Los Expatriados/The Expatriates

Text: Martin Pei de la Paz
Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]

Photo: Giorgio

It’s well known that Cuba has lost a large part of its young population to the phenomenon of illegal immigration from the island to the United States or other parts of the world. Many families have a loved one or know someone who has left the country in the past 20 years, and as I’m not exempt from that category, it’s a subject that holds a personal interest for me.

Nonetheless, it was only recently that I met someone who had immigrated and then returned: Ignacio. He started to tell me his history, and I asked his permission to interview him.

Ignacio had committed various crimes in Havana. The father of two daughters in Cuba, one of whom died recently, he was wanted for various small crimes when he was arrested and incarcerated in the city of Cienfuegos in the province of Las Villas before he was released and left for the US via the port of Mariel in 1980.

My relationship with him was motivated by a deep curiosity to know about his life abroad, his experiences, and the reasons he finds himself in Cuba today after having abandoned the country. One way or another, I was determined to understand a turbulent era in Cuban history that unfolded in 1980. At the time, I was barely one year old. During the same year, more than 120,000 Cubans fled the country, though not all of them in the same way or for the same reasons.

Pei de la Paz: How did you leave Cuba?

Ignacio: I left for the United States via the port of Mariel in the early days of May 1980. I had been in the Wanajay Prison in Cuba. From there, I was transferred to The Mosquito camp, which was the departure point for prisoners who were leaving the country, some of their own will and others obliged to do so. The treatment of the Cuban authorities was very rough; I’d even say abusive.

Photo: Florida Keys Public Libraries

The boat I left in was called The Mora. The owner was a Cuban woman from Marianao, one of the neighborhoods of Havana. There were 14 of us on the boat, not counting the crew, and it was a small boat. There were men, women, and children of all ages. The crew had absolutely no navigation experience, which explained why we went off course on more than one occasion. I remember that they were on the radio constantly, asking merchant boats if we were on the right path to Key West.

We were exhausted when we saw the lighthouse, arriving first to Sombrero Key after all these confusions and detours. After we recovered a bit, we realized we could see the lights of Key West–our final destination–far out on the horizon. Finally, tired and confused, we found ourselves on dry land.

Pei de la Paz: How were your first months in the US?

Ignacio: I was really one of the lucky ones; I didn’t have to spend much time in the refugee camp. I was sent to Fort McCoy military base in Wisconsin. There, I was sponsored by Mr. Richard Kaiser, a sponsorship which made me eligible to leave.

Mr. Kaiser owned some farms and land, and that was the reason he was willing to sponsor refugees without families– so he could have them on his farm as laborers. It was a kind of work exchange program; we were cheap labor; in exchange, we received room and board. That was my start in the US.

A little later, I left the farm because I wanted to have my own house and strike out on my own. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I wanted to be independent.

Pei de la Paz: Were you able to make money?

Ignacio: Yes, I was able to save a few thousand. I don’t remember exactly how much, but it was more than $5,000.

Pei de la Paz: Did you stay in Wisconsin?

Ignacio: Yes, I stayed in Wisconsin. I attended the Black Hawk Technical Institute; there we learned English, not just Cubans, but people from all over the world.

Pei de la Paz: Were you single at the time?

Ignacio: Well, I’d started a relationship with an African American named Maggie Davidson.

Pei de la Paz: Where did you meet Maggie Davidson?

Ignacio: She was in the school too, but she was there to help us. Her job (in an auto factory) wasn’t making ends meet and so she supplemented her salary by working at the school.

Pei de la Paz: How was your relationship with her?

Ignacio: To be honest, it was different. I was accustomed to relationships with Cuban women and [Maggie] was different, very different, but we got along well. We spent some very happy moments together that I still remember. We got married. Really, she’s a very good woman, with a good character.

Pei de la Paz: Did you have children?

Ignacio: Yes, a little girl we named Caridad.

Pei de la Paz: Can you describe Caridad?

