Shortly after 9/11, a current UCOH prayer chaplain traveled alone throughout Morocco to find out for herself if Muslims were as evil and frightening as she had seen them portrayed in the media. (Spoiler: They weren’t.) Her entire life’s journey has been just as interesting as that trip, during which she watched TV in a hotel lobby in Tetouan with the hotel owner and two Berber women, received directions from a one-legged Moroccan man in Spanish, and, after falling ill in Fes, was cared for by a woman hotelier, although they spoke no common language.
Meet Elda Acevedo. Born in Puerto Rico to a Cuban mother and Puerto Rican father, Elda came naturally to a lifelong interest in intercultural communications. Her mother escaped Cuba and settled in Puerto Rico when Fidel Castro came to power. As the plane waited to take off from Cuba, her mother’s cousin was asked to deplane to answer a few questions. He spent three years in jail for speaking out against Castro.
Elda was five years old when her parents divorced. Both then remarried, creating an extended family that included situations such as her mom and stepmom being pregnant at the same time, resulting in Elda’s two sisters, born within a month of each other. Her brother was born when she was three and her youngest sibling was born when she was 13.
Her private school education in Puerto Rico included bilingual classes (Spanish and English). During elementary school, she was deeply moved by the USA for Africa campaign and the “We Are the World” song that accompanied it. Having seen photos of starving African children in connection with that effort, she was shocked when her aunt gave her copies of National Geographic that featured nighttime photos of a beautiful, modern, lighted African city. She felt she had been deceived, and dreamed of going to Africa someday to see for herself.
Elda’s high school years found her fully engaged and participating on the Forensics Team, in the United Nations Club, and as a member of the Honors Society, Junior Achievement, and Presidential Classroom. In the Presidential Classroom program, she traveled for the first time to Washington, D.C., and worked for a week with students from all over the U.S. and Nicaragua. “I met our representative in Congress,” she said. “I also met the ambassador of an African country. I remembered how the U.S. had raised millions of dollars to ‘save the children’ and to help those countries that were so unknown to us. So I had to ask the ambassador how all the money we had sent to their countries had helped. He stared at me blankly and asked, ‘What money?’ I explained, but he was still drawing a blank.”
Her experience in the United Nations Club left a big impression about cultural differences, finding common ground, and respecting others’ points of view. Students represented various countries during the meetings, and, she said, “Choosing a variety of countries with different beliefs, representing their point of view, and later reaching an agreement with other countries internalized for me that each country was right according to their set of beliefs and their current situation. What a lesson at a young age!”
She decided to attend college in the States. Working with her high school counselor, she applied to six universities and was accepted and offered scholarships to all of them. Her choice was DePauw University, a small private school in Indiana, known for its program in Communications. For four years there she studied International Communications, a major she created with a group of professors. Elda served as president of the International Students Association, founded the International Business Organization, and co-produced and co-hosted a weekly variety radio show, “Around the World in 60 Minutes,” on the university’s 24-hour station.
Taking advantage of the university’s program that allowed credit for projects, volunteer trips, or internships, in her sophomore year she applied for and was accepted to an internship in the office of Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, a native Puerto Rican who represented (and still represents) the 7th District of New York. Surprised to be chosen, Elda later asked what caused them to pick her for the internship over the many other applicants who already had graduate degrees. She said, “The interviewer replied, ‘When I interviewed everyone, I made a joke. You were the only one who not only laughed at my joke but made a joke back. So I thought I could work with this person!’” During the internship, she attended committee meetings and researched the impact of NAFTA.
Following the congressional internship, she was offered a summer job in the Business Enhancement Project – Latin America for the Indianapolis Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which resulted in Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce flying to Indiana to speak at the organization’s annual gala and lecturing at the university.
During her third year in college, she was surprised to find she had been nominated as homecoming queen. She said, “I had learned about homecoming from movies, but didn’t realize it was a real thing until that day. At the end, I was not crowned homecoming queen, but I was first runner-up. Once hesitant to become part of another culture while being myself, I had been selected by my peers to represent the entire student body in this university in the middle of the Midwest! It meant the world to me.”
After college graduation, Elda said, “It bothered me a little that I wasn’t really international. [As a Puerto Rican, she holds a U.S. passport.] A friend who had moved to London said, ‘I think you would love it here.’ So I got a visa, went to London, and found a place to live in Chelsea.” She worked in the USIT Campus Travel office, representing about 50 youth travel agencies throughout the U.K., making reservations for people on the Eurostar, the train that travels from London to Paris through the “chunnel.”
Her co-workers hailed from everywhere. For her birthday, her co-workers gifted her with a trip to Paris, another adventure in itself.
A conversation with a Cambridge sociology professor provoked further pondering about culture, reinforcing her desire to travel and observe things for herself rather than accepting what someone else has written.
When a fire in the “chunnel” canceled Eurostar sales indefinitely, she flew back to the states, drove to Florida, and flew back to Puerto Rico, where she immediately was offered a position co-hosting a variety radio show focused on Cuba. “I loved working on that show every day,” she said. “I got to interview the governor of Puerto Rico, historians, musicologists, musicians. What an experience!”
