“Once we landed everyone was given flip flops because when our first boat sank we lost everything, and so no one had shoes.”
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.
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.
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 June 25–28, 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.
Photo: Jennifer Baker