—Cojimar, the town I’ve called home since I was six years old, is best known for being the place where Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was situated. The seaside town, located in east Havana, has a long fishing tradition that has passed from generation to generation. But there is another more painful and less publicized story.
In 1994, Cojimar was a departure point for mass emigration to the United States. Many locals left from this north coast of Havana heading towards Florida. Some died on the journey the victims of bad weather or dehydration, or devoured by sharks. Others were picked up by the US Coast Guard and eventually arrived to their destination.
Once again, family separation became a significant event in this community as many of my former classmates responded to the call of the Voice of America and other groups that promoted the emigration.
After two weeks of mass exoduses, Cojimar was left sad and desolate. A friend who, like me, has lived in this community for more than 30 years told me that at the time his mother was really nervous with the whole situation.
And no wonder; there were several difficult moments like when riot brigades came and people were told to turn off their lights and lie on the floor during different street protests that preceded the main departures. “I never imagined having this kind of experience in my life,” my friend told me.
It was a very tragic and sad time. I witnessed how some people took advantage of the situation selling a glass of water for a dollar, or others who exchanged houses and cars for small boats with oars or makeshift catamarans. The goal was finding something that would float, even if it didn’t stand a chance of surviving half the journey.
My friend and I both lived this experience. Both of us worked in the Ministry of Culture and there were days when we couldn’t leave our homes. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
Fourteen years have passed and last week, as I was walking from my house to the bakery, I heard a voice call out to me. I stopped, and when I turned around I was greatly surprised to see someone I went to junior high with; he had come back to Cuba for a visit.
After greeting each other he said, “I left in the heat of the moment, I thought I was going to paradise. I left my parents here and two of my siblings. You can’t imagine how much I missed this place. What’s ours is ours. There, we will always be foreigners. I feel pushed aside.”
What came to mind, and I voiced it out loud, was a saying of Jose Marti: “Our wine is bitter but it is our wine.”