Chandler recounts harrowing childhood in Cuba

grayChandler babyUpon entering her classroom, one might notice the colorful walls replete with student projects and motivational Spanish posters affirming the powers of curiosity and cooperation. What may not be so apparent is the journey Olga Chandler has undertaken, from her life in communist Cuba to her arrival here at CHS more than 17 years ago.

Chandler, who has taught more than five different classes in her 18-year career at CHS, was born in Cuba in the years before Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, a time in which despite corruption and persecution, there was still a sense of freedom. However, Chandler’s primary memories take root in the years after Castro took control.

“When Fidel took control and declared himself a communist, they took away the American Embassy and hunger began,” explained Chandler’s mother Emelina Jarel in a letter for Chandler’s students. “There was no food, and they started with the rationing system for anyone who hadn’t declared himself a communist.”

The family was given a pound of rice, one bottle of olive oil, two bars of soap, one piece of meat and one piece of fish for the entire month. There were no grocery stores in which to buy extra food and certainly no fresh fruits or vegetables available for the non-communists.

It was in these conditions that Chandler’s family lived for years, forced to move out of their home into a small house and prohibited from holding jobs or earning money in any way.

These conditions worsened due to the fact that Chandler’s family was on the list of hundreds of thousands of people who wished to leave Cuba, thus marking them as gusanos, or worms, to the communists.

This affected Chandler’s schooling as she read at a much higher level than her age when she was only 7 and was forced to be put into a higher grade. Jarel was constantly afraid of the prospect that her daughter might be kept in Cuba because intelligent children were considered the “future of the revolution.”

Despite a number of failed attempts at escape and a wait of over two years, Chandler and her mother were finally able to leave Cuba and arrived in Miami at the welcome of their extended family. However, the transition to the American lifestyle was confusing and difficult for Chandler, as she had become so accustomed to a repressed life in Cuba.

“I remember the first time I ever went to a grocery store in America,” Chandler recalls. “It was so frightening because I didn’t even know what a grocery store was. I saw massive amounts of food, food I didn’t even know existed like cereal and ice cream, and I thought that we would be arrested for being there. It was only until my mother explained to me that with money we could buy all of the food did I begin to understand.”

Despite Chandler’s success in her education in Cuba, she and her mother came to America without knowing English.

“My first teacher in America made us take turns and stand on a platform to read out loud to the class each week,” Chandler explains. “When it came time for me and the other native Spanish-speakers to read, she and the class would laugh at us because we barely knew English.”

This prompted Chandler, only in third grade, to form a group along with three other foreign students and teach themselves fluent English in a matter of only two months. It was also one of the reasons Chandler eventually became a teacher.

After attending UCLA and double-majoring in Spanish and French, a time in which she also worked three part-time jobs to fund her education, Chandler got her teaching credentials and began working as a language teacher at a private parochial school.

“I also worked at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where I created and taught language programs to Military service members,” Chandler says. “However, the information I was teaching had a lot to do with violence, and I eventually came to Carmel High.”

Despite her immersion in Spanish language and culture at CHS, Spanish is not the foremost language in her home life.

“I am grateful for my experience in the sense that it allowed me to be bicultural,” Chandler notes. “But the memories I have in Cuba are not positive, and because of this I have no reason to ever go back.”

Chandler does admit that her experiences have helped her immensely in her career as a teacher.

“It is a special thing to be able to teach kids at such an important time in their lives,” Chandler says. “I have really loved it.”

-EMILY WOLFSON