Ignacio: Sure. She was an intelligent and loving child. I remember that I always bought her things and she’d be very happy.

Pei de la Paz: Did you separate from them?

Ignacio: To be honest, yes. I was in prison on two occasions in the US.

Photo: pregrinari

Pei de la Paz: Do you remember the names of the prisons?

Ignacio: Yes, one was in Illinois; I think it was called the Peoria Transitional Center for Adults. The other prison was the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin or something like that.

Pei de la Paz: What kind of work did you do in the US?

Ignacio: I got caught up in drugs. It’s what produced money quickly and easily, though it was dangerous. I found it impossible to get out, though; I made a lot of money and the money was stronger than my own will. It was rough, really rough!

Pei de la Paz: Did you want to get out of it?

Ignacio: Yes, and my wife said to me, “Give it up, let’s move,” but I didn’t listen to her. And look where I am now… in Cuba!

Pei de la Paz: What kinds of material things did you acquire in the US?

Ignacio: Well, not too much. I had a few different cars, but the ones I liked the most were the Lincoln Continental Towncar y the Buick Riviera.

Pei de la Paz: Were you in danger of being killed [because of your involvement with drugs]?

Ignacio: Yes, and the situation went on for years. Understand that beyond the drugs themselves, you start using weapons to protect yourself and you have to become violent to be able to survive within this type of activity. Violence is an indispensable requisite if you want to be able to live in that world.

Pei de la Paz: And is this the reason why you were deported?

Ignacio: Yes. I was deported because my behavior couldn’t remotely be called good. I wasn’t an abuser or a killer; I just wanted to live well. I can’t deny that [being in that life] brought lots of opportunities; that’s the truth. It wasn’t “Get out of here and go back to Cuba tomorrow!” like a lot of people thought. No! [The authorities] gave me the opportunity to reintegrated into society, but it was already too late when I realized my error.

Pei de la Paz: Tell me about the deportation.

Ignacio: Well, I don’t really know what to tell you about the deportation, but I’ll tell you what they did to me. One of the times I was incarcerated, my daughter Caridad had gone to Washington to welcome the soldiers returning from the Gulf War and her photo was published in the newspaper. And my photo was published on the other page, with the headline saying “Cuban Can Be Deported.” I wrote the paper with the intention of calling them out on their racism, and they responded that if they were racist they wouldn’t have published the article in the first place. And that’s where everything started going downhill.

Pei de la Paz: They didn’t deport you at that time, though?

Ignacio: The state judge who had sentenced me didn’t have the power to deport me, so they asked for the help of Leslie (Les) Aspin, a powerful politician with a lot of influence. He was the one who guaranteed the deportation; that much had made clear in his declaration in the newspaper. I think he eventually went on to become Clinton’s Secretary of Defense or something like that.

Pei de la Paz: Tell me about your return to Cuba.

Ignacio: It was far from easy; many people cried and cried, the process of deportation went on for years, and nobody thought that the hour would ever arrive to return to Cuba.

It was Flight 110 with 22 people on board, all deported Cubans! We were all people who were well known for their criminal activities and a history of violence, criminality, and mental illness. We were able to bring our belongings, our toiletries, and clothing, though we were “relieved” of it all once we were in Cuba. We were left with just our shoes and our toiletries. Later, we were transferred to a maximum security prison in Cuba.

There, you were evaluated according to your past history before and after your departure from Cuba; this was to make a determination as to whether to grant liberty or to continue a prison sentence. I left before the 45 days stipulated. I was one of the lucky ones! Like everyone, I received 100 Cuban pesos (the equivalent, more or less, of $5 USD), “help” from the Cuban government. Imagine the change!

Many of my friends were rejected by their families, as they’d never remembered their families in Cuba when they were rolling in money. In my case, it wasn’t like that; I’d always sent money and clothes to my family. In that respect, I can’t complain at all, but that’s not to say that [the return to my family] was easy. Even today, after 12 years, I’m still not accustomed to living in Cuba.

