“Get up! Get up! We are getting out of here…now!” screamed Mom. These are the words that resonated ever so closely, words to which my brother Omar and I remember waking up to that warm summer night.
It was a rude awakening hailing from the lips of this all too familiar voice. Suddenly, the bed sheets were stripped off me as I was brusquely ripped out of bed. I could feel the shock of it all engulfing me, terrifying me! Dad has lost it again, I thought. As we made our way through our living room, pass the oval ‘Sacred Heart’ picture hanging on the wall, I visualized the mess from the damage Dad created.
While we slept, Dad had taken his frustrations out on Mom as well as our belongings. At next glance, Mom, Omar, and I were darting out the front door running for cover through the empty and dark streets. It was as if we had taken flight from the burning inferno. Years later, I would understand that the symptoms related to the strange behavior Dad displayed when I was a child were that of the lingering effects associated with war. It was a classic case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As we ran, all we could hear was the rapid, and sharp slapping noise our bare feet created, beating on the street paved with hoary red bricks. There was not a soul in sight. If you happened to look upward towards the night skies as I did, all you could observe was the flickering and buzzing-like sounds emitting from the opaque, yellow, city lights, casting the shadows our bodies made as we scurried through this desolate night.
We were seriously surrounded by the eerie feeling that darkness sometimes brings. My mother was seeking refuge for her babies from someone, or something she did not recognize.
It had been nearly four years since a government agent pounded on our door that early spring morning.
“Rodriguez family, it is time for you to leave Cuba,” he said.
He handed Dad some papers, turned his back to us and left in a hurry as if he was on a tight schedule. It was not a surprise, however. Months before, under a cloud of darkness, Mom and Dad had prepared the way. Our bags were packed, anxiously waiting for this day to arrive.
We quickly dressed, walked out the door and glanced at our house one last time. A few blocks later we passed my school. Hours later, our family would make the perilous journey from the Mariel Harbor to South Florida, crossing the turbulent, unpredictable and shark-infested waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Approximately 125,000 Cubans succeeded between April and October 1980 in escaping an island occupied by a totalitarian state. Miraculously, none of us perished on our trip. The outcome, however, was not the same for many other families, no!
Some of the children of our brothers and sisters died at sea – newborns and toddlers alike, as they succumbed to the tempestuous sea. In turn, we became only helpless bystanders to this inevitable state of affairs. It was difficult for children to wrap their mind around such sad events.
I clearly remember when ‘Star 2’ approached the southern coast of Florida. By this time, we had been reunited with Dad. I now had a clearer view of where I was located. It was a beautiful afternoon. The sunshine filled the day. The skies were clear and blue with not a cloud visible for miles. I could see as far as the eye could see.
The waters appeared calm, and the vast ocean had turned from a dark deep blue to light and sometimes deep green color– like shiny, smooth olives, with foamy ripples. Seagulls raced around our boat. The breeze that happened to make its way into our boat felt and smelled different – it was warm, relaxing even. You could ever so vaguely smell and taste the sea salt in your mouth. At that moment, it seemed as if the storm had never occurred.
It was not until dusk, though, that we finally made our way onto the docks of Key West, Florida. As soon as we disembarked the boat, we were greeted by the presence of military personnel dressed in typical Army attire, similar to those that just hours before, we had left behind in Cuba.
As we stood in single file with our feet planted firmly on the ocean-worn wooden docks, a military man handed me a Coke in a styrofoam cup. Other children were given cooked chicken legs, or cans of Campbell’s soup. We were delighted, while at the same time taken aback. I had only but once drank a soft drink in my life. In those days in Cuba everything was rationed, so there was certainly no chance for us to indulge in such non-essentials.
“Look, look…we are almost there,” said Mom with excitement, directing our sight to the dim light. We finally arrived at the neighborhood firehouse seeking sanctuary. Mom exhaustedly rang the doorbell. We were hopeful the door would not be slammed in our face. But, after explaining her situation to the fire attendant– that her husband, and the father of her children was drunk and had become belligerent and violent, he told us there was nothing they could do for us.
“Call the police,” he said, with a stint of arrogance.
And we were turned away. Summoning the police never was an option for Mom. She knew they would lock him up again. And he had done too much time already! This was not the first time, though, that my father’s inability in properly coping psychologically and emotionally due to an undeserved death sentence and harsh prison time, the loss of homeland, and the site of so many fallen comrades had led him to abuse alcohol.
Dad was probably silencing the voices entrenched in his mind – the ones that claimed his dreams and disturbed his sleep. Unfortunately, these events with frequency would transpire throughout his life, as well as ours.
As we made the long walk back home, my hope was that my father’s demons had subsided, at least for the time being and that by now he had passed out. Unexpectedly, the peculiar feeling I sensed that spring morning at the Port of Mariel crept back in me, once again— it was a stranger I would get to know well.
A sense of uncertainty and displacement. Just a short time before, I was safely tucked in my warm bed. I lived in Cuba surrounded by loving family and friends. It was a familiar environment. But, the conflict that happened in Cuba decades before had changed all of us, and life as we now knew it would never be the same again.