On an early spring morning, not long before the sun veered over the city’s skyscrapers, I found myself staring into what appeared like a dark abyss at the sea shores of the ‘Port of Mariel’ not too far a distance from Havana, Cuba. I was 5 years old. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico appeared pitch black. Although they were calm waters and the moonlight shimmered on the gently rippling waves, the ocean seemed intense, and surely an unknown future lay ahead. Our family was fleeing a country immersed in political and social oppression – communism.
Fear overwhelmed my brain, and made my body feel ultra-sensitive. I was no longer a child entertaining myself with cartoons or activities that a five year old engages in. No! Instead, I was pondering where I was going and why I needed to be there. Granted, I knew and had witnessed the prelude to this true story – that my father was a political prisoner in the 1950s Cuban Revolution, once sentenced to die at the “paredon,” the infamous Cuban firing squads. Dad had been in an anti-revolutionary troop involved with one of many anti-Castro movements. Fortunately, Dad was condemned instead to nine-and-a-half years in prison, to serve his time in Gulag-like conditions. Nonetheless, in silence, I asked myself, “Why are there so many people here?” and, “Why has this happening?” As a political prisoner, Dad was continuously persecuted, rearrested, and hounded; so, disheartened and unsure of our safety, we abandoned our home, parting with precious mementos.
“Orden!” “Orden!” hollered a tall man in a strong and commanding voice, as he began a series of roll calls. “Rodriguez!” he exclaimed, calling our names, as we inched our way into this vessel named ‘Star 2’. Just as we did so, I sensed the butterflies fluttering inside of myself even though Mom, Dad, and my older brother Omar were alongside me. I felt really alone—as if a heavy feeling was weighing me down. Soon after, altogether with one-hundred men, women and children, we commenced upon what I later learned was a tumultuous, nine hour, 90 mile crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, heading for Key West, Florida.
Suddenly! I feel my small body being shifted from side-to-side as my delicate young mind is awakened. I find myself in a chaotic environment where a storm had developed and our simple trip had turned into a nightmare! One could feel drops of water entering the boat through an open hatch just above us. I see my mother, and have glimpses of Omar, but I do not see dad. Mom is nauseated and throwing up, and other women and children are too! I am weak—we are all weak from lack of nourishments. It has been many hours since anyone has eaten or drank. At the sight of all this, mom sobs in utter despair and cries out, “Where is Paco?” “Someone get me my husband, please!”
A man picks up my frail body and places me on a small bed. Omar is older, and a very sharp boy, and appears to be managing well. Unexpectedly, out of nowhere, I see Dad coming down the steps; all of the men have been positioned on the outside decks, the women and children at the lower areas of the boat. Dad comforts Mom, saying, “Mariana, it will be alright….be strong and we will get through this.” He soon leaves again. My mother clings to her faith, and his words are confirmed as she is able to see the ship’s captain, and notices a small statue of ‘Santa Barbara,’ patron Saint of thunderstorms. She is relieved, and collects herself once again.