Portrait of maria urrutia

“Once we landed everyone was given flip flops because when our first boat sank we lost everything, and so no one had shoes.”

20. IMG_9869Photo by Jennifer Baker

maria urrutia is a dance artist and educator. She performs in Supper, People on the Move.

My family left Cuba during two different migration periods, my aunts in the 60s when The Peter Pan Flights took children from Cuba to the United States and my grandparents, father, mother, aunt, and I during The Mariel Boat lift that took place between April and October in the year 1980.

These choices of migration were made for political reasons.

Our migration story took place in June of 1980. In order to leave the country, family from the U.S.A had to travel by boat to “claim” their relatives from the beach area in Cuba known as Mariel. In our family my uncles took on this dangerous task. They and a friend, who also had family he wanted to claim, borrowed a boat and undertook the journey of 90 miles—a stretch that my uncles had not traveled since leaving the island a decade before.

There were over 124,776 people that migrated during that time, and not all were people who had family that claimed them. In order to empty his jails, and the island, of any individual opposing his rule or causing trouble, Castro used this exodus to his advantage. For every one person that was picked up, two political prisoners were also added to the boats cargo. This additional and unexpected cargo was the cause of not only our boat to sink, but many other families to experience death in the deep blue waters that sit between freedom and restraint.

Our migration left behind my mother’s family, which was a choice they made. This choice was always difficult for my mother to fully accept. She was only twenty years old when we left Cuba with my father’s family. The night the government officials came to escort us to El Mariel my father had to beg to bring my mother’s parents from a few houses away so that they could say their farewells—no one knew if they would ever see each other again. My mother’s farewell was quick and full of sorrow. She chose to leave in order to give me opportunities in life, and I could not be more humbled by this tremendous sacrifice.

20. maria urrutia2

maria with her grandmother.

As it turns out the government did not take you to El Mariel first. They actually had a waiting area known as El Mosquito (the mosquito) where we were held for several days. In this location no food was available unless you had money to purchase it and luckily my grandfather had the foresight to bring money. After several days we were taken to El Mariel for our departure. My grandmother vividly remembers that in order to relieve herself the government set out planks on the water that you had to walk onto; this was to experience humiliation.

After a few days in El Mariel we all boarded the boat, in the middle of the night, I was two years old. My father sent my mother, grandmother, aunt, and I into the belly of the boat. Yet shortly after departing El Mariel my father suddenly came down and handed my mother, grandmother, and aunt life vests. He realized that the boat was taking in water and would begin its decent into the depths of the ocean soon, and because there were not enough life vests for everyone he wanted to insure they had them. My grandmother was in her sixties and did not know how to swim.

I am told that in order to relive the pressure my father punched out the glass. He escorted all us all to the top of the boat and even had to push my grandmother off the boat because she did not want to jump. The boat was sinking fast. He still to this day talks about how shocking it was to see such a vessel go down so quickly.

My mother handed me to my father and jumped, which left him with me, a bloody hand, and no life vest. Once my father was in the water my mother was able to beg from a political prisoner that was on our boat to give my Father the floating piece of wood so that I could be placed upon it. We sat in the ocean with screams for Ausilio (help) for what probably felt like eternity, but in reality was only 30 minutes.

My father says that the pacifier in my mouth saved me when we jumped into the ocean. I think it was his drive, skill, and determination that did.

We had not made it into American waters, but both the Cuban and USA Coast Guards came to our rescue. However, since we were still in Cuban waters we were forced to board the Cuban vessel and return to the island. In the chaos I ended up in the American boat, the rest of my family in the Cuban boat. The American Coast Guard said to my father you’ll find her in the U.S., which was not acceptable, and he forced the boats to come together so that I remained with my family returning to Cuba.

This experience terrified my mother and she said she would not be boarding another boat and that she wanted to remain in Cuba. My father’s response was “You can’t go back, we have nothing left.”

Coincidentally the night our boat sank, another boat with the same name also sank, and everyone from that boat died. Our family in the U.S. didn’t know if we were the ones that lived or died. This made it difficult for my aunt, who had not seen her family in over fifteen years. As they lived out of a van for days in Key West awaiting news we went back to Cuba to begin again.

