I was born in Havana in 1971, 12 years after the Cuban revolution swept the country. I grew up in a small farming town south of Havana. Everyone in my family had an elementary education, working as farmers, carpenters or at the nearby sugar cane refinery. My father had a passion for photography and had slowly been able to establish a small photo studio at our house, a business that had caught the eye of the local authorities, since private enterprise was outlawed at the time. A decade after Fidel Castro’s takeover, life had become difficult for those who did not agree with the ideals of the revolution.
The government ran a system to keep watch over dissenters. CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) homes were designated on every block. “El Comité,” or the snitches, as people called them, could easily send anyone to jail for a minor infraction. This system petrified everyone in town. Children were being indoctrinated in their classrooms and told to report on their parents and neighbors for counterrevolutionary activities. Meanwhile, at school, I was made a “pioneer” of the revolution at the age of 5; I became fascinated by the pageantry of the military parades that were regularly on television.
Soon, my parents tired of seeing my sister and me filled with propaganda at school, and they resolved that we would leave the country and seek a new life in America. But even saying you wanted to leave was dangerous. You could lose your job; your children could be ostracized or taken out of school. So all of my parents’ discussions of the matter took place in their 1951 Chevy, parked in a sugar cane field outside town, without us.
The sudden arrival of the Mariel boatlift in 1980 — in which the Castro regime agreed to allow 125,000 people to leave the country, mostly dissidents but also criminals sprung for the purpose from the nation’s prisons — was an opportunity, but also a risk, my parents felt they had to take. Clandestine arrangements were quickly made with family members in the United States. My cousins drove down from Miami to Key West, leased a docked shrimping boat along with its two Jamaican sailors, and sailed to the port of Mariel, near Havana. Late one evening, while my father was finishing up a photo shoot at our house, nearly a dozen soldiers arrived to confiscate our home, car and all of our property. They took us to a detention camp near the port of Mariel. We were held there for six days with everyone else hoping to leave, including many the government deemed as degenerates. Food was scarce, as was sleep. Soldiers often found some pretense to beat people.
On April 30, 1980, our names were called, and we were finally taken from the detention camp to the boat that awaited us. At 10 p.m., a flotilla of close to 15 vessels took off from Mariel Harbor. We arrived in the United States the next morning, on May Day, a day of military pageantry and celebration on the island we had left behind. We were warmly welcomed by the U.S. Coast Guard as political refugees.
English was forbidden by the Cuban Communist Party, so I arrived in America without speaking a word of the language. Once we were here, my parents stressed the importance of learning. Between the education I received from my bilingual teachers, and my obsession with American culture and television, I mastered the tongue within a year. I became fascinated by spelling bee contests and memorized all the word lists my teacher gave out. In 1982, I represented my school at the district spelling bee championship in Miami.
Later, I went to college in New York City and established a career as an artist. At 19, I became an American citizen, one of the highlights of my life. Throughout high school, I had become a devoted student of U.S. history and cherished this country’s democratic system. I came to feel that this was truly my country.
Over the past year, though, I’ve sometimes strained to differentiate my adoptive country from the dictatorship I fled. Violence at political rallies, friends watching what they say (and noting who is in the room when they say it) and a leader who picks on society’s weakest — this has felt all too familiar. I began making art about what I saw, to bear witness. I wanted to hold up a mirror to the president’s daily abuses of the Constitution, test the rights given to me by that Constitution. I wanted to find out if this is really the land of the free, the home of the brave.
The work has been published on magazine covers worldwide and on street posters, and has appeared at numerous political rallies. I’ve been interviewed by television shows and been the subject of news articles. I would give all of that up for a return to normalcy. A return to the idea that the magic of America lies in the fact that it is a country of immigrants and will always be. I love going to Chinatown and not understanding a thing, eating new food in Koreatown, speaking Spanish with the guys in the taco truck and dancing to Arabic music with the Egyptian falafel cook on the street. One of the great things about America is having a genuine international experience without having to travel.
Immigrants have made America a shining example to the world, have renewed this country and will continue making it great.