Who We Are Escape from Cuba

April 24, 2018 GMT

At age 41/2, I left Cuba with my mother and brother, Peter, before Fidel Castro assumed power. There was no peril in our journey as there would be in 1980 for my cousin Isabelina Estrada, her husband Roman, and their two young children, when they escaped from Cuba. They were part of a five-month exodus that history would know as the Mariel Boatlift.

On a recent trip to Florida I spent time with Isabelina and Roman in Coral Gables where they have lived since coming to the U.S. It had been years since the thought of my cousin leaving Cuba had entered my mind.

Moreover, I did not recall ever speaking with them about their ordeal in any depth. But I knew enough that I wanted to hear more. To my surprise their total recall of every minute detail was enough to fill a book.

There were many reasons for their determination to leave their country. For sure, the scarcity of food. Beef was slated for government officials. Anyone caught selling it was sentenced to a seven-year prison term. Buyers got five years.

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But uppermost for getting out was their sons, Jose and Richard, then 10 and 12. If they had stayed in Cuba the boys on their 16th birthdays would have been forced into the army. Roman said, “We had to find a way of getting out.”

In 1979 my other brother Santiago, U.S. born, took my mother to Cuba for two weeks. Roman told Santiago, “There was a government program to get people to leave Cuba. It failed. If there’s ever one again that works, please come get us.”

Six months later, when the Mariel project became public knowledge, Isabelina phoned my mother in New York, asking her if she could get Santiago to come down to get them out. Away in California, he reluctantly gave in to my mother’s plea and flew directly to Key West. Santiago spent two months in Florida — and one at the Mariel Harbor on a shrimp boat — working out all the details for getting the family out, including renting a trailer in Key West for the Estradas’ hoped-for arrival.

When Isabelina and Roman declared their intent to leave, some Cubans hurled rocks at their house. They were called traitors. The government took an inventory of all their possessions. Isabelina said, “If anything like a glass broke we had to keep all the pieces. We had to account for everything on that inventory list. Otherwise we would not have been allowed to leave.”

Isabelina went on, “We were driven to La Fontan, a deportation facility on a beach near Mariel. We could take only Cuban money and the clothing on our backs. For one week the sand was our home. One day I had to rip part of my dress and tie it to tree branches to protect Jose and Richard from the burning sun.”

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Isabelina added, “We also had to keep our two boys confined to a small area. If anyone became ill or got hurt, even with a small cut, that family was sent home. The sanitary conditions were awful with too few portable toilets for hundreds of people. The lines were long. The stench horrendous. The lines to buy food were also long. They sold hamburger meat I would not have fed to a cat. It was what I imagined a concentration camp was like.”

Each morning Roman would go a tribunal to hear who was being called to board a bus to Mariel. Isabelina said, “They would call the family name and say, ‘Are you here?’ If no one answered, that family had to leave La Fontan.”

Also, everyone on the departing list had to be on the bus before it left for Mariel. If anyone was missing, everyone had to get off. Roman said, “One day a man left the bus. We couldn’t risk being sent back home. So, two men and I got off, and dragged that man back onto the bus.”

The worst moment on that bus was when Jose apparently became ill. Isabelina said, “We didn’t know what to do. A man sitting nearby gave us a can of condensed milk. Jose drank the can’s few remaining drops. His pain went away. He was hurting from hunger.”

One week after arriving at La Fontan, the Estradas were driven on that bus to Mariel. Three days later Santiago came to get them. Isabelina said, “I could go on for hours about our trip to America. After we sailed off, the winds got nasty, the boat kept rocking and we all threw up. Santiago got ill. My biggest fear was that he might not survive. I could never have forgiven myself for calling his mother to plea to him to come get us.”

Juan A. Negroni, a Weston resident, is a consultant, bilingual speaker/facilitator and writer. Email him at juannegroni12@gmail.com; follow him on Twitter @JuanANegroni. His column appears monthly in Hearst Connecticut Newspapers.