Pei de la Paz: How was the relationship between you and the Cuban authorities?

Ignacio: They had control over me. They told me that I had to go to work and every day they made more demands about what I had to do once I was free. But the work never came and the authorities never preoccupied themselves with the matter.

Pei de la Paz: Where did you live when you returned?

Ignacio: I returned to my old neighborhood in Old Havana. As I was returning in really good physical condition thanks to all the exercise I’d had in prison, it was easy for me to find a partner.

Photo: daveblume

My life was going fine until some old friends came around to propose some illegal business. As I wasn’t working for the government…well, you can guess what happened! I got involved in “la lucha” (literally, “the fight,” a term used to describe black market work or other work outside the norm in Cuba). That’s how I was sent to prison in Cuba again, without any trial and without really examining whether I was dangerous or constituted any other type of threat to society.

Pei de la Paz: So you were in prison in Cuba on more than one occasion, right?

Ignacio: More than once; after that, I was recruited for drug trafficking.

Pei de la Paz: How do you view your future in Cuba?

Ignacio: Look, in reality I’m more than 60 years old. I’m not involved in any illegal business. I make $12 a month and I raise a pig to sell part of it at Christmas. My situation is really tough, especially because I know the value of money– I know what it means to have $100,000 in my hand. And to see myself in this total poverty now… it’s very sad!

Pei de la Paz: What about your family in the US?

Ignacio: I lost contact with them years ago. I don’t know what happened! They sent me money and clothes after I returned, but now I don’t know what happened with them. I hope that one day before I die I can see them or at least talk with my daughter Caridad and say goodbye, which I could never do. That has hurt me, and I’m sure it hurt them, too.

Pei de la Paz: Do you want to go to the US again?

Ignacio: That idea has never left my mind; it’s always present. I’d like to go, but I don’t have the means to do so.

Today, Ignacio lives submerged in poverty. He works as a janitor at a health clinic in Havana. The Cuban government gave him a small room in which to live about an hour from the city of Havana. He has to go back and forth daily to get to work and to see his family.

His life is like that of many of the expatriates who were repatriated to Cuba in the 1990s for criminal convictions in the US. Alcohol has trapped him now, just as money, drugs, and the fast life did in the US.

For Ignacio, life in Cuba hasn’t been easy. He’s a man marked by two systems, victimized by himself and by the circumstances around him. For many of the Ignacios, the idea of the American dream is realized in the form of quick money made illegally, which turns into a nightmare– prison if one is lucky, or dead if he’s not, defending himself on his drug turf. The struggle Ignacio has faced has been a road filled with unexpected stops in jails and prisons.

For Ignacio, Caridad and Maggie are just a part of the tragic history of immigration and the complexity of his life. Cuba refused to receive him with dignity and offers him little help to reintegrated into social life. The general problem of unemployment, along with the conditions of poverty, lack of resources, and his criminal history are just a few of the insuperable obstacles that many men like Ignacio face when they return to their countries with empty hands. The system doesn’t let them advance, much less pursue happiness.

It was through Ignacio that I began to understand with greater clarity that human nature is fluid, not fixed, that I should pay attention to the politics that surround me because they affected me to. I understood that the role of prison is to to trap you during your most vital years and then let you go as an old person. And if you leave Cuba, she never really lets you go.

At 60 years old, Ignacio feels like a man who belongs neither here nor there. No one fears him anymore and he’s not a threat to society. He’s another of those men without a country, without a spiritual home to call his own.


Photo: Drpoulette

Es sabido que Cuba ha perdido una gran parte de su populacion mas joven por la inmigracion ilegal hacia los EEUU o a otras partes del mundo. De hecho muchas familias tienen un miembro o conocen a alguien que ha abandonado el pais en los ultimos 20 años.

