Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Photographer gets to see history in the making on Hollywood Beach

It’s not every day that you drive out to the beach and become a witness to a sliver of South Florida history in the making.

But there he was, waiting for better light to photograph his wife on Hollywood Beach last Friday afternoon, when amateur photographer William Forshee, 26, heard one of the lifeguards run into the water screaming.

Forshee thought someone might be drowning and needed help. He focused on the horizon and spotted what looked like a stationary raft. He changed lens and zoomed in with his Nikon D5300, and that’s when he first saw a tiny, crowded wooden boat bobbing in the ocean, moving closer and closer.

He took his first photo, and in one frame after another, Forshee captured that afternoon the full drama of the convergence of desperate human need and the U.S. government’s wet-foot, dry-foot policy.

If you’re Cuban, touch land and you’re free — eligible for a work permit and permanent-resident status in a year and a day under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

“It started getting more dramatic as they got closer, pulling up to the water’s edge and jumping out of the boat,” Forshee told me. “I was just shooting away because it was all so amazing to see it unfold.”

The men jumped out “in a panicked state,” Forshee said. “They acted like they were going to run, then [after they touched land] threw their hands up as if to say, ‘It’s OK.’”

A lifeguard reassured the dehydrated men and sat them on the sand, calling out for “water, water!”

Beachgoers rushed to help, bringing with them chips, orange soda, water and candy. Any supplies they had, they offered.

Poquito a poco,” little by little, you can hear the lifeguard instruct the Cubans in Spanish in the cellphone video taken by Forshee’s wife, Camrée.

As the Cubans doused themselves with water, ate and drank, beachgoers broke into hearty applause.

The eight men, two of them father and son, were sun-scorched and smelled of gasoline and oil. The Russian car engine they used to propel their homemade boat through the Florida Straits broke down during the 200-mile trip from the north central Cuban town of Caibarién to where they ended up in Hollywood — and in front of Forshee’s camera.

Forshee’s “a blessed man,” married to his childhood sweetheart for almost two years, the father of a 9-month old boy, William Jr., and a budding photographer who by day manages a dental office in Carol City, where he was born and raised.

He was once a star quarterback at Barbara Goleman High School, which borders Hialeah Gardens, and where many of the students were children of Cuban immigrants or were themselves refugees who braved the journey to freedom by way of the high seas.

He’s son of a bishop who raised him to “pray before you leave the house” — and no stranger to tragedy. If his last name sounds familiar, it’s because his niece was Tequila Forshee, the sweet 12-year-old gunned down at her grandmother’s house by ruthless drive-by killers more than a year ago, a murder still unsolved.

“My brother’s daughter,” he says simply, unable to say more.

Witnessing the Cuban drama has touched him, as have the overwhelming messages of support he has received on social media for his poignant photographs.

“It was a very touching moment,” Forshee said. “There was a lady there [on the beach] crying. She was telling the story about her brother who went through the same thing five years ago.”

Those who spoke Spanish on the beach translated the Cubans’ tale for others. The men survived a frightening storm — huge waves, hard rain and wind — and all eight huddled on a 10-foot boat too afraid to speak.

Some will think of these men as just an addition to the statistics: 4,832 Cubans have arrived in the first half of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, already more than the previous year’s total of 4,702.

Will, as friends call Forshee, sees them as human beings in need.

Being there for the arrival, he said, is “a life-changing experience.”

“You might not be where you want to be in life and then you see this and realize what you deal with in your life is nothing,” he said. “I’m safe. I’m not struggling financially. As you struggle through life, you think you’re having a tough time with things coming at you right and left. Then you see somebody like these guys make it through all that, and it humbles you so much.”

It’s not every day that you see history up-close and personal.