In Cuba we waited to see if another opportunity would arise to board another boat. And after three days it did with the captain of a boat from California whose family they would not release to him; the name of the boat was Second Chance.

Again we boarded a boat in the middle of the night. This boat was also filled over capacity and began to have troubles, but we were luckily in U.S.A waters. The captain of the boat called the U.S. Coast guard stating our troubles. We were airlifted into a helicopter, and then transported onto a U.S. Coast Guard battleship. Once we landed everyone was given flip flops because when our first boat sank we lost everything, and so no one had shoes. I only had a cloth diaper, which had been on my body for over three days.

The other items handed to my family were a bite to eat—a can of Coca Cola and an apple. My mother speaks of this as her first taste of freedom.

Once we were placed on U.S.A soil our family had to spend several days in make shift housing in order to be cleared as legal to enter the country. A thourgh investigation had to be completed in order to clear my father because all men under the Castro regime had to serve in the military. As the historical timeframe lays out, my father was in the military during the Bay of Pigs. When he was cleared after a few days we were all united with my aunt and uncles. And since that moment I have worked to take advantage of every opportunity this country has presented me with.

As for my identity, I feel rooted in Cuban culture and experiences, but after so many years find myself looking at the world through an American lens.


Maria Urrutia, Artista de baile y educadora de Cuba

Epígrafe: María con su abuela en Cuba en 1979

Mi familia partió de Cuba en dos tandas migratorias diferentes: mis tías, en los años 60, cuando los vuelos Peter Pan llevaron niños de Cuba a los Estados Unidos, y mis abuelos, padre, madre, tía y yo durante el Éxodo de El Mariel, entre abril y octubre de 1980. Migramos de esa manera por razones políticas.

Nuestra historia migratoria comienza en junio de 1980. Para poder salir del país, familiares de los EE. UU. tuvieron que viajar en bote para “reclamar” a sus parientes en el área costera de Cuba conocida como El Mariel. En nuestra familia, mis tíos asumieron esta peligrosa tarea. Ellos y un amigo, quien también tenía familia que quería reclamar, pidieron prestado un barco y emprendieron un viaje de 145 kilómetros, una distancia que mis tíos no habían vuelto a recorrer desde que abandonaron la isla, hacía una década.

Durante ese tiempo migraron 124.776 personas, y no todos, tenían familias que los reclamaran. Con el objetivo de vaciar sus cárceles, y la isla, de cualquiera que se opusiera a su gobierno o causara problemas, Castro aprovechó este éxodo para su propio beneficio. Por cada persona recogida, se agregaban dos presos políticos a la carga de los barcos. Esta carga adicional e inesperada fue la causa no solo de que nuestro barco se hundiera, sino de que muchas otras familias experimentaran la muerte en las aguas profundas que se encuentran entre la libertad y la reclusión.

Al migrar, dejamos atrás a la familia de mi madre, una decisión que ellos tomaron. Para mi madre siempre fue difícil aceptar completamente esa decisión. Ella solo tenía veinte años cuando abandonó Cuba con la familia de mi padre. La noche en que los funcionarios del gobierno vinieron a acompañarnos a El Mariel, mi padre tuvo que suplicarles que trajeran a los padres de mi madre, que estaban a unas pocas casas de distancia, para que pudieran despedirse: nadie sabía si volverían a verse. La despedida de mi madre fue rápida y llena de tristeza. Ella decidió irse para darme oportunidades en la vida, y yo no podría sentirme más conmovida por semejante sacrificio.

Resultó que el gobierno no nos llevó directamente a El Mariel. Tenían una zona de espera conocida como El Mosquito donde nos retuvieron durante varios días. En este lugar no había comida disponible a menos que tuvieras dinero para comprarla, pero por suerte mi abuelo fue previsor y llevó dinero. Mi abuela recuerda claramente que, para ir al baño, tenía que caminar sobre tablones que el gobierno había colocado sobre el agua: una práctica que hacían solo para humillarlos.

