A Wealth of Education: Mother, family use college to build stable future

Mia Cuevas is graduating from Eastfield with an associate of arts and two certificates. After surviving homelessness with her family, Mia plans to transfer to Texas A&M University—Commerce to pursue a photography degree. Photo courtesy of Esther Moreno
By SAMUEL FARLEY
@SamFarleyETC

The party

Jacob Cuevas sits in front of 10-year-old Priscilla, relaxed in a big gray chair while his wife, Hermila Cuevas, prepares food for Priscilla’s 10th birthday party. His legs rest on a matching ottoman. He is tired, worn out by early morning classes and the long shifts as a guard supervisor.

He wakes up at 7 a.m. and drives an hour and 10 minutes to be in a class by 9 a.m. at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Jacob finishes his classes by noon and then makes the hour and 20-minute commute from Commerce to his job in Dallas where he works 2-10 p.m.  He checks his phone’s sleep tracker and sighs.

Cuevas adds the final touches to her daughter’s quinceañera dress. Photo by Kate Arrows Enoire/The Et Cetera

“I averaged about 3 hours and 45 minutes this week,” he says. “That’s not bad.”

Priscilla, working to put up decorations, reaches up into the air but her arms are too short.

“Dad, can you help me please?”

He pushes himself up using the armrest and walks around to meet his daughter, taking decorations in his hand. Jacob takes one slow step after the other up the step ladder. As he steps up, he smiles warmly and patiently says, “OK, let me see if I can get it up there.”

Hermila, Mia, to her friends and family, pauses from cooking to herd a couple of overly energetic cats into the kids’ bedrooms.

Mia is a full-time photography student and mother to five children: Angelica, 15, Naudia, 12, Hilda, 11, Priscilla, 10, and Alexander, 9. On a weekend morning when sleep would be a welcomed activity, Mia and Jacob make their kids’ happiness the priority.           

Today, the Cuevas family will celebrate with friends and family in their own home, which they bought in 2016. The family’s future is bright, with Jacob planning to graduate in 2020 with a double major in criminal justice and sociology to pursue a career in law enforcement. 

Mia graduates from Eastfield this spring with an associate degree in photography. She recently finished a contracting job for the Perot Museum where she took photos of their exhibits, and her next goal is to open a photography business.

For Mia and Jacob, it is almost impossible to believe that only 12 years ago they were homeless and sleeping in their old beat-up two-door Honda Accord with only a handful of blankets to keep them warm.

Back then, the family’s idea of fun was taking trips to White Rock Lake for the day, and the fanciest meal they could afford was seasoned rotisserie chicken from Walmart.

These humble luxuries created an illusion of normal, but they didn’t change the fact that they were homeless. The feeling of safety and serenity that a home provides did not exist.

On a cold night

Jacob had been working as a security guard during the early 2000s. But by the fall of 2006, his employer’s security business tanked.

Then, Jacob’s mother died, adding funeral expenses leaving Jacob and Mia to pay for the funeral. While trying to deal with the grief of losing his mom, Jacob and Mia received an eviction notice saying they had to be out of their apartment by the end of January 2007.

The only glimmer of happiness that Jacob and Mia had during this period was on Jan. 21 when Naudia was born. Shortly after their newborn daughter’s birth, they left their apartment.

Mia Cuevas, 32, and her children Priscilla, 9, Naudia, 11, Alexander, 8, and Hilda, 10, carve pumpkins for the first time on the porch of their trailer in Seagoville, TX, October 20, 2018. Mia likes to find economical crafts for them to do so they can spend time at home and minimize their screen time. Photo by Kate Arrows Enoire/ The Et Cetera

 “We were so embarrassed that we had lost our apartment that we didn’t reach out to anyone immediately,” Mia said.

About a week later they visited Jacob’s sister to ask for help. The weather was turning colder and although they had a car, Mia and Jacob didn’t want their young children to sleep in the cold.

“It was supposed to be 30 degrees that night,” Jacob said. “But she told us that she didn’t want to give up her kids’ rooms.”

Mia pleaded with her husband’s sister to reconsider. “We don’t want your kids’ rooms,” Mia told her. “We can take the floor.”

