Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Cuban Story

Their toes sink into the thick sand and the crisp night air rushes past their faces as they frantically carry their escape raft across the beach to the Cuban shoreline—only 90 miles separate them from freedom. Ninety miles is the distance between San Francisco and Sacramento. Ninety miles is the distance between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Ninety miles is the distance between Socialism and Capitalism.

Arms tired and grips slipping, the group lets go of the raft and it falls towards the dark water which is the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. As the raft smacks the water for the first time all they here is a loud CRACK. It is not the sound of metal slapping on water; a rock has just punctured a whole through the bottom of their vessel.

Among the group is a stranger. His name is Leonardo Martinez, he is 21; this is to be his first escape attempt from Cuba. The other members have been a team for years and most are on their seventh or eighth escape attempt. Lucky for Leonardo they are experienced and will persevere past the rock wound—nothing will stop their retreat from Cuba this time.

Martinez said the boat that would take the group to freedom was contracted out to be manufactured by an illegal boat builder. The cost for each person who would make the trip was $800—a small price to pay considering the alternative is a $10,000 cruise aboard an offshore racer whose plan was to simply outrun the US Coastguard and the Cuban Police. Once he had paid, it was an undercover game of cat and mouse as each member of the group had to complete assigned tasks to make the operation sail smoothly, while dodging the Cuban Police.

With his brother’s help, Martinez, wearing a basic brown coat, said, he had the job of delivering materials to the boat builder. The two brothers would leave their Havana neighborhood of Santa Fe at 4am and take spare parts and scraps from construction sites on the outskirts of Havana and transport them in the back of their green 59’ Chevy pickup to the boat builder. Martinez said they would leave so early to lessen the chance of a Police run-in. If they were caught, the chances of going to prison for upwards of 15 years were outstanding.

Leonardo and his team, under cloak and dagger, slide off a deserted sandbank west of Havana in a grey and white boat measuring around 13 feet in length. With him are six other men, one woman, one GPS unit, and a turkey for good luck. As the team drifts away from the shoreline, Leonardo takes sleeping pills and watches the Havana lights become fuzzier and fuzzier until his eyelids became too heavy and he himself drifts off. The date is January 29, 2006; it is 10:30pm.

Within a month of arrival, Martinez said Cuban immigrants—granted they pass the criminal background check—have a social security number and papers to live in the country for eight months. He said this system is unique to Cubans, no one else. "Its politics," he said, "If Cubans come illegally its easier to stay forever." After eight months Martinez said, if refugee Cubans can to prove they have a job and can support themselves, they can stay. After one year of arrival, they can apply for permanent US residency. On February 1st, 2007, Leony will apply for his permanent US residency.

When Leonardo wakes up, the sun is shining on his face and no land could be seen—no Cuba, no US, no Mexico—only water. It is his turn to shovel water out of the boat along with another one of the men. They take lengthy eight hour turns of two to keep the boat from filling with water. This is day one. There will be no eating on the boat no matter what, even if things get bad—they can only pee a bottle and dump it overboard. There is no number two.

When Leonardo is fully awake, he notices the sole woman onboard is hurt. The previous night when a rogue wave gave the boat a violent jolt, she had slipped, fell, and cut her leg open on the jagged metal protruding from the puncture wound on the bottom of the raft. Her leg is wrapped with part of a t-shirt—the bleeding has almost stopped.

In Cuba, Martinez says, the government pays you next to nothing for any occupation you have. Martinez was a student and would sell his own underground hip-hop CD’s to American tourists or whoever else would buy them. He said he would sell his CD's for $10, $8, $5, or whatever he could get out of the tourists. “You have to hustle to survive; the government would let you starve.”

Martinez said Castro, in his security caravan, would pass through Santa Fe on his way to public speeches and demonstrations in Havana on how the economy was being ruined by the US. “That is bullshit,” Martinez said, Castro has many houses throughout Cuba and his Swiss bank account is rumored to be among the top 10 richest in the world.

Sea sickness has set in for most of them. Throwing up over the side of the raft is all they can do. Throwing up evolves into dry heaving and then into sorrowful moaning. They have no retreat from the boat, only the retreat from Cuba.

