Most Americans don’t realize the great sacrifices that the Cuban people have made to come to freedom in the United States. In that way, they are a lot like the Pilgrims who came over to America on a leaky ship risking their lives to fulfill a God-given dream. Every year, I ask my students to complete an “Origins Project,” which consists of several essays, a time-line and several maps describing the story of their lives and their ancestors. In my first year of teaching in a school district in Florida with a diverse population, I found it interesting to hear the stories of my immigrant students, especially those who came from Cuba.
The most interesting story was written sometime in the 2002/2003 school year by Russay Hernandez, who told me that he wanted to write a book about his life, but doubted that he was capable of doing it. I encouraged him to start with this essay. It has been edited heavily, but I tried to keep the same language as much as possible. A few years later, I met Russay after he graduated while he was working in a home improvement store. I told him that I still had his essay and that I would get it to him somehow. I came across this again today as I was looking for an old lesson plan. I am sorry that I waited ten years to publish this, but here it is.
by Russay Hernandez
As an escaped Cuban refugee, life has not been easy for me or my family, as you might imagine. My name is Russay Hernandez, I come from an island only 90 miles away from the Florida Keys: Cuba. I was born in March 18, 1985 and lived in Cuba for nine years. During those years, I didn’t know about the problems that were going on around me. As far as I remember, I was a normal kid, at least that’s what I thought. In reality, my life was miserable. Cuba, being a communist country, was very poor, and life was not easy for anybody. In fact, many people thought we were rich, because my father was a painter and he sold his paintings for a few dollars. In Cuba, one dollar is 27 Cuban pesos.
Cuba is a corrupt country. There, the police were permitted to beat you, take your house, put you in jail for no reason at all. My father didn’t like the way things were, so in March of 1993, my family decided that we had to leave the country in order to obtain a better life. My father and some of his friends decided to go and buy a boat so that we might escape from the country. The only problem was that the person from whom we bought the boat was an undercover agent. My father went to prison and was held captive for six months.
Sometime later after my father got out of prison, we still didn’t quit trying to leave. We were determined to keep going at any cost. Around November of the same year, several families got together to make an attempt to leave. We had everything set up, except that it wasn’t a boat this time, it was a raft. My father was not fond of rafts. He just didn’t like them, but it was our only chance to do this. The night came and we were ready to break sail. We started to leave, but like some unseen force, the sea got nasty. The weather changed so fast that we couldn’t keep up with it. The storm hit us like a wall and all of a sudden the sail broke. The raft started to go in circles and all of a sudden my dad spotted something in the distance: “Reefs!” My dad saw the reefs and right then I could read his mind, “We’re going to die and there is nothing that we can do.” But then the raft started to turn sideways and we made it back to the main land. Thank God!
By July 1994, we were making a better living in the country. My family was happy because my mother became a Christian and left worshiping the devil behind her. (In Cuba, an official religion is Santeria: a kind of primitive belief in demons and magic.) My family was going to church and that at least was something that the government gave us some freedom to do. Some time passed. We received news that would change our life forever. Fidel Castro had opened the doors for us to leave Cuba. I remember that day when my father stood up and simply said, “Pack up, we’re leaving!”
After some preparations, we managed to get things together, food for the trip and money. But we didn’t expect one little thing. They didn’t let small children leave the country by boat. My father hesitated. We soon enough found a solution, which was to hide me. I couldn’t believe it. I had to hide! We went to an old fisherman’s house down by the coast. We told him our situation and he said, “Sure, I’ll sell you the boat on one condition: you’ve got to take me with you.”
We weren’t crazy for agreeing to take the old man with us for two reasons: first, he was a skilled sailor; second, his boat was unique: I needed to hide and his boat had a secret place under the chair of the driver where only a child would fit.
Two days before we left, we took some time to say good-bye to all the family that would be left behind. Then we made arrangements in the United States with family members to pick us up from Key West. Then we were on our way. We sailed all the way from Cienfuegos to the middle of the sea when we saw something afar. At first it looked like a light house, but then we knew what it was. It was the United States Coast Guard. They stopped us and a small boat came to pick us up from our boat. Then I saw that they burned the boat we came on. I asked my father, “Dad, why are they burning the boat?” My father answered, “Because son, if someone else finds it, they might think that someone died in the boat.”
Shortly after, we had to switch boats, I don’t really know what the name of the boat was, but I do know that it was a naval ship. During that night a storm came that was as furious as a hurricane, and then for a moment I heard my father say, “That storm would have killed us.”