A year later, in 1997, Elda felt the urge to move to Seattle. Why? No particular reason—her inner voice just pushed her in that direction. “The very next week after I moved to Seattle,” she said, “I met the man who would become my first husband, a Muslim man from Senegal. We were married for four years.”
In Seattle, she worked as a tour guide at one of the largest youth hostels in the U.S. and organized events for guests from all over the world. She helped organize the International Budget Travel Expo, which featured Rudy Maxa and Rick Steves, among others.
After a change in hostel administration, Elda went to work for a computer gaming company, managing e-commerce sales. This was in 2000, when Amazon.com had yet to turn a profit. She guided the gaming company’s e-commerce site to a million dollars in sales. Once again, a change of company ownership changed her job situation, and she decided to spend her generous severance pay on travel.
In January 2002, a plane ticket to Spain and a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco, launched her new adventure. “I cried when I first saw the African coast,” she said. “It had only been a dream when I was a child, and here I was.” Traveling alone on her U.S. passport, she was warned by friends in Spain before her ferry departed. She heard stories of women being exchanged for camels and other horror stories, but said she always felt safe once she actually landed in that faraway kingdom, although she confessed to being a little nervous the first time she was required to hand over her passport at a hotel.
After a week of eye-opening touring in Morocco, she visited Berlin and then returned to Seattle, where she and her husband decided to end their marriage. Feeling no further reason to stay in the Great Northwest, she returned to Puerto Rico, la isla del encanto, the “island of enchantment.”
She completed a master’s degree at the University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan, studying public relations.
After some shorter trips (Nicaragua and New York), Elda reflected on the metaphysics of place. She wondered about people born on one side or the other of the Berlin wall, about people born in Cuba before Castro came to power and everything was taken away. If our souls decide where to be born, she thought, could it be that at some level we choose situations that will be difficult, that will force us to grow and create in order to thrive or even survive? Is there a reason to be born in a circumstance that requires you to depend on other people? Is it really valid to consider any of these a form of self-selected punishment? When a person has had many varied experiences, what is her culture? How does culture affect how we interpret what we read and how we approach and even discuss philosophical or spiritual dilemmas? These ideas are still circulating in Elda’s mind, and she hopes to get them into book form in the next year.
Some of these deep ideas also featured in discussions she had with Leo Vazquez, now her husband and father of their two children, Sofia, 13 and Cesar, 11.
Back in Puerto Rico, Elda began work at the Women’s Business Institute (in partnership with the Small Business Administration), which included another foray into the medium she loves—radio. She did a weekly segment on how to start your own business. The agency provided workshops, panels, and case studies, in addition to a monthly forum, “Among Women Entrepreneurs,” which attracted up to 200 entrepreneurs every month. Elda began a weekly segment on a morning radio show hosted by some of Puerto Rico’s iconic actors, offering advice on starting your own business. After four years of building the organization, she accepted a position as the Web Director of a local tech company owned by a Stanford grad.
As Elda and her husband noticed that the political environment was changing in Puerto Rico, some friends in South Bend, Indiana, offered to temporarily house the young family, so Leo and Elda accepted the invitation. But this was 2008, and the U.S. job market was at its bottom. Elda worked briefly heading up communications for a research project in the University of Notre Dame sociology department, and Leo worked at what little he could find, but as another 30-below-zero winter approached, they began to consider the invitations they’d been receiving from Elda’s brother in Austin.
They moved to Austin in 2009 and took a while to get back on their feet. Elda worked in retail; Leo drove school buses and joined a salsa band, playing congas and other percussion, a continuing passion for him today. His day job is working with cabinetry.
Elda’s mother wrote that she had seen a sign in Puerto Rico recruiting teachers for Texas. Her mom said, “You’re in Texas. Why don’t you do that?” She did, applying for and completing a certification program that qualifies her to teach elementary school. She now teaches in the Leander ISD’s dual language program, instructing children whose first language is Spanish and where instruction is in both English and Spanish.
In 2015, Elda took her two children on a train trip around the U.S., resulting in her first book, Amtrak’s Best Kept Secret: A Guide to Traveling the USA with a Rail Pass.
Shortly after they moved to Austin, a neighbor invited them to Unity, and they fit right in. Leo volunteers as a parking usher, and Elda is one of the newer prayer chaplains.
Concerning religion, Elda said, “Leo was raised in a Pentecostal church. All my paperwork is Catholic. Then my dad became Jehovah’s Witness after I left for college. So I have these really nice people surrounding me. They’re good people; they want the best for their family and the world, but they come from different religions, and they are all doing what they believe they have to do. My mother-in-law doesn’t wear pants, my ex-husband doesn’t eat pork, and my stepmom eats pork and wears pants, but doesn’t celebrate birthdays! It’s all technicalities, but everyone’s doing the best they can with their beliefs.
“I saw that Unity is based on developing and aligning yourself with your higher self through love and your own personal power, and that spoke to me. I don’t want fear in my church. Once you get connected through love, and you’re aligned, then what you need will materialize. Once you look someone in the eye, it’s hard not to love them.”