It was May 1994. I can still smell the fresh and almost sweet “earthy aroma” that fateful Friday afternoon. The one you get right after rain hits the ground. It is a peculiar fragrance that until this day I only experienced in my Puerto Esperanza.
Papi called us to the kitchen table, the place where we had our silliest to most important conversations. We could see the emotions etched on his face before he opened his mouth. He didn’t have to speak for us to know something big was coming.
“Niñas, the family is escaping and leaving the country to go to the U.S.,” he declared.
What? When? The family? What about us?
My 14-year-old world had just stopped; my heart opened as big as my eyes. Did he mean that my dreams could become a reality?
I had dreams, from the mundane to the sublime. I dreamt of eating an entire Cornish hen by myself any day of the week. I dreamt of bubble baths, and honeymooning in Hawaii. I dreamt of studying law so I could fight against injustice. I dreamt of speaking my mind and practicing my faith without fear of persecution.
My thoughts were interrupted, then shattered by my dad’s somber voice.
“I am sorry mis niñas, but we are not leaving Cuba with the rest of the family. It’s a very dangerous trip. Domingo [my mom’s cousin] is ‘borrowing’ the fishing boat he has captained for the government all of his life. If we get caught escaping, the adults will be charged with illegal exiting and/or pirating and at best, the adults will get 10 years in prison, and at the worst, we could be shot and even killed on the spot. How could I live with myself after that? And then what would happen to my girls? This decision is tearing me apart, but I’m just not willing to put our family at such a great risk.”
All my thoughts turned to question marks.
What? Who does that? How can you be punished for wanting a better life? What country keeps you a prisoner? And what do you mean we are not leaving? My abuelos, uncles, aunts, cousins are leaving. They are taking the risk and we are not?
As I tried to take it all in, my head spun. My young and inexperienced self knew that this was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. I had to speak up. I had to convince my dad he was making a big mistake.
I didn’t have much time to craft the elaborate arguments he was accustomed to hearing from me. I had to think fast.
I stood up and I said, “Papi, I understand your concerns, but if you don’t take us, I am leaving with abuela. There is no way I am staying behind.”
I like to think those words made my dad change his mind. The truth was probably that after analyzing the pros and cons and a lengthy conversation with my mom, he realized his choices for a better future for his three daughters were limited. Somehow he convinced himself it was the best decision for the family at the time.
After an incognito, long truck ride through dense countryside, a night spent in the mosquito-infested mangroves, drinking water from a murky lagoon, unknowingly being followed by Cuban border guards, almost flipping over the boat once on the open sea, and 36 hours of motion sickness and dehydration, I saw them: Brothers to the Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard.
We were intercepted and came ashore at Stock Island in Key West and placed at “Hogar de Transito.” My prayer had been answered! We all made it. Fifty-two in total, including 32 of my close family members. We had arrived in the United States of America!
I’m so grateful that we were able to get to our destination, a fate that eludes so many.
Then it was time for me to find my place at Miami’s table. It has been a convoluted journey since that exodus 25 years ago this May. Miami has always made me feel welcomed, proud and hopeful, although certain individuals have made me feel excluded, ashamed and discouraged. I can’t blame Miami or America for the actions of those individuals.
I’ve become so resilient that I can’t be ignored. I’ve also learned the freedom I attained came with great commitment. I don’t take it for granted.
A quote by Condoleezza Rice resonates with me, “The essence of America — that which really unites us — is not ethnicity, or nationality, or religion. It is an idea — and what an idea it is: That you can come from humble circumstances and do great things.”
So, have I found my place at Miami’s table? I have.