Despite having 3-year-old Angelica and baby Naudia, neither Jacob nor Mia’s family was able to help them that night.

And so, they slept in the car. For three months the family was homeless. Their version of hotels were well-lit parking lots and truck stops if they could find one.

“There were days that I didn’t sleep,” Jacob said. “I would sit up and make sure no one would mess with us.”

This was how the family lived during what Mia calls “my hell.” There are not many possessions left from this period. The few that remain are notes that Mia made in her diary while weathering this storm.

One passage reads: “Hermila, remember God will always be with you. Never let anyone push you around. Trust your power with God. He will be with you. Love and trust God.”

The shooting

Mia has always called Jacob her “rock.” They’ve been together since high school, and she can’t imagine life without him. But there have been times when she feared losing him.

While living in the car Jacob found work again as a security guard. During the day while Jacob worked, Mia would take her kids to her mom’s house.

One night while working at a club in Dallas, Jacob was asked by a fellow security guard to help escort a man off of the property. The man was intoxicated and angry, and after Jacob walked him to the parking lot, the man went to his car and got his gun. He drove by Jacob and the other security guard and opened fire, shattering car windows around them. Jacob returned fire as bullets whizzed past him. 

“My adrenaline was pumping so hard I didn’t realize I had been shot until I got home,” Jacob said. Luckily for Jacob, his body armor was the only thing struck by the bullet.  His back was red, but the bullet didn’t pierce his skin and there was no blood. Mia saw the slug of the bullet lodged in Jacob’s bulletproof vest.

“Oh my God,” she thought. “What am I going to do if he gets killed?”

This question haunted Mia.

Jacob was the sole provider of the family and if something happened to him, Mia would have two children to raise on her own and with no home.

The note

After three cold months in their car, Mia and Jacob were taken in by Jacob’s father. The family stayed for a week and were grateful to have a roof over their heads. Fortunately, Jacob had made enough money to put a down payment on a new apartment.

But their struggles were far from over.

Over the next nine years, from 2007 to 2016, the family moved nine times. As their family grew, Jacob continued to work hard to keep the family afloat while Mia looked after the kids. But each time that they moved, it seemed that the only apartments they could find were in dangerous areas.

At a complex in North Dallas, Mia witnessed SWAT officers performing a drug raid on a neighbor’s home.

“I opened up my front door, and I see all of these cops with assault rifles,” she said.  “One of the cops yelled at me to close my door and stay inside, so we got out of there as soon as we could.”

Even though times were tough Jacob and Mia believed that their luck would improve and that they would find a home to buy.

In 2013, the family finally thought that they had found it. Mia’s dad and stepmom were taking care of an older woman whose husband had worked with Mia’s dad. Eventually, through this relationship, Mia and Jacob were told they could buy the woman’s home. 

The plan was that Jacob and Mia would pay $3,000 to Mia’s dad to buy the home. In return, Mia’s dad would take care of all the paperwork at the bank. For a year the family sent money to Mia’s dad. After losing Jacob’s mom, living out of their car and hopping from one crime-infested apartment home to another, the family would finally have something to call their own.

However, when Mia came home one afternoon, she found a note taped to her door. It was an eviction notice. Confused as to why they received the note, Jacob went to the bank with Mia’s dad.

“We sat down with the adjuster,” Jacob said. “He told me that no payments had been made on the house.”

The money they had been sending to Mia’s dad was not going toward rent. Mia still isn’t sure where the money went.

Mia Cuevas studies graphic design and digital imaging. She squeezes her homework in at night while her daughter Naudia does the dishes. Photo by Kate Arrows Enoire/The Et Cetera

“Our dreams were demolished,” she said. “I thought we were done moving, but we weren’t. I cried a lot about that note.”

Luckily they had enough money to move back to the apartments in Balch Springs where they had previously lived. But Mia knew that this cycle could not continue. Somehow, someway, something had to change.

Becoming homeowners

Home has always been a hard subject for Mia and Jacob. When she was 16, Mia dropped out of high school to give birth to her first child, Angelica. Both Mia and Jacob grew up in abusive homes, which they left to find a better life together. In 2015 Mia and Jacob rented a home in Pleasant Grove. They were finally starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. But for Mia she wanted more than just a sparkle of hope, so she decided to pursue her dreams and go back to school.

