Lizbet Martínez, the Cuban rafter girl who warmed the hearts of U.S. Coast Guard officers and many others across the nation 20 years ago with her rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, still has the violin that made her famous.
Martínez, then 12 years old, became the endearing face of a successful campaign to bring other children out of Guantánamo refugee camps and into “the land of the brave and home of the free.”
She was among more than 30,000 Cubans rescued in the Florida Straits during a one-month summer exodus from Cuba that became known as the rafter, or balsero, crisis.
Today, she’s a Florida International University graduate with a music degree, teaches preschool children in Hialeah and is raising two kids of her own as a working mom.
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But it was the events of two decades ago that made her a part of South Florida history.
Martínez, who traveled on a makeshift raft with her parents and 10 others, became so famous that she was invited to Tallahassee to play before then-President Bill Clinton, and was honored by Florida lawmakers who declared March 29, 1995, as “Lizbet Martínez Day.”
During her encounter with Clinton, Martínez handed the president a ceramic angel and a postcard asking him to “open his heart” and help the Cuban children who were then still in camps in Guantánamo and Panama. In return, she received Clinton’s promise that the children would be “relocated in the very near future.”
Indeed, the last of the Cuban balseros left the refugee camps in May 1995. Most ultimately made it to the United States under a new immigration accord that put an end to the mass exodus and required that most of those interdicted at sea be returned to Cuba to apply for a visa at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Known as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, those who set foot on U.S. land were allowed to remain in the country.
“When I left Guantánamo [five months after being intercepted at sea], there were still many children there because the first who were able to leave were those with medical problems,” said Martínez, now a teacher at a preschool in Hialeah. “And that was my plea to Clinton.
“In Guantánamo, we received an identification band that looked like a watch, and I told him I would not take it off until the last person was out,” Martínez said. “And I kept my promise. When the last lady got off the plane, she cut it off, a year later.”
What she remembers most from her departure by sea was “the uncertainty of not knowing if we were going to be rescued. We were so eager to leave Cuba behind, but once you find yourself alone at sea, that’s when you begin to really pray to God. Thank God, we were rescued at 4 in the morning.”
Before the family left Cuba, Martínez was studying violin at the Alejandro García Caturla conservatory in Havana. She learned how to play The Star-Spangled Banner, thinking it was a religious hymn, until her uncle, who is Major League Baseball fan, warned her about the song’s significance.
“When we were rescued, they wanted to throw all the contents from the raft and they wanted to throw out my violin,” Martínez said. “They did not know Spanish, and we did not speak English, but I figured they would know the American national anthem. So that’s when I got my violin and began to play it. They were super-impressed.”
“The captain was so moved that he transmitted what she was playing over the radio to all the other cutters in the area,” Martínez’s father, Jorge Martinez, said in 2003, when the violinist graduated with a music degree from Florida International University.
Upon her arrival to the United States, Martínez recalls the many Cuban exile activities she took part in and a community that treated her with “great affection.” Among the many people who reached out was Cuban-American singer Willy Chirino, who gave her a $3,000 scholarship to help pay for college.
Now settled into her new life in America, Martínez hesitates when asked whether she would put her two children on a raft to an uncertain future.
“Back then, we were told that the U.S. Coast Guard was 12 miles off the Cuban coast,” Martínez said. “They were well past the 12 miles, but luckily nothing happened to us. Thank God, I am not in the position of having to make that decision, because it is a very difficult one. But I am very grateful to my parents, who left their own parents behind, so that I could live in freedom.”
While the little Cuban violist received much acclaim and made headlines all over the world, her story is not known in Cuba. The government-controlled media never published a word.
Over the past two decades, she has returned several times to visit family members still on the island.
“One yearns to return because it your homeland, because you miss your family so much,” Martínez said. “And then, when you arrive, when the plane lands and you get off and say to yourself, ‘I’m standing in Cuba again,’ that, for me, is a miracle. Even though it has the problems it has, it is the country where you were born, it’s your culture. I know there are many people who think one should not go, but I still have my family there.”
At FIU, Martínez earned a degree as a violin soloist, but no longer performs for large audiences. She also has stopped teaching music due to cuts in school programs. But she continues to play at her church and at small events such as weddings, adding that in today’s economic climate there is more demand for DJs than for a string quartet.
“I can play in front of thousands of people, but during auditions in front of a panel of judges, my nerves betray me,” Martínez said with a chuckle, adding that beyond nerves the opportunities for those who play classical music are limited.
Among her favorites is the music of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and although she rarely plays such complex pieces she enjoys the music in her preschool classes. “I like the reaction people have to the music,” she said.
Martínez keeps the violin she brought from Cuba preserved at home as part of her history.
“In fact, it started to come apart because of the salt during the trip on the raft. But a priest in Guantánamo gave us glue and we were able to fix it,” she said as she picked up another violin. “I have never been ashamed to say that I came on a raft and I am proud to be a balsera, truly.”
With that, she began to play a popular Cuban melody: the danzonete.