The boat’s engine, made from a transformed lawnmower motor, is weak and against the current the team makes slow ground. Being slow increases the time in the water and the risk of being caught. To lessen the chance of running into the Coastguard, they head diagonally into the Gulf towards Texas and Mexico. After a day and a few hours, they change directions and head horizontally towards the Key West. The journey is long and hard.

Cuba is his love, Martinez said, but there is no future there. It is hard to live in Cuba for so many reasons—for instance there may be free doctors, but there is no medicine. Castro shuts off all the lights one or two days a week to conserve oil. “Cops in Cuba are bullshit,” Martinez said, starting off a story. Once he was driving with his American girlfriend in Cuba and a police officer pulled them over for no reason. Just because he was seen with an American, Martinez said, the cop questioned him about if he was trying to leave the country or if he was harassing the girl he was with. Martinez said the officer threatened him saying, “If I find anything wrong, you are fucked. You are dead.”

On the boat, space is too tight to walk around. It is day two. Taking turns sleeping and shoveling water out of the raft, the group of eight must sit still. The turkey, which is a traditional religious figure in Cuba for good fortune in the coming future, roams free among the passengers and causes some uneasiness when it spooks. Also on board for luck are oranges and bananas. They can’t be eaten, only a small amount of water and milk keep death away from the refugees.

Leonardo is going crazy on the inside. He tears at his clothes and rips off parts of them to cope with the heat. His head pounds from dehydration. He thinks to himself as his legs yearn to move, “I don’t care where I land. Mexico, Cuba, America. I don’t care, just get me off this boat.” He is about to jump out into the shark infested water inches away from him when he remembers. He becomes as calm as the seagulls that float overhead. He reminds himself he does not leave Cuba only for himself, but also for his mother. He endures the risks of leaving Cuba so that she too may share in any fortune that comes his way.

Ten months later and 16 days later he is in a car driving to Oakland. Leonardo says he has never been on a plane, but he says he dreams the first time will be flying home to Cuba to see his mother. Leonardo says sometimes when he goes to bed he dreams he will wake up in Havana. He longs to be in his house with his mother, but there is no future in Cuba. “I miss my mom so much,” he said, staring off somewhere in the Bay. He hopes to put on a hip-hop concert in Cuba one day on that same plane trip.

Martinez said he writes to his mom letters to tell her how he is doing and tries to call as much as he can. But it costs 89 cents a minute to call Cuba and ten dollars a phone call adds up. He said on his last phone call to Cuba he found out from his mom that one of his best friends was caught in an undercover boat building house and might go to jail for as much as ten years.

The victim was his DJ friend Adrian who partnered with Martinez to make their first Cuban album. The Cuban hip-hop record, Martinez said, is still generating underground buzz in the socialist country.

During that same drive to Oakland from SF, Martinez looked out the passenger window and laughed, “The girls are better in Cuba. There are more 10’s there,” then he turned and smirked, “But no strippers in Cuba.” Martinez found his first strip club in Oakland. America, the land of opportunity. But, he related the girls of Cuba and the girls of the US to the two’s respective climates—one is simply all around hotter than the other.

“Weed is the best in San Francisco,” said Martinez as he smiled. He said in Cuba, weed is brown like garbage and it can barely get you high, “When I smoked in here, it was like smoking for the first time.” He said he was curled up in a ball and could barely move; after that first blunt he said, he just fell asleep. Now, he handles the high better, but he said English is near impossible when he smokes. Martinez said his New Year’s resolution is to stop smoking cigarettes—not weed though.

Back to the boat. As the morning sun rises, the group sees a faint shape in the distance. Land ahoy. The date is February 1st, 2006; it is 8:00am. As the boat touches the Island of Key West, Cuban American relief workers rush to the group’s aid. They first take the woman whose wound is now approaching three days old then three words are called out that Leonardo will never forget, “Welcome to America.”

Meanwhile in Cuba, Leonardo’s brother is brought into the Police station for questioning. The Police ask him if he is leaving too. They ask him if he knew his brother was leaving and how he left. They are brothers though, he denies everything.

Life moves a lot faster in the US said Martinez, “I blink and it is next Saturday.” He said in Cuba a person pays nothing to live and does little work; here in the US, a person has to do so much to survive. Martinez said it takes money to do everything—to buy a house, a car, food, entertainment— “If you are smiling, you had to pay.”