Mia had not taken a class in 12 years, so she made a promise to herself that once all her kids were in school that she would commit to getting her GED diploma.

The same year that Mia and Jacob began renting their home, their youngest child, Alexander, started kindergarten. After walking him to his classroom and seeing how excited he was to learn, Mia knew it was time for her to get back in the classroom as well.

“I had to go back,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a mom who only cooks and cleans. I wanted to go back for my kids, to show them that mommy can do it, too.”

Mia started in the continuing education program at Eastfield to get her GED diploma. Jacob was supportive of his wife’s goals, but he had tried school before and was unsure about returning.

One program had promised Jacob a diploma with full accreditation. But after spending more than $8,000 on classes, the certificate that he received was rejected by every potential employer.

“I wasn’t sure if the program that Mia was taking was legit,” Jacob said. “After I lost all that money, I sat back for a while to see if it was what she said it was.”

One morning while Mia was sitting in the kitchen doing her math homework, Jacob came in, looked at her work and started telling her the answers.

“How are you doing this?” Mia asked.

“I can do those problems in my head!” he teased. “You call that homework?”

Jacob started the GED program shortly after. Both Mia and Jacob not only passed the GED tests but went on to purchase their first home, in Seagoville, in 2016 after completing the program. Since then Mia and Jacob have been taking college courses just like any other college student. Going back to community college has been life-changing for Mia and Jacob.

“Before I went back, I was very timid,” she said. “When I would talk to people on campus, I would have to think to myself, ‘You can do this.’ But now I’m a social butterfly.”

For the kids, seeing Mia and Jacob work so hard inspires them to do the same. Naudia wants to be a chef.  Hilda has big goals like her mom.

“When mom puts her mind to something, she does it,” she said. “I want to be a photographer and take pictures like mom does.”

Pricilla wants to be a ballerina and Alexander wants to be in science and engineering.

Angelica, the oldest, is interested in computer science and is currently a freshman in high school.

“When we see mom and dad reaching out for their goals, it makes us know that we can too,” she said. “They have worked hard to get back to school, and I think that’s awesome.”

Because of their lives growing up, Mia and Jacob’s childhood dreams were put on the back burner. Life hit them hard, and it’s still not easy. But unlike in the past, Mia and Jacob now pursue their dreams, not to get by, but to actually enjoy life. And at Priscilla’s 10th birthday that’s just what the Cuevas family is doing, enjoying life in their home.

Angelica, Mia, friend Melissa, 20, daughter Naudia, youngest daughter Priscilla, and youngest child Alex watch Sleeping Beauty while eating the spaghetti prepared by Angelica and Mia, October 20, 2018. Photo by Kate Arrows Enoire/The Et Cetera

New horizons

Months have passed since the party and it is now April of 2019 with only two weeks until Mia’s graduation. Since then, Mia has been accepted to A&M-Commerce, helped design the cover of a book authored by accounting professor Regina Brown and launched her business Mila’s Photography Design on Facebook. Jacob is also looking forward to graduating next year in the fall. In the meantime, he is excited about a potential job opportunity with the McKinney Police Department. With all of their kids gathered around them in the living room, Mia and Jacob reflect on what the community college experience has meant to them.

For Jacob, community college has helped him prove the naysayers wrong.

“People that I know never expected me and Mia to get this far,” Jacob said. “They looked at our situation coming from the rough home life that we had, being dropouts, being homeless, and they thought that we would never go back to school.”

As Jacob speaks he flashes that same warm smile he had at the party.

“Well, we did and we’re both going to finish.”

Fighting back tears, Mia fans her face with her hand.

“Are you crying mommy?” Alexander said teasingly.

“I’m not crying until I walk the stage,” Mia said.

Naudia sits down and embraces Mia. Then Mia takes a deep breath.

“Community college gave me the confidence to face tough situations and now I know that I can overcome them,” Mia said. “When I came to Eastfield, I met so many people who loved and supported me. Each semester that number of people grew like a snowball that turned into an avalanche. I’ll always be thankful that I came to Eastfield.” 

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