Since the age of 14, I was continually harassed by the Cuban police for crimes I did not commit.
There were only three small apartments in the area where I lived with my mother and younger brother. The neighbors broke into area homes to steal. Because I was black, the police assumed I was involved. The police came into our house over ten times without permission to look through everything we owned to make sure I wasn’t stealing. Once they established I was not guilty, they tried to pressure me into spying on the neighbors. They put me in jail for days at a time because I could not tell them what the neighbors were doing. I did not know them because they were not my friends, just neighbors. I went to school and was very respectful of society and its laws.
Over the years, I was in jail about 15 times, for days at a time. The conditions and the food were so bad that I would lose four to five pounds each time I was incarcerated.
At 27, when I was the administrator of a secondary school, there was a theft in the area. The police came to my school to accuse me. My co-workers and the teachers told them to leave. My mother was very scared for me and she decided I needed to leave Cuba for Ecuador. While I was getting ready to leave, I was arrested by the police and held for another three days before they finally let me go.
A Violent Stay in Ecuador
I arrived in Quito, Ecuador in August 2010 with only $600 in my pocket. I didn’t know anyone but I was waiting for a Cuban friend that was coming later that day. She took me to the house of her friend where we stayed that night. In the morning, she suggested we use the $600 to buy clothes and resell them for more money. She took the $600 and did not come back.
I was still at her friend’s house but since they didn’t know me, they told me to leave. I started walking the streets aimlessly, crying because did not know what to do. I asked God to help me. As I was walking, I saw a job advertisement for a repair shop needing help. The owner was from Chile and he gave me a job and somewhere to sleep. He paid me $35 per week to work Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
I met my wife in Ecuador two months after I arrived. She was really positive, and that was good for me. I found a job working as a security guard at a disco. But it is a violent society there. Not long after I got the job, I witnessed a crime at the disco – an Ecuadorean man was killed in front of me. My friends at my work told me that at the funeral, the killer’s relatives said that they were going to kill me because they did not want any witnesses. They also told me I had to leave as soon as possible. Then, the killer himself tried to kill me.
We had to leave immediately.
Into the Columbian Rain Forest
My wife and I took buses from Quito, Ecuador across the border to the Colombian city of Turbo. There the road stops because Colombia and Panama are trying to protect the environment, especially the rain forest. To get to Panama, you have to first cross the sea before heading through the jungle. We crossed in a little boat called a pangana that was supposed to hold only 27 people. There were 45 people in the boat and it was not in good condition. If people had more money, they could continue further in the boat until they went to Panama. We did not have enough, so we had to go through the rain forest.
We paid two guides, who led 32 Cubans through, including us. There were 22 men and ten women. We started to walk at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. We could not see in the darkness of the rain forest and had to touch each other as we walked to stay together. We could not use flash lights because the Colombian army and the guerillas were in the rain forest. If the army saw flash lights, they would assume we were guerillas and shoot us.
Some people were falling because there were precipices and rivers. One man fell and those who tried to rescue him were separated from the group. We walked until 4:00 am the next morning – for a total of 26 hours. It was the pure rain forest. We saw jaguars, big snakes, monkeys and many other animals. Some members of our group witnessed a violent jaguar attack on a man hunting boars. When the hunter was almost to the boars, a jaguar jumped on him and sank its teeth into his head, then ripped off his face. The hunter screamed and ran away. The man who fell went to the Colombian army for help and was probably deported. We were all severely traumatized in many ways during our trek through the jungle.
We continued walking hours on end each day and sought shelter in abandoned houses at night. One night, we couldn’t find an abandoned house but we had to sleep. We made a circle, with the women in the center and the men on the outside so we could protect them from the snakes, jaguars and other animals. I was bitten on my arm by a snake during the night while I was asleep. It hurt so bad that I thought I would die. It was the scariest night of my life and I prayed and prayed. I went to my wife to tell her I loved her. She saw the snake bite but I told her it was nothing. I went to sleep thinking I would not wake up. When I did wake up, I thanked God.
Sometimes we had to cross rivers where the current was so strong we used a rope to pull ourselves across. One man was lost to the river and drowned. We found him but he was already dead, eaten by the piranhas. We buried him, making another grave in a jungle that already seemed full of graves.