After they land, some US government officials confiscate the boat to put in a museum. They take the GPS and all refugee IDs are handed over. Since secrecy is so important when leaving Cuba, only a few people know when someone is going to leave. In Leonardo’s case, only his mother, his brother, a few friends, and the boat builder know that he is gone. Since no one tells of their departure, Leonardo has no idea how many people came over illegally, he thinks they the only ones today. However, a relief worker tells him that 32 are in today, 23 were in yesterday, and they expect around 50 tomorrow.

Martinez said he now knows these figures are produced by an unknown man who tracks weather conditions and Coastguard patrols. He informs Cuban boat builders and escape organizers when the best time is to leave and then he lets relief workers know on the US side how many Cubans to expect day by day. He plays a crucial part in every Cuban refugee’s escape, said Martinez. In the 80’s, without this extra help it was a lot easier to die or get sent back. Back then, it was a guessing game whether or no you would die, now it’s a different case, “I never thought when I left I could die,” said Martinez.

From the Keys, Leonardo is shuttled to Miami in a ferry which takes a few hours. Once there, he lives off of $180 a month from the US Government and finds work doing odd jobs for three months.

Martinez said he hated Miami because all the Cubans there are crazy, materialistic, and all they want is for America to take over Cuba for them. “Don’t think I’m for Castro. I just don’t want Iraq in Cuba. I want Cuba for the Cubans."

Martinez said he also struggled with his family in Miami. When he was in Cuba he had no contact with his Miami step-father and his family for 10 years, then when he arrived they welcomed him in a ‘now your one of us tone,’ trying to okay the forgotten past 10 years. Martinez said during that time he had to go into three eye operations in which he and his mother were ignored by his successful Miami family when they requested money, help, or anything. “My mom called them and wrote them saying Leony is sick, but nothing,” he said-- suddenly the scar under his left eye becomes unrelentingly noticeable.

Martinez said he looked for a way out of Miami and when is girl friend said she might go to San Francisco he jumped on the bandwagon.

From Miami, Leonardo and his girlfriend board a Grey Hound bus and travel from Florida through Alabama to Mississippi. They transfer buses there and pass through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and into Colorado. Leonardo doesn’t want to worry his girlfriend, but in Colorado he thinks of how tired he is, how bad he wants to work, and how he has nothing.

They finish the four day journey by busing through Utah, Nevada, over the Sierras and into the Bay Area. They stay with a friend of his girlfriend’s for two months till they break up. Within one day he is on the street. Leonardo has no place to go and is about go back to Miami to live with his step-father and brother who has just escaped Cuba as well—his trip took one day because of a truck motor rather than a lawnmower motor.

However, Martinez said, it was here I was saved. He said his DJ friend convinced him to stay. DJ Jhawasel, who spins at Club Milk in San Francisco and Club Six in Oakland among other places, was his first real friend in San Francisco said Martinez, “He has my back. We are rappers together.” He moved in with Jhawasel and his wife and he was introduced to a Cuban named Camila Nieves.

Martinez said Nieves, 26, is now one of his best friends. He said she helped him find is first legitimate job at McCall’s Catering and taught him the ins and outs of the Bay Area, like where to go for Cuban friendship, where cheap rent was, and who he could turn to in the community for help. What she had taught him, he said, was that he could turn to her for help.

Nieves worked as a cultural guide for him and even introduced him to me. She became our link and a kind of interpreter for us for a short while.

When Martinez came to the US he almost lost his nickname Leony, but when his brother came out from Miami to visit it caught on again. Now, having moved on from McCall’s Catering, his new boss at Whole Foods calls him Leony along with all his friends.

Leony moved out from Jhawasel’s and now lives on 29th and Martin Luther King in central Oakland, a neighborhood that is considerably less safe crime wise than the Havana suburb he grew up in. He says he does not fear the area as he puts his fingers on his sideways turned hat and flicks them off in an act of pure confidence. Leony said the only time he has to worry is when the 29th and MLK residents think he is white, in which case he says jokingly, “I tell them I’m not white, I’m Cuban Mother Fucker. I came in the boat.”