Para mi en especial este fenomeno me interesa estudiarlo de cerca. Sin embargo hasta muy reciente no habia conocido todavia a nadie personalmente que hubiera regresado, hasta hace muy poco que conoci a Ignacio. El empezo a contarme su historia, y pedi su permiso para entrevistarlo.

Ignacio habia cometido varios crimenes en la Habana. Padre de dos hijas en Cuba, de la cual una falleció recientemente, el era buscado por delitos menores cuando fue arrestado y encarcelado en la ciudad de Cienfuegos, en la provincia de Las Villas, antes de salir para los EEUU directamente de la prision via Mariel en 1980.

Mi amistad con el se motiva por la inmensa curiosidad de conocer su vida en el exterior, sus experiencias y las razones por las cuales el se encuentra hoy en Cuba despues de abandonar el pais. De una manera u otra trato de recoger evidencias de una etapa turbulenta del ano 80 en Cuba cuando apenas yo tenia un año de edad y 120,000 cubanos abandonaron el pais. No todos de la misma manera ni en las mismas circunstancias o por las mismas razones.

Pei de la Paz: Como saliste de Cuba?

Ignacio: Me voy a los Estados Unidos en los primeros dias de Mayo de 1980 por el puerto del Mariel. Estaba preso en la carcel de Wanajay en Cuba. De alli me trasladaron para el campamento El Mosquito que era el punto de partida para los presos que abandonaban el pais, unos por su propia voluntad y otros obligados. El trato por parte de las autoridades cubanas fue muy duro, inclusive abusivo.

El barco donde me fuí se llamaba La Mora; la dueña era una cubana de Marianao, unos de los barrios de la Habana. Eramos como 14 personas sin contar la tripulacion, en un bote muy pequeño; habian hombres, mujeres, y niños de todas las edades.

Los que comandaban esta embarcacion no tenian conocimiento alguno de navegacion y por esas razones nos desviamos de curso en mas de una ocasion. Recuerdo que por la radio ellos preguntaban constantemente a los barcos mercantes que si estabamos en el camino correcto hacia Cayo Hueso.

Photo: afagen

Estabamos cansados cuando vimos el faro y llegamos primero a Cayo Sombrero, despues de toda estas confusiones y desvio. Despues de recuperarnos un poco ya se podia ver muy a lo lejos en el horizonte las luces de Cayo Hueso, nuestro destino final. Al fin, cansados y algo confundidos, llegamos a tierra firme.

Pei de la Paz: Como estuvo los primeros meses en los EEUU?

Ignacio: Fui uno de los poco con suerte, pues no pase mucho tiempo en el campamento para refugiados. Estaba en la base de entrenamiento militar Fort McCoy en Wisconsin. Alli me apadrina el senor Richard Kaiser para salir.

El senor Kaiser era un dueño de fincas y terrenos que buscaba a los refugiados sin familias para que laboraran y vivieran en su finca con los demas obreros; era como un contrato para buscar mano de obra barata a cambio de alojamiento y comida. Asi fue mi comienzó en los EEUU.

Luego despues de poco tiempo me fui de la finca porque quería tener mi propia casa y poder hacer algo independiente. No sé que me pasó pero queria intentarlo solo.

Pei de la Paz: Lograstes tener dinero en los EEUU?

Ignacio: Si ,tenía unos cuantos miles ahorrados. No recuerdo cuanto pero eran más de $5,000.00.

Pei de la Paz: Seguiste en Wisconsin?

Ignacio: Si, seguí en Wisconsin, en la escuela, El Instituto Tecnico Black Hawk; allí aprendíamos ingles no solo los cubanos sino tambien personas de todas partes del mundo.

Pei de la Paz: Estabas solo por aquella fecha?

Ignacio: Bueno, estaba comenzando una relación con una afronorteamericana. Ella se llamaba Maggie Davidson.

Pei de la Paz: Donde conociste a Maggie Davidson?

