08 Oct Tough and Universal: Remembering journey from Cuba
Carlos Hernandez Ocampo’s path to where he is today — a husband and father of two, Navy veteran and law school graduate — started out a long way away. He was born in Cuba.
“My father was a diplomat and a lawyer in Cuba, and he got disappointed with the system, the government in Cuba,” Carlos said. “And he eventually left to Jamaica.”
From there, Carlos’ family stayed in Jamaica for several years. But eventually, it became clear that wasn’t a long-term solution.
“My dad worked so closely with some business people in Jamaica and the government in Jamaica. And some people were not too happy with him,” Carlos said. “So the people that he, I guess you could say ‘run afoul of,’ they threatened him. And because I was the male son, they threatened me as well.
“It’s an old way of thinking that, you know, if you kill the dad and the son gets to live, I guess I could, you know, come back and have revenge or something,” he said. “So we gave everything up that we had in Jamaica and we tried to come to the U.S. illegally.”
Carlos was 11 years old. One attempt to be smuggled out of the country as a family of four failed and the Hernandez family had to regroup. Eventually, Carlos’ parents decided it made sense to split up: Carlos and his father would leave for the U.S., while Carlos’ mother and sister remained in Jamaica for the time being.
The Hernandezes didn’t have the proper papers to enter the U.S., so instead they planned to seek political asylum. When Carlos and his father arrived in Miami from Jamaica, they waited in the restroom for about an hour after they landed.
“Because if they didn’t know where we came from, they couldn’t send us back,” Carlos said.
The two had traveled to the U.S. on fake passports; once they arrived, they ripped them up and took out their Cuban passports.
“And then we walked outside and went to customs,” Carlos said. “(My father) told them how, you know, ‘My son and I are Cuban nationals. And we’re seeking political asylum.’ And we just turned ourselves in.
“They took us into this room, they interviewed us slash interrogated us — they were trying to ascertain what we came from because they couldn’t send us back to Cuba, but they could send us back to Jamaica,” he said. “We definitely didn’t want to go back to either country.”
Carlos and his father spent several days at the airport in a holding cell. Then, they were sent to an immigrant detention center where Carlos — an eleven-year-old — was housed with his dad and other adult men. After several days, and after his father had threatened the detention center with a lawsuit, Carlos was moved to an orphanage for about a month.
Finally, the father and son were released.
“Welcome to America, the real America,” Carlos said.
Life in Miami was difficult for Carlos and his father. His dad had been a diplomat back in Cuba, but that didn’t matter in the U.S.
“My dad hadn’t gotten a work permit yet, so, he had to do some odd jobs on the side. I guess that’s one thing I always admired of him. He had been a diplomat, he had met great politicians and, you know, prime ministers, presidents, royalty throughout his life, but none of that made him a prideful person,” Carlos said. “He would just show up at a construction site, say ‘Hey, I don’t have a work permit, what can I do and how much will you give me?’ And they say, ‘Well, how about 40 bucks a day for you being a gopher, you know, sweep here, sweep there.’ And he said ‘Well, where’s the broom?’ And that’s something that I think he always instilled in me.”
For awhile, the two were paying to live in a wooden shed in someone’s yard. The conditions, Carlos says, were deplorable.
“As I grew up, and as I got older and we progressed and moved up. I used to think that people were so oblivious that there’s a parallel world in the U.S. that people don’t know about, that there’s people that live in third world conditions here,” he said. “And you know, they still have jobs and they go to school and a lot of people just don’t even know that they exist or how they live.”
Things started getting better. Carlos’ dad went to night school and was able to earn his law degree again. And several of Carlos’ aunts and uncles were able to emigrate to the U.S. through the Cuban visa lottery. Because major cities like New York and Miami already had large immigrant populations, the government directed the Hernandez family somewhere else: Louisville, Kentucky.
Carlos arrived in Louisville in the summer of 2000, and enrolled in Western High School. He graduated at 17, and got a job working as a law clerk while he went to Jefferson Community and Technical College at night. By his own admission, he wasn’t a very good student.
“I was trying to do night school. And I was tired, because a lot of my job entailed reading, going through documents, going to the courthouse, a lot of mental work, I guess you could say. And I was young and stupid,” he said. “And so, I when I got to school, the last thing I wanted to do is read. I used to go to the library — I remember, there was a very quiet section all the way in the back — and I used to lay my head down. And when I woke up, both my classes had ended. So sometimes I would go to school just to sleep.”
The one bright spot was his art classes.
“When I took art history, the art appreciation, I got to see through the eyes of the artists. And I think that what I loved about art history was how artists could take really horrible periods in history and make these beautiful products out of it,” he said. “These beautiful paintings that were allegorical, these beautiful woodworks, and sculptures, woodcuts. So, I was inspired.”
But he was still doing badly in the rest of his classes. So, Carlos decided to quit school and work full time, in the hopes that he would figure out what he wanted to do.
The answer, he decided, was to join the military. Carlos’ parents weren’t thrilled. His mother and sister had finally arrived in the U.S. in 2004, and they wanted the family to be together after their long time apart.
“My mom screamed at me over the phone. And my dad was like, ‘Are you crazy? You know, you didn’t even consult with us.’ And it was out of the blue,” Carlos said. “So, I was in the Navy for five years. I was a medical corpsman, which is the equivalent of an army medic.”
After his time in the Navy, Carlos had made up his mind about his future.
“I wanted to go to law school,” he said. “I had grown up; they say ‘If you don’t rebel when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you don’t conform when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.’ So I thought my dad was right and I should probably go to law school. But I looked into it, and the only thing you needed to go to law school was a bachelor’s degree and pass the LSAT. So, I thought, well, if you need a bachelor’s degree in anything, I might as well do what I love.”
He got his degree from the University of Louisville in art, and enrolled in law school.
Carlos graduated from the University of Louisville with his law degree in May 2018, despite the birth of both his children — and the associated sleep deprivation — while he was in school. Now, he’s decided to marry both of his passions: art and law, by focusing on helping artists and other small business owners.
“I saw that entrepreneurs, small business people, there were people that were trying to go against all odds, you know, going into debt, borrowing from family, from friends, do whatever they had to do,” he said. “And I felt like I could relate to them, I could relate to, you know, not having anything and having to make something out of nothing.
“I really had a passion for entrepreneurship. I had a passion for entrepreneurs themselves, you know, I love helping them. And because I fell in love with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, I decided to open my own law firm in corporate law. And as part of the law firm, I want to do also business development and help entrepreneurs get from A to Z, I guess you could say, and traverse the business world and help them open their business and be successful.”
Carlos plans to take the bar exam early next year; in the meantime, he’s opened a business consulting firm.
Carlos Hernandez Ocampo’s story is part of Tough and Universal: Stories of Grit, a partnership between WFPL and IDEAS xLab. A new story will be released every Friday through November 2; for more stories, click here.