Zoila Niehaus was born 1944 in Cabaiguán, Cuba. Her father was Agustín Pascual (b. 1915) and her mother was Zoila González (b. 1919). Agustín’s parents came from Andalucía, Spain, perhaps as a consequence of the Spanish Civil War. Zoila’s paternal grandfather worked as a bookkeeper at a sugar cane factory. Influenced by American missionaries in Cuba, at some point he converted from Catholicism and became a Presbyterian. Agustín’s mother, however, remained Catholic all her life. Agustín then took on his father’s Presbyterian faith and as a young man became the principal of the Presbyterian Elementary School in Cabaiguán. During his time as principal, he was able to get the funds to support a medical ambulance that could provide medical services for people living in the countryside.
Zoila’s mother also worked, having her own Academia Lincoln. She taught women how to type, use mimeographs and write shorthand so that they could have secretarial skills.
Zoila remembers growing up happy in Cuba where they vacationed at the beaches every July. Zoila also went to boarding school about four hours away from her home at a Presbyterian High School called La Progresiva in Cárdenas. She remembered loving the experience. However, because of the Cuban Revolution, her life changed forever. Her family — her father, mother, herself and her eleven year old brother — came to the United States in 1961. She was sixteen years old.
The Cuban Revolution
At first, Zoila’s father was in favor of Fidel Castro because the country had been under the dictatorship of Batista. However, he soon realized that living in an atheist communist country as a Presbyterian principal of a school would not be possible. He would have to convert to atheism or leave.
“My last day in high school was April 17, 1961 — that was the day of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. They sent everyone home. It was hard. We were stopped on the highway many times by soldiers, checking to see if we were transporting weapons… When we got home, my mother was in tears. She was so afraid something was going to happen to us. That was my last day of high school even though we got home safe. Soon after, Castro took over all the private schools.”
Zoila was not able to graduate from high school in Cuba. Instead, the family took four duffle bags of belongings and left everything else behind. At the time, many professionals were leaving the country and the government encouraged it. An organization called Church World Services provided planes to fly people out and Zoila’s father was put in charge of making lists of people eligible to go. Zoila remembers leaving on August 29, 1961.
First they went to Jamaica to get their residency, so that they would not to come into the United States as refugees. It was late in August and Agustín was thinking the school year was starting soon and he needed to try to get a job quickly. From there, they stayed with relatives in Miami for the first week of September. Thereafter, the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church called him and offered him a teaching position in Dubuque, Iowa. My dad said, “We’re going. That’s a job.”
The transition from Cuba to the United States was hard for Zoila. She left friends and relatives. The weather was cold rather than tropical. Although she knew a lot of English, she could not speak the language. At first, they had to stay at the home of the President of the University of Dubuque — a small Presbyterian-related college — then with somebody else until her father was able to rent a small house. However, they had no dishes, towels or anything for the household since they came with nothing. The ladies of the church gave Zoila’s mother a “shower” as though she were a new bride in order for the family to have basic household necessities.
Zoila’s mother was also able to get a good job as a secretary at the Presbyterian Church in Dubuque. Her English was limited, but she was great at typing. She worked there until she retired.
Move To Chula Vista
Zoila met her husband, Russell Niehaus, while attending the University of Dubuque where she majored in foreign languages and minored in English. After they both completed their education, they married in 1967 and moved to Chula Vista.
Zoila immediately found a position at Southwest Junior High teaching Spanish. Sef Torres was her principal. She gave birth to two children and took some time to stay at home with them. She loved her career and returned to teaching a few years later, starting out at National City Junior High where she taught French, ESL and Spanish for Spanish Speakers.
She spent two years working at Mar Vista High School and then, in 1992, she transferred to a brand new school in eastern Chula Vista: Eastlake High. For 14 years Zoila taught AP Spanish, Spanish for Spanish Speakers and ELD (English Language Development). She was also a resource teacher and, above all, Zoila loved her career, particularly since she always loved languages and working with young people.
A Reunion of Friends
Thirty years after leaving Cuba, she went to Miami where she had a reunion with her fellow high school classmates. They created a “graduation ceremony” where she and the other students were able to receive their diplomas.
In 2003, Zoila went back to visit Cuba for the first time, accompanied by her daughter. She still has first cousins and aunts living there. She returned to her father’s Presbyterian school, which stood in ruins. Their old house had been split with two families living there and the building was in crumbling condition.
(Interview: April 20, 2016)