in school finishing my PhD in Business Administration. 

I also am the owner of Cebreco Enterprises LLC, a multi-faceted company that helps other people start their own business using a proven business model.

My company helps people to create options in their life, teaching them the principles of teamwork, leadership skills, and personal development. I believe that anything is possible when ambitious people are willing to learn and grow.

I have accomplished a lot, inside and outside the disability community. It all leads me back to the fact that we are all valued and that should work to develop a strong sense of ourselves as Latinos with disabilities. We then can create inroads for the next generation of Latinos with disabilities.

Many people still envision people with disabilities as weak people whose lives are the responsibility of others. That is a very antiquated idea. People with disabilities are capable of being productive, valuable members of society. I have hopes, dreams, and aspirations for myself. My disability has not stopped me. It just has given me the opportunity to be more creative in my quest for independence, regardless of circumstance.