On our last day, the guide disappeared. We don’t know what happened to him but suspect he left, abandoning us to the rain forest. We didn’t know where to go so we followed the river downstream. We didn’t have any food but somehow, we found a path in the rain forest and followed it out.
Out of Money in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala
After walking for two hours, we came upon some farmers who told us we were already in Panama. We were so happy! They said the closest town was three hours from where we were. We followed the path to the town, and the Panamanian army came right away because they are afraid of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas. Once the solders determined we weren’t carrying drugs or weapons, they took us on the river by boat to a checkpoint. The boat ride was terrifying because there were crocodiles in the water. We were held for five days by immigration. They gave us two options – leave in 30 days and be free in Panama during that time or we apply for political asylum and stay there. We decided to leave.
We went to the border between Panama and Costa Rica. The others from our group had money and went on. We had no money to take the bus to the Nicaraguan border. We did not know what to do. We met a compassionate Guatemalan woman who bought food and a ticket for us. It was cold and she gave a sweater to my wife. We told her our harrowing story of coming from Cuba and she told us she was devout Catholic faithful to her church. Her brother was also an immigrant and she knew how hard our lives would be. We will be grateful to her forever for her kindness.
We went by boat and taxi through Nicaragua with “coyotes” (human trafficking smugglers) and a group of Cubans. It was a two day trip without food and water. We crossed the river on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, then boarded a bus headed north to Guatemala. No one on the bus had money, but there was a Honduran woman on board who felt sorry for us. She asked the driver to stop at the store and she bought food and drinks for everyone on the bus. We were stopped at a checkpoint where the police asked us to pay $300 American dollars, not the Honduran currency. The kind Honduran woman on the bus said she could give $100 per person because she wanted to help. She was accused of human trafficking, and the police took her away in handcuffs. We yelled at the police, shouting “No! Let her go! She was the only one who helped us!” They took her away and we tried to run after the car, but it was going too fast. We do not know what happened to her.
Because we could not pay the money to the immigration officials, we were detained us for five days. When we were finally released, the other Cubans we were with received money from relatives in the United States through Western Union. They bought us tickets through Honduras north to Guatemala City, where they continued on to Mexico. We were left behind.
My wife was crying and crying. A Guatemalan woman saw her and asked what was. My wife explained we had no money or food. Again, I asked God for help. The woman gave us what she could – $25 in Guatemalan currency. Another man who was watching and listening to our story gave us $5. We were scared because Guatemala City is dangerous. I wanted my wife to go on the bus without me to the border where it would be safer but she would not leave me. We were arguing about it in front of the bus manager, who gave us two tickets and told us to go.
Coyotes in Mexico
There were other Cubans on the bus. When we were getting close to the border, together we called a “coyote” that the bus driver knew. We spent the night at the coyote’s house and he told us we had to pay $30 each to be taken across the river. We were basically imprisoned because if we did not pay, we could not leave. There were guns everywhere. We were with a group of Cubans, including one who arrived the same time we did. This Cuban, along with another man, also did not have money to pay. We were told we could stay for a few days and if we did not pay, we would be killed.
The coyote’s family lived in another part of the house. My wife asked if we could use the internet. We were able to contact friends in Italy and the U.S., who each sent us $50. Because we received more money than we needed, we helped the other two Cubans pay so they could leave. We crossed the river with the coyote on an inner tube and arrived in Tapachula, in southern Mexico.
My wife and I went from church to church, asking for help. One congregation gave us fish, soup, drinks, and $8. With this money, I went to an internet café and talked to my friend in the U.S. He gave us $380 via Western Union to get to Matamoros. On the bus, we met a Mexican traveling with his two children. He lived in the U.S. and I asked him how to cross the border. He told us to walk across the bridge and ask for political asylum. When we got off the bus at Matamoros, Immigration was there and took us to an office. The man from the bus, who spoke English, came to tell the officer that it was not fair to keep us. He said he would take us to the U.S., and the officer let us go.
America and La Posada
The man took us in a taxi to the bridge and when we finally touched American soil, we cried and cried. My wife was so happy that she knelt on the ground and kissed the soil. We both thanked God.
During my stay at La Posada, I have had time to relax and really think about our journey and all the compassionate people we met along the way. I am thankful to everyone who helped us from Ecuador to the United States, who gave us food, money and a place to stay.
I am very, very happy and grateful to be here at La Posada with my wife.