From refugee to artist: ‘I am who I am because this country took me in’

Soprano Elizabeth Caballero has a unique connection to the opera “Before Night Falls,” in which she plays the mother and muse to dissident Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Like Arenas, Caballero is also a Cuban refugee who came on the Mariel boatlift.

She was 6 in 1980, when the Cuban government announced they would allow people, mostly prisoners, gay men and other “undesirables,” to leave through the port of Mariel. An aunt in Miami, taking advantage of the opening like so many other exiles, paid a boat captain to bring her brother’s family, with their two young daughters. The couple briefly feared they’d have to separate; officials initially said only three of them could leave, then relented and decided Caballero’s younger sister, a toddler, counted as only half a person.

“My parents are my heroes,” says Caballero. “They sheltered my sister and myself as much as they could.” People told her mother that her daughters would end up prostitutes in Miami. On the buses that took them to a holding camp and to the boats, Caballero, like any child, wanted to sit by the window. No, her father said — crowds were throwing rocks and eggs at those who were leaving. In Miami, as they prepared to go to a supermarket for the first time, she asked again. Yes, her father told her, here you can sit by the window.

The family settled in Hialeah, where her father worked as a mechanic for the Miami-Dade Transit system and her mother took care of the two girls. Caballero sang in church and school choirs and discovered opera as a student at Miami Dade College’s downtown campus. But the event that really inspired her to devote herself to classical singing came a year later, in 1995, when the legendary Luciano Pavarotti sang a free concert on the sands of Miami Beach. He also held a voice competition; Caballero entered, and the 20-year-old from Hialeah became one of the semi-finalists chosen from 2,000 who auditioned worldwide. When she sang for Pavarotti, he told her “you’re a diamond in the rough who just needs to be polished.”

“It’s one of those moments I carry in my heart when I have a bad rehearsal or audition,” Caballero says. “Pavarotti thought I had something. I’m here because of him.”

She went on to the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, volunteered at the box office at FGO, joined its choir and then their Young Artists training program. Since then, she has sung numerous leading roles at FGO, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and other troupes around the United States.

Artistic director Susan Danis asked her to audition for “Before Night Falls,” and composer Jorge Martin rewrote part of the role of the mother to fit her soprano vocal range.

Though Caballero knew little of Arenas before joining this production, she is deeply moved by his story.

“The moment that touches me most is his death, when Reinaldo says I’m ready to leave and that Cuba will be free,” she says. “It’s so hard to hold back my tears every time.”

But she still remembers the sting of being a desperate new arrival. Many earlier exiles looked down on those who came through Mariel as politically suspect or lower class.

“For years, I had the stigma of being a Marielita,” she says. “Even today, even though so many Marielitos have become important all over the world. There’s always going to be that struggle when you’re a refugee.

“For me, it just adds fuel to my fire. I’m going to prove you wrong, you [bastards].”

And she remains profoundly grateful to her parents and her adopted country. “I know the U.S. is not perfect, but I would not want to live anywhere else,” she says. “I am who I am because this country took me in.”

Read more: Florida Grand Opera’s “Before Night Falls” speaks to struggle for freedom

If you go

What: Florida Grand Opera’s “Before Night Falls.”

When: 7 p.m. Saturday March 18, 2 p.m. Sunday March 19; 8 p.m. March 21, 24, 25.

Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

Info: $12 to $225, fgo.org or 800-741-1010.