Después de unos días en El Mariel, todos nos subimos al barco en la mitad de la noche; yo tenía dos años de edad. Mi padre nos envió a mi madre, a mi abuela, a mi tía y a mí a la bodega del barco. Sin embargo, poco después de partir de El Mariel, mi padre bajó de repente y le entregó chalecos salvavidas a mi madre, a mi abuela y a mi tía. Se dio cuenta de que estaba entrando agua en el barco. Mi abuela tenía sesenta y algo y no sabía nadar. Me contaron que, para descargarse, mi padre le pegó a un vidrio. Nos acompañó a todas hasta la parte superior e incluso tuvo que empujar a mi abuela del barco porque no quería saltar. El barco se hundía rápido. Hasta el día de hoy, ella habla de lo impactante que fue ver que tamaña nave se hundiera tan rápidamente. Mi madre me pasó a los brazos de mi padre y saltó, dejándolo solo conmigo, una mano ensangrentada y sin chaleco salvavidas. Cuando mi padre estuvo en el agua, mi madre pudo suplicarle a un prisionero político que estaba en nuestro barco que le diera a mi padre un pedazo de madera flotante para que pudieran ponerme sobre ella. Estuvimos en el océano pidiendo auxilio a los gritos durante lo que probablemente pareció una eternidad, pero en realidad fueron solo 30 minutos. Mi padre dice que el chupete que tenía en la boca me salvó cuando saltamos al mar. Yo creo que nos salvó su impulso, habilidad y determinación.

No habíamos llegado a aguas estadounidenses, pero tanto la guardia costera cubana como la estadounidense vinieron a nuestro rescate. Sin embargo, como todavía estábamos en aguas cubanas nos obligaron a abordar un barco cubano y regresar a la isla. En medio del caos, yo terminé en el barco estadounidense y el resto de mi familia, en el cubano. La Guardia Costera estadounidense le dijo a mi padre que me encontraría en los Estados Unidos, pero no lo aceptó y obligó a los barcos a juntarse para que yo permaneciera con mi familia en el regreso a Cuba. Esta experiencia aterrorizó a mi madre, quien dijo que no abordaría otro barco y que quería quedarse en Cuba. La respuesta de mi padre fue: “No puedes volver, no nos queda nada”.

Casualmente, la noche en que nuestro barco se hundió, otro bote con el mismo nombre también se hundió, y todos en aquel bote murieron. Nuestra familia, en los EE. UU. no sabía si nosotros estábamos entre los vivos o entre los muertos. Esta situación fue difícil para mi tía, que no veía a su familia hacía más de 15 años. Mientras ellos vivían durante días en una camioneta en Key West esperando noticias, nosotros volvíamos a Cuba a empezar de nuevo.

En Cuba esperamos una nueva oportunidad de subir a otro barco. Después de tres días, la oportunidad llegó con el capitán de un barco de California que tenía recluida a su familia. El nombre del barco era Second Chance (“Segunda Oportunidad”). Una vez más, nos subíamos a un barco en mitad de la noche. Este barco también estaba sobrecargado y comenzó a tener problemas, pero ya estábamos en aguas estadounidenses. El capitán del barco llamó a la Guardia Costera. Fuimos trasladados en helicóptero a un buque de guerra de la  Guardia Costera de los EE. UU. Cuando aterrizamos nos dieron chanclas a todos porque al hundirse el primer barco habíamos perdido todo, y nadie tenía zapatos. Yo solo tenía un pañal de tela, que llevaba puesto desde hacía más de tres días.

Además, mi familia recibió algo de comer: una lata de Coca Cola y una manzana. Mi madre habla de aquella situación como la primera vez que sintió lo que era la libertad. Una vez que tocamos tierra estadounidense, nuestra familia tuvo que pasar varios días en una vivienda improvisada hasta recibir autorización para ingresar al país. Después de pocos días, nos reunimos todos con mi tía y mis tíos. Desde entonces, he trabajado para aprovechar todas las oportunidades que este país me ha brindado.

En cuanto a mi identidad, me siento enraizada en la cultura y las experiencias cubanas pero, después de tantos años, sé que miro el mundo a través de una lente estadounidense.

Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition in June 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.

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