Entering the two story house—in which Leony lives with his African American roommate Jaime, who owns a small skateboard company—the living room, which is cluttered with skateboard decks and wheels, is on the right and an empty kitchen is on the left. In the middle of the two, a stair case leading to the bedrooms winds up to the second floor. Leony’s room is nearly bare. Besides a bed, a small TV that rests on a white plastic lawn chair, and some clothes hanging in the closet, the only other occupant is Leony’s quiet non-materialistic sense of reason. He says he is saving for the thing he really wants—a better life.

Martinez said he would rather move out of Oakland and live in SF near the Haight district as he did when he first came out to the west coast eight months ago, but it is too expensive.

Leaving the house, he said he doesn’t spend much time in the street here—not nearly as much as he did in Cuba. In Cuba, he said, people play dominoes, music, and games everywhere in the street, in front yards, and in the back of their houses at all times of the day. Here, he said, people go from their house to their car to their work and back without ever stepping on the ground. But that’s the way people make it here in the US, Martinez said, they work. “The only time I go out back [and play] now, is with my girl’s son,” Leony said.

Later, at Martinez’s girlfriend’s house, one can see he tells the truth. From the moment of arrival, the six year old boy clings to Leony’s side, only letting go if it is to back up and charge full force in a tackling attempt. Leony is his protector, without him, the boy is not let outside to play.

Leony’s girlfriend, Sherekhan Weinstein, named after the devious tiger from The Jungle Book, is an African American Jew with blue eyes. “She is perfect for me,” said Leony, he himself bright eyed. He said he will love her all his life for all the help and support she has given him in getting him on his feet. Leony said sometimes when he is overly frustrated at his family in Miami or at the condition of Cuba she is there to say, “You are here to help, you need to relax.”

Weinstein, 35, was born to an African American mother and a Caucasian Jewish father. When Leony is around her family, he cannot fall back on his Spanish and must speak English for all communication. He said this helps him greatly.

“My plan is to learn English to go to University,” Leony said proudly, “I want to keep the dream going.” Leony has spurts of near perfect English, but at other times he struggles, unsure of the exact pronunciation or word. At a family dinner party, Sherekhan’s family’s love for Leony can be seen in vivid detail. The second Mrs. Weinstein sees Leony she gives him a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. She turns to me and does the same.

Beyond Sherekhan, Leony said his life’s undertaking is his music. Leony said hip-hop is independent, that is why he loves it. “I am a survivor in a strange land,” Leony said, with the temperament of lion, “This is not my country, my language, my people. But, I am making it.” Leony said his music is underground Cuban hip-hop with some salsa beats which protests the world, street life in Cuba, Cuba the country, and Castro. However, Leony said, he tries not to be too strong in his protest so that his music in Cuba is not outlawed by the State.

Recently, Leony said, a Cuban hip-hop documentary threatened the very existence of hip-hop in Cuba. He said he loved it but it spoke out very strongly against Castro and strong words usually create banning. He said he tries not to focus on the bad in Cuba though.

He said he has to keep moving to find opportunity—he has everything he needs, but he wants more. “I want a house, a computer, turntables, more, more, more,” he said as he snapped his fingers with each word. With a wishful look in his eyes, like a kid reading his Christmas list to his parents, Martinez said he wants to be a record producer in the future, “Music is my passion.”

Leony listens to Cuban salsa and New York style hip-hop which includes artists such as the Roots, the Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and the Dead Presidents.

Currently, Martinez said he is working on a new CD with four fellow Cubans. His newest song is about the history of Cuban escape and the boats that they take, including his own.

Picking Leony up from a downtown bus stop one day, we decide to grab some fast food. He said he wants pizza but we can find nothing in the Financial District. Heading across the Bay Bridge and into Emeryville to a Burger King, Leony grins and asks, “Did you know you can’t kill the cow in Cuba?”

He went on to say in Cuba, Castro has made the cow sacred and nothing short of permission from the state allows you to legally kill one. “The cow is Castro’s god…I have friends in Cuba who have gotten five years in prison for murder. I know people that are doing 15 for killing the cow.” At Burger King we order some double cheeseburgers.


....J.Michael Robertson said...

A good picture!

er lo said...

Cuban is a nationality.. there are black cubans and white cubans, he's white!