Ignacio: Ella estaba en la escuela también, pero solo estaba allí para ayudarnos ya que su trabajo, (una fábrica de automóviles) estaba en baja y para poder cobrar el salario debía ir a la escuela para asistir a los estudiantes y asi de esa manera complimentaba su salario.

Pei de la Paz: Como te fue la relación con ella?

Ignacio: A decir verdad fue algo diferente; estaba acostumbrado a las relaciones con cubanas y ella era distinta, muy distinta, pero nos llevamos muy bien. Vivimos momentos muy felices que todavia los recuerdo. Nosotros nos casamos de boda; realmente ella es una buena mujer de muy buen caracter y muy preparada.

Pei de la Paz: Tuvieron niños?

Ignacio: Si, una hembra que le pusimos Caridad.

Pei de la Paz: Puedes describírme a Caridad?

Ignacio: Si claro, ella era una niña muy inteligente y cariñosa. Recuerdo que yo siempre le compraba cosas y ella se ponía muy contenta.

Pei de la Paz: Nunca te separaste de ellas?

Ignacio: A decir verdad, si. Estuve preso en dos ocasiones en los Estados Unidos.

Pei de la Paz: Recuerdas los nombres de las prisiones?

Photo: cfinke

Ignacio: Si, una fue en el estado de Illinois, creo que se llamaba Peoria Centro Transicional para Adultos y la otra prision fue en la institucion Correccional Waupun en el estado de Wiscosin o algo asi.

Pei de la Paz: A que te dedicaste en los EEUU?

Ignacio: La droga fue lo que me perdió. Es que daba dinero muy rápido y fácil aunque muy peligroso, pero no me era posible salir, es que me entraba mucho dinero y el dinero fue mas fuerte que mi voluntad… era dificil, muy dificil!

Pei de la Paz: Quisiste salir de eso?

Ignacio: Si, mi esposa me lo decía, quítate, vamos a mudarnos, pero yo no le hice caso y mira donde estoy. En Cuba!

Pei de la Paz: Que cosas materiales obtuvistes en los EEUU?

Ignacio: Bueno, no mucho; tuve varios carros pero lo que más me gustaron fueron el Lincoln Continental Towncar y el Buick Riviera.

Pei de la Paz: Estabas en peligro de ser asesinado o terminar preso todos los días?

Ignacio: Así mismo fue y se mantuvo por años y anos esta situación y cada vez quería mas. Además la droga trae consigo el uso de armas para tu protección y debía ser violento para sobrevivir dentro de esa actividad. La violencia es un requisito indispensable para poder vivir en ese mundo.

Pei de la Paz: Y es por eso que te deportan?

Ignacio: Si, me deportan porque mi comportamiento no era nada bueno. Yo nunca fui abusador ni asesino, simplemente quería vivir bien. Ya era mucho lo mío y no te puedo negar que me dieron oportunidades y eso es verdad. No fue “Dale para Cuba mañana y ya como muchos piensan” No! Ellos me dieron oportunidad para que yo me reincorporara, pero ahora es muy tarde cuando me doy cuenta de mi error.

Pei de la Paz: Bueno, cuentame de la deportación.

Ignacio: Bueno, sobre la deportación no sé que contarte, pero te diré algo que me hicieron: en una ocasión que estaba detenido mi niña Caridad había ido a Washington para abanderar a los soldados de la guerra del Golfo y sale la foto de mi niña en una página y yo en la otra con letras que decían “Cuban Can be Deported”…. y yo le escribí al periódico con la intención de demandarlos por considerar ese articulo un poco racista en su tono y acercamiento y ellos me respondieron “que si ellos fueran racistas no hubieran publicado el artículo” y ahi paro todo.

Pei de la Paz: Entonces esa vez no te deportaron?

Ignacio: Bueno, en los EEUU el juez estatal que me sentencio no tiene ese poder para deportarme, así que pidieron ayuda a Leslie (Les) Aspin, un poderoso politico de mucha influencia y fue el quien garantizