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On The Quest to Find Those Photographed Twenty Years Ago (Videos)

1994-2014

The videos included below were shown at the Centro Cultural Español de Miami in 2014, as part of the exhibition Exodus: Alternate Documents. They make up two thematic segments that we titled Finding Those Photographed 20 Years Ago (4 videos) and Chronicles of the Crossing (3 videos). Carried out as interviews, these videos participate, along with all the works in the show, in the general purpose of the exhibition: to create alternative stories about the exodus of the Cuban rafters in 1994, expanding in new directions the information contained in the photographic series Rumbo norte: mas allá del muro azul.

After an exhaustive study of the faces in these images, and after a long search process that included the announcement of the project in various mass media, Aluna Curatorial Collective (Adriana Herrera and Willy Castellanos) was able to find twelve of the people that had been photographed in 1994. They resided in countries like Mexico, Spain, Cuba, and the United States.

The segment Finding Those Photographed 20 Years Ago brings together interviews carried out with some of them in Havana in March 2014. Chronicles of the Crossing, collects the testimony of three Cuban rafters living in Miami, who are not included in the 1994 photographs.

Pao, Lives in Havana

(Photographed during the Crisis of the Rafters in 1994 | Interviewed in 2014, twenty years later)

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“Pao” tried to leave the island on a warm August day in 1994.  Eight friends packed into a 12-foot-long raft made with wood bought in the black market and used car tires. When they were eleven miles from the shore, the unmerciful waves of the sea changed their destiny. “We left to fight for our survival” he tells me “everyone knows what the situation in the country is, why talk about it?” They had brought boiled eggs, vitamins, and toasted bread for food, as well as water stored in plastic bottles that they tied to the raft, letting them float so that the water would keep cool and not weigh down the raft.

That night, they left at around 8p.m. after listening to the weather report on tv, confident that they would have calm weather and favorable wind. They rowed in the dark for hours until they lost sight of the coastline and its lights. During the first few hours of the journey they saw other rafters, but they avoided any contact for safety reasons. “There were people—he explains—that had awful situations, they would get close to you and assault your raft.”

The next day they faced an unexpected tide. Against all predictions, the weather changed drastically. “There were terrible waves. I can’t say exactly how tall the waves were, but they were big,” Pao remembers. Even with its nine tires, and its wood reinforced with acrylic resin, the raft began to relent. In a matter of hours, it was badly damaged. “The sea doesn’t understand that—he says— forget it, the sea breaks everything down. It even breaks down steel ships!” The sea broke their raft in half: “The boards went flying here and there. It was a disaster, a disaster,” he remembers, and adds: “We failed. We failed, my brother.”

They were picked up by the Cuban coast guard 11 miles from the shore. When I ask him what he thinks would have happened if they hadn’t been picked up, he says: “I’m not sure…well, maybe some of us would’ve died.” It’s been 20 years and Pao feels like his strength isn’t what it used to be. Although he’s in good shape, he carries 57 years in his calendar and confesses that “at this point, I’d rather stay and fight for survival here. In Miami, the struggle is tough, very tough…and here I’m pounding here and there: when I can’t, my wife can, and if she can’t, a friend can.”

Néstor, Lives in Havana

(Photographed during the Crisis of the Rafters in 1994 | Interviewed in 2014, twenty years later)

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“No one knows what the sea is really like until they are there” Néstor remembers 20 years later. The raft on which he was traveling to the north was severely damaged at only 11 miles off the coast, on a warm September night in 1994. The knots of the main structure surrendered to the attack of the waves, and after several hours of navigating, he and his friend had to face a sad and, until then, unthinkable truth: The raft was “making water”; they weren’t going to make it. “But we thought not everything was lost. We could still be intercepted by an American coastguard, so we just stopped rowing and waited patiently, keeping on the lookout for anything around us.”

They were like that in the immensity of the blue when night surprised them. And then dusk, with its fan of glimmering reds and yellows. For hours they scrutinized the horizon, looking for a white ship with the unmistakable stars and stripes flags… but it was the Cuban Grifin (coast guards) who came. “We hadn’t even finished boarding the boat when they handcuffed all of us. When it was my turn, they had run out of handcuffs, so they tied my wrists to my back with a sort of thick and very uncomfortable nylon. Thank God, I still had my matchbox in my pocket. Very discretely, I managed to take it out and had my closest friend ‘light up’ the ties, which instantly gave in to the flame. I stayed there simulating the position for hours, and it was like that that I could travel back to the island comfortably, or at least without the painful pressure of those improvised handcuffs.”

“That day, ‘our Grifin´ picked up around 12 rafts adrift in the gulf. Some were truly damaged. In others, the disappointed passengers had given up on the idea of the journey. Once they were empty, the soldiers fired their weapons at the tires and some rafts sank very slowly while we all looked on.” The next day, the eight friends got back home. A few days later, the government cancelled the cease-fire and leaving on a raft became illegal again. Five years ago, Nestor met Danae, with whom he now shares his life. They have two daughters, a three-year-old and an eight-month-old, and they live in a simple apartment in the Buena Vista neighborhood in Havana. “Do you want to have more kids?” –I ask him: “No way, not for now—he jokes—brats are too expensive!”

Sonia, Lives in Miami

(Photographed during the Crisis of the Rafters in 1994 | Interviewed in 2014, twenty years later)

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Between August and September of 1994, Sonia regularly visited the walkway of Cojimar, a small fishing town East of Havana. Although she found the idea of emigrating appealing, she never thought about throwing herself to the sea on a raft, much less doing so with her kids, who were then very young. But every day, she went to the coast to sell peanuts in paper cones, guavas, water, and religious stamps. “The water and the stamps, I ended up just giving away,” she told me, “but I charged for the peanuts—it was how I earned my living!” “I blessed and hugged many people, even though I wasn’t Catholic or Santera: it was my way of giving them strength and comforting them before they departed.”

“From the wall where you took my picture, I could see everyone who left and how they left”—she tells me with excitement—“and then you saw that dark sea, and an endless stream of people leaving and leaving, day and night, with candles and headlights on. I don’t know if I felt that it was something beautiful or horrible, but it was difficult…and if it was night, we hugged each other. That…that was something spectacular.”

“Some of them left in really terrible rafts,” Sonia remembers. “Some of them, the best ones, were made with tanks, and I think many people arrived in those rafts made of tanks, but many never made it.” This is why she advised those about to leave in rafts made only of wooden boards tied together not to leave. “I felt as if all those people were my family,” she says. “One time a raft came back empty: it was around 8pm and it came back like that…there were mothers there on the shore saying, ‘is it our children?’ Because at night nobody could recognize a raft, they all looked the same. We cried for those people, we cried. It’s something –she tells me- that makes me cry inside because you remember all the things that you saw during that time...”

Guille, Lives in Havana

(Photographed during the Crisis of the Rafters in 1994 | Interviewed in 2014, twenty years later)

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Guille decided not to embark on that September night of 1994. It was a sudden decision, the kind that intuition takes in a fraction of a second. That night—he thought—he would not be traveling north in an adventure that was utterly uncertain. Nonetheless, the sea was calm and, up until then, everything was going according to plan. They were able to hire a truck to transport the raft to the coast and, once there, friends as well as several of the people who were present helped them move the great artifact through the reef path that leads to the sea. The heavy raft needed strong arms, but it was soon floating conveniently, a few meters off the shore. That’s when everything changed.

 “I don’t remember exactly how many people were in the water surrounding the raft,” says Guille. “It’s possible that there were 20 or 30, maybe more. But it was crazy, they came from everywhere, trying to get on the raft. They obviously wanted to leave the country, just like us, without caring who the raft belonged to or who had built it, or even, for how many people it had been built. I thought that it was going to sink at any moment, or that worst things would happen. And then I got off without thinking about it, and I went towards the shore.”

The struggle was over a few minutes later when one of the owners waved a heavy stick, threatening to punish anyone who was trying to get on. But by then, Guille was already on his way home. “Since then the situation here hasn’t changed much—he finishes—, it’s the same or rather, it’s gotten worse. My mother and my daughter are in the US so I’m waiting to leave at any moment too. But I’ll only say one thing: If something similar to what happened in ’94 happens again, there wouldn’t be enough wood in Cuba to make rafts for all the people who would want to leave this country.”

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