Escape from Cuba
June 12, 1980
My brother, my dad, and I are all in this photo. Can you spot us?
“Wake up, we’re leaving.” For some reason, and I don’t recall why, I knew what Mami was talking about when she woke me up in the middle of the night. At 9 years old, it all appeared to happen pretty fast. My older siblings, Carlos and Ana, and I staggered downstairs. I noticed we had some family already downstairs saying their goodbyes.
I later learned that a few weeks prior, Papi found out we might have the opportunity to leave our Island prison. Mami was conflicted about the idea of leaving everyone behind, her parents, brother, sister, and friends… In Cuba, and many other poor countries where you don’t have much, family is everything.
“Those were really dark days,” Mami later shared with us. If anyone found out you were leaving, the socialist propaganda would label you a traitor and would encourage people to do things like throw rocks at your home, and much much worse. People learned that one of Ana’s teachers was leaving, so all the other teachers and faculty stopped their classes and told all of the students, including my sister, to join the rest of the “mob” already forming outside of the school to yell and treat him like the “traitor he was”. Ana was one of the few who did not participate. We later learned that the teacher was almost beaten to death. He wasn’t even leaving for the US, but to another Central American country.
Papi was Episcopalian Priest in Havana. He had traveled to the US on various church meetings and had gotten to know several other priests in the US. There were two priests out of New Orleans whose Hispanic congregation had encourage them to look for opportunities to help their families and friends get out of Cuba. One of the priests, Joe Doss, eventually wrote, “Let the Bastards Go”, outlining the process. It explains what they had to do to get permission from both the US and Cuban governments and find a boat and captain willing to risk everything to help people they had never met.
Our family was not on their original list with permission to leave that night, but at the last minute someone dropped out and Papi received a call,
“Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“We have room for you and your family but you need to decide now.”
My parents decided to take a leap of faith. Hesitant Mami had discussed the possibility with her sister only a few days earlier. She encouraged her to go, “you cannot miss this one chance.” In attempt to avoid suspicion from the Neighborhood Watch, they came up with a code message to let her know she was leaving. “Please come over, one of the kids is sick.”
We said our goodbyes to those who could come over in such short notice, and just like that we began our journey. What if we can’t go? Everyone would know by morning. What would happen to us then?
The first step was “getting permission” from the Socialist version of the head of the Neighborhood Watch. The Socialist version is a watch person dedicated to seeking any anti-revolutionary/ anti-socialist discussions or activities and report them. There was a representative from the Cuban Government escorting us through the process, so we were able to jump this first hurdle without too many issues.
We hit a problem with our next step, there were five of us. We couldn’t fit in one car along with the driver and the government representative. We had to split up. Papi, Carlos, and I would go first, then the car would go back to pick up my Mami and Ana. I don’t know how this was determined, but there was no way we would ever leave the island if we were split up.
We were dropped off at what I assumed was a government office for ‘processing’ which included being stripped search. We were not allowed to bring anything but the clothes on our backs. Thankfully, within another hour, Mami and Ana joined us.
After many long, anxious moments, we were back in the car on our way to the port. I thought back to seeing the news on the government channels of how thousands of people had traveled to Mariel, the port where many of the boats had gathered, when President Carter and Fidel Castro had come to the agreement to let Cuban’s leave for the US. I also remembered watching the news on the prisoners rioting and setting fires to their cells hoping to get a chance to leave.
There were hundreds of people living in tents just hoping for the opportunity to get on one of the boats. It was the middle of June and the heat and mosquitos were at their worst, a small price to pay for the chance of a life of opportunity and freedom.
For some reason, we were able to go straight into a line that was already boarding an small, old boat. I had never been on a boat. It seems like funny thing to look back on now: I was living on an island and had never been on a boat.
The boat was so crowded that they had to tie a rope to two other small boats to help fit as many as possible.
I remember being really excited. The boat had an “upper deck”, so Carlos and I went straight to the top to have a better view. It was 5 am or so and very dark still. Soon after breaking away from the dock, Carlos and I learned that the upper deck was not the place to be, the seas were much too rough. I can remember looking back at the dock, and for the first time in my life I saw Cuba from a distance.
What I thought was a big ship soon felt like a twig in the open water. Seasickness began affecting everyone around me, so much so that buckets were being passed around for people to vomit into. I remember someone telling me to lie down on my back so I wouldn’t get sick. So I did for as long as possible. I’m not sure if there was any truth to it, but I didn’t get sick, a small victory.
The boat started having issues and the rope that pulled the other two small boats kept breaking. It felt like we were just drifting more than anything. There was a constant sense of anxiety on the boat. Everyone kept waiting for the Cuban coast guard to make us turn around. It seemed impossible that we were really escaping Castro’s reach.
By the time I had finally gotten more used to the constant rocking of the waves, I remember looking up at Papi and seeing a very serious expression on his face. The skies were getting darker, a storm was coming. A lady sitting next to me who didn’t feel very well asked Papi, “If anything happens to me, please take care of my son.” I remember wondering, why would she say that?
The rain began to pour and the waves got even worse. We tried escaping the rain by going into the hull of the boat but that didn’t last long. The stink of vomit and sweat along with the constant rocking make it unbearable. We all preferred to just get wet.
Mami later shared thinking, “What have I done? Taking these kids away from home only to die in these waters.”
After what seemed like hours of getting soaked and thrown around on the boat, the weather finally calmed. I had no idea where we were, where we were heading, or how long it would take. I simply remembered how calm everything began to feel. As the sun started to rise, I felt a great sense of relief.
For the first time, I noticed another boat nearby. I later learned that it was a group of the original organizers of the trip that had come to meet us. We were entering US waters.
As the sun was beginning to set, I heard quite the commotion towards the front of the boat, but this time it was a sense of excitement. A group of dolphins were jumping up alongside the boat.
By the time we finally reached Key West, it was dark again. We all sang the Cuban national anthem as we arrived.
We were escorted to a naval base where they had set up a makeshift holding area for us with cots and some basic first aid supplies. The two priests who organized the trip were taken away in handcuffs. We later learned that Carter and Castro had ended their agreement. We were one of the last boats to leave.
I had not eaten since the night before we left, so I was starving. I was ecstatic to learn we were being given a coke and an apple, two things they did not have and Cuba and I had always wanted to try. I was very disappointed, more in myself than anything, to find that I didn’t like the taste of either.
We stayed overnight and were given the chance to make one phone call. Papi used it to call one of his cousins that left in the early 60’s who lived in Miami. Back then, he could only call collect, and on his first try, the cousin didn’t accept the charges because she didn’t recognize the call. We were already in line for a bus on it’s way to Nebraska for another holding camp. Thankfully, Papi called again and was able to get through.
Within a few hours, we were in a car on the way to a cousin’s house in Miami. I remember stopping at a gas station and going inside for a snack. I had never seen so much food in one place in my life. Candy bars, sodas, chips… it was amazing to my siblings and me.
The bishop of Louisiana heard that Papi had made it to the US and offered him a job in New Orleans. Within a couple of weeks, we were on our way. What felt like only a few days later, I was in a classroom full of strangers speaking a language I didn’t understand…
Could you spot us on the upper deck? My dad and I are standing together on the left, and my brother, Carlos, is leaning against the rail on the right.