HAVANA TIMES – “Making the journey” is a phrase that has become very familiar in Cuba during this 2022. When some friend or acquaintance mentions it, we automatically imagine they’re planning to take a trip where their initial destination is some South American or Caribbean country, but where the US is their final goal. In doing so, they’ll traverse part of Central America, crossing through very dangerous borders, like those of Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, and paying prices so high as to include one’s very life.
We’re born in a country where, from the time we’re little, we’ve been obligated to repeat slogans that we didn’t understand, given our young age. When you grow up that way, and then later discover that these slogans lack sense and consistency, you feel lost. You begin to question your existence and that of your children (if you have any). If you don’t [have children], you begin to feel certain that you don’t want to have them HERE. You don’t want to condemn them to repeat the same, or perhaps worse, experiences that you’ve lived through.
Now you’re an adult. You’ve spent your whole life with the hopes of unfulfilled promises, development that proves false, the idea of resisting and winning. “Winning? Win what or beat whom?” in a reality where you end up the one who’s defeated. Defeated, by an absurd revolution in energy development that currently has over half the island without electricity; defeated by a collapsing health system, that sells the world the false image of a medical power, when actually patients die every day for lack of supplies or medical or hospital attention. Beaten because despite working from sunup to sundown, your salary isn’t enough to cover the elevated prices of basic and necessary products that have been set by a decadent or absurd government.
Thousands of Cubans have sold all their belongings to begin “the journey”, in search of better economic and social conditions for themselves and their families.
Yamila and Carlos were a young married couple with a 3-year-old daughter, Amanda. Their hearts were full of dreams, but the plates on the table were empty; their two salaries didn’t reach to the end of the month. They lived in a little house that Carlos’ grandmother had left him. Yamila was a translator, with a degree in English. Carlos followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor. Both were professionals, yet they were completely dependent on the money and provisions that his sister – who had already been living in the United States for several years – sent them every month.
They spoke one Sunday, but the conversation wasn’t the same as other Sundays. This time Camila, Carlos’ sister, wasn’t asking about the price of dollars, nor how many hours they’d spent without electricity. This time Camila asked about passports. A short while ago, some friends had arrived and gave her a contact with someone who worked guiding the Cubans on “the journey” from Ecuador to the United States. This would be one way of getting her brother out of the island, Camila thought.
They began their preparations: selling off their belongings, always in secret and being very careful. Putting the house up for sale.
The day came when they headed to the airport, bound for Quito. “Ay, Carlos, I’m terrified! Amandita is still really little,” Yamila said to her husband moments before landing. It was the first time flying for both of them. “Everything will be fine. Now we’re out of that hell, which is the hardest part. My sister says it’s a safe trip. Don’t worry, these are people we can trust.” When they landed in Quito, a contact met them, as had been agreed upon. They left immediately. Up until then, everything was going according to plan.
After many hours, the vehicle in which they were traveling stopped. Several other families were in the vehicle with them, not only from Cuba but from other regions, all heading for the same destination. “Everybody out now, we have to start walking,” the coyote announced. Before them rose an immense jungle. They continued the journey behind the guide, maintaining the pace at each stretch. They took turns with the little girl in their arms, It was a difficult task.
The more they penetrated into the heart of the Darien jungle, the narrower the road became. It seemed as if the jungle was conspiring to trap them within. By now, exhaustion was taking its toll on Carlos, who held onto his little one with all his strength, while slipping and sliding up the muddy slopes that became ever steeper. They had now been traveling for four days, with almost no rest.
Yamila went behind them, sustaining herself on the rope put there by the coyotes to facilitate their steps. In one instant, Yamila slipped on the mud and plunged down the slope. Carlos didn’t have time to grab her – in a matter of seconds, she fell some fifteen feet, colliding with some trees and branches. Yamila lay immobile in the mud. She didn’t hear the voices of her husband; she didn’t hear her daughter crying; she didn’t hear the coyote’s steps when he approached her, asking her to get up. Yamila will never again get up.
“Well, we have to resume our pace,” the coyote ordered, climbing back up the slope. Behind them lay Yamila’s body, mixing with the jungle. Carlos could barely make her form out, between the height, the mud and all the images that stampeded through his mind. “Let’s go, we have to continue, or you’ll be left too,” the coyote told Carlos, who in that moment held his daughter tightly and joined the group…. Several hours later, they managed to see the way out, from where they’d continue on the road.
Fifteen days after leaving Cuba, Carlos arrived in the United States with Amanda. There his sister Camila would receive him with a mixture of joy and grief, of hope and loss. Behind them lay Cuba, with its misery, the journey, and its dangers; behind them lay Yamila.