I left Cuba by boat in 1994 with my husband, sister, and 10 other people. I was 17 and held my young child in my arms. I was also four months pregnant and terrified. The government warned that if they caught us in the water, they would take our kids away, but things were so bad in Cuba that we had to leave. The weather was rough, and the Coast Guard picked us up. We were with the Coast Guard for three days. They transferred us to a bigger boat for a week, then dropped us off at Guantanamo Bay.
We stayed at Guantanamo for eight months and didn’t know what would happen to us. It was a camp with thousands of Cubans who tried to leave. The lines were long for every meal. I had my baby at the military base, and the doctors took good care of us. We were then dropped off in Miami because my ex-husband had family there.
My husband saw a sign about jobs at a chicken plant in Mississippi. They offered housing, so we took it. They picked us up and dropped us off at our new house, saying they would be back the next day to take us grocery shopping. They didn’t come. We had no car, nothing to eat, and were running out of milk for the baby. There were no cell phones, and we didn’t speak English, especially not Southern English. I walked until I found a pharmacy to get milk. I didn’t even know the word for milk. I walked to the grocery store until we saved money for a car.
There were no Spanish-speakers around us during our first five years in Mississippi. It was just me, my husband, and kids. I worked the day shift with the hot chickens – I cleaned the chickens right after they were killed. My husband worked the night shift. We made minimum wage: $5.15 to $5.30 an hour. Since we worked around the clock, we didn’t see much of each other. We just handed off the kids. That’s hard on a marriage.
Taking the kids to the doctor was hard because I didn’t know if the translators said what the doctor was trying to tell me. What was I missing because I didn’t understand English? I watched television shows like ‘Hercules’ and ‘Xena’ to learn more words. When my kids started school, I practiced with them.
I have four kids. They are now ages 22, 24, 27, and 29 and all work in Mississippi. I am proud that they didn’t have to go through all that I went through in Cuba. I left Mississippi twice and moved to other states, but I always came back. After all these years, Mississippi is my second home.
I still miss Cuba and want to go back to visit. I don’t know half of my family there anymore. In 1994, Cuba was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as it is now. Cubans can’t find minimal necessities, and they are tired. They can’t go to the store and buy soap, toothpaste or medicine. The hospitals don’t have what they need, and the price of food, even rice, has soared on the Black Market.
People are using social media to secretly trade items. Some Cubans are surviving on money from friends and family outside of Cuba. It’s expensive to send money. I send $145 so my family gets $100.
So much has happened in my life. My kids are on their own, and I am no longer married. I try to take good care of the people who enter this gas station. I am also trying to build myself up again.”
(The Our Southern Souls book only includes stories from the South, but it felt incomplete without stories from Cuba. I did Souls there twice and those stories mean a lot to me. Oneyda was my missing piece and the last interview for the book. We are trying to finish it up and have it out by November.