As civil war raged in their native El Salvador in the 1980s, bullets once whizzing through the home they shared with three children, Jose Cruz and his wife Carmen knew they wanted more for their young family.
Their journey to America, with dreams of education for their children, culminated Friday at UNC Charlotte with the graduation of their youngest daughter.
Crystal Cruz, 21, became the last of seven Cruz daughters to earn a college degree and the fifth UNCC grad.
“I’m so thankful; I give all thanks to God,” Carmen Cruz said through her daughter Karen Greene. “I feel so fortunate, like the soccer player who just shot the winning goal. Now there’s just a sigh of relief.”
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The Cruz immigration story is vibrantly American: the search for a better life; niches carved out in the U.S; faith in work and education; the close embrace of family.
Crystal Cruz earned a marketing degree and will work at Belk’s corporate office. But she didn’t recognize how unique her family was until she heard Chancellor Philip Dubois talk about the importance UNCC places on first-generation students.
“My parents want better lives for us and they always have,” she said. “I don’t remember growing up and being told you have to go to college, but that if you want a better life this is what you have to do to get there.”
And so they did, one daughter after another, each serving as an example for the next in line. “With each sister,” Cruz said, “the college process became more and more traditional.”
The three oldest girls were still small when El Salvador’s war made the future look too bleak to a couple born and raised there. The 11-year war between the military-led government and left wing guerrilla groups targeted civilians by death squads and left 75,000 people dead, the United Nations has estimated.
Her mother recalls that “when we heard loud pops in the air, we were taught to hit the ground and roll under a bed,” said Karen Greene, who was 2 when the family left the country.
Jose Cruz left for Texas, where he worked two years before his wife and children joined him in 1984. Both he and Carmen Cruz, as well as all their daughters, are now U.S. citizens.
The family moved to Washington, D.C., then to Maryland, where Jose worked in construction and Carmen cleaned houses. Then it was on to Sanford, where both parents worked factory jobs.
With both parents working full-time, the daughters were expected to take responsibility for their own activities such as school field trips or joining the soccer team.
“We are a very close family and (family) is all that really matters,” Karen Greene said. “That’s helped us become who we are.”
Pupusas took the family’s life in a new direction. The savory stuffed tortillas are beloved in El Salvador – and by Jose Cruz’s coworkers when Carmen started cooking for them too. The couple started selling traditional Salvadoran food to a widening clientele, and saved their money.
That led to their opening a restaurant in Sanford, the daughters waiting tables while their parents staffed the kitchen. They later added two more restaurants in Raleigh and Greensboro.
UNCC helped lure the family to Charlotte in 2004. The Cruzs often visited daughter Karen, who graduated UNCC in 2006, and fell in love with the city. Ready to scale down after running three restaurants, the couple moved to Charlotte and opened El Paraiso, a Salvadoran restaurant in Cornelius.
Daughter Elizabeth, who now manages the restaurant, finished her UNCC degree in 2008. Twins Emma and Lucy graduated in 2013 and 2014. Eldest sister Corina had earned an associate’s degree from Central Carolina Community College and next-to-last Katie graduated Davidson College.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Crystal Cruz said. Her parents still visit El Salvador regularly. While her dad loves to talk about the family’s story, she said, her mom avoids remembering the hardships.
“I think she’s someone who just doesn’t like to dwell – she’s an optimist. They built their whole lives all over again and it might not always have gone the way they would like, but they’re so grateful.”