Thankful

09/30/2022 12:25 AM By Lisa Anderson
Breaking Social Norms
Norma Cress
Norma Cress
Story by Cierra Ross • Photo by Joshua Jacobs

Thankful

How One Woman Turned Trials into Triumphs

At the age of 15, Norma Cress crossed the border from Mexico into the United States. After a month of living on her own in Tijuana, waiting for her visa, she was finally able to join her family in California.

Norma was born in Juarez, Mexico. She had three goals that drove her forward. The first goal she wanted to achieve was to pursue higher education past the sixth grade, which was the highest education girls typically achieved in the late 1960s in her home town. Along with her education, she states, “Number two, I wanted to learn [English], and then, three, I wanted to get in the military.” To accomplish her goals, she needed to cross the border. Mexico didn’t allow women into their military, and the United States offered the opportunity to learn English, as well as provide her with the education she desired.

Norma entered the U.S. in 1972 and didn’t speak English. She could read English and understand some spoken English. However, at that time, she distinctly remembers being told she could never achieve her goal. “The principal of the high school wouldn’t accept me, because he said I was going to fail,” Norma recalls. Without the advocacy of her family, she may not have been able to go to school. “I proved him wrong, because the first report card I got three As and two Bs.” Norma beams as she recounted the moment. “So, to me, that’s like the biggest accomplishment in my life that somebody said, ‘you can’t come to my high school because you’re going to fail,’ and I didn’t fail.” That drive seems to have become a mantra for Norma’s life. “Don’t tell me I can’t do it, because I’m going to do it.”

Joining Up

After graduating high school, Norma enlisted in the military. In July 1975, she headed to basic training. Her desire for joining the military started young. Norma said, “I saw pictures of my ancestors [with] their horses [in] their uniforms. [They] looked so amazing to me.” She became a construction and utility worker before accepting a position in Fort Meade, Maryland as the mail clerk. Her time in the military came to an end in 1979, when she realized her job prevented her from building a relationship with her daughter. “I enjoyed being in the military. To this day, I wish I would have stayed longer,” Norma said. She tried going back years later, but there was no one she trusted enough to tend to her children in case she was deployed.
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A Passion to Help Others

In 1988, Norma moved to Ocala, Florida, and her passion for people began to stir. For 25 years, Norma worked as a human and civil rights advocate and as a union organizer for the Florida Education Association. She advocated for the support personnel and loved what she did. “They kinda were my people, because I started as a secretary and then I became a professional.” It was more than a promotion for Norma; it was a way to help those individuals in a variety of capacities. “I represented everything from bus drivers, who were accused of pushing a kid off the bus, to teachers, who were accused of the worst.” 

In 2014, Norma became involved with Toastmasters. “The reason why I started Spanglish Toastmasters is because there are a lot of people in Ocala–in Florida in general–that are Spanish speakers that are either trying to learn English or even English-speaking people who want to learn Spanish.” The Spanglish Toastmasters provides Norma the ability to bridge the gap between English and Spanish. “I really enjoyed it…And the fact that it’s helping people…It turned out to be a really rewarding club.” The idea of helping people seemed to shape the course of Norma’s life. 

Love and Faith

The hardships Norma faced didn’t diminish her zeal and love for life. In 1997, Norma married Hollis, who was diagnosed with colon cancer. The surgeons removed a quarter of his colon, and he recovered. However, in 2007, Hollis was diagnosed with Hairy Cell Leukemia and had to undergo chemotherapy for eight days, but not even that could slow him down. A year later, the doctors found a tumor on his back; the surgery took a total of 21 hours. Hollis went in for surgery for 10 hours. “I almost lost him then. The first 10 hours, his blood pressure plummeted, so they had to close him up.” Then, in the middle of the night, Hollis was rushed back into surgery. “[T]hey didn’t know if they were going to be able to save him.” After 11 hours, Hollis made it out with a titanium metal spine, because the tumor had already eaten through his bone. Norma and Hollis’ journey with cancer resurfaced in February 2022, when Hollis lost another third of his colon.

Norma noted that “[Hollis] is a very positive person. He doesn’t just help me to deal with things, but he himself heals fast because he’s very spiritual. He goes in full ‘if I die it’s because I’m supposed to.’ I don’t stress as much.” The faith her husband possesses overflows and rests upon Norma’s shoulders. Despite the challenge of watching her husband battle with cancer, she says, “I am most grateful for the experiences that life has put me through, because I believe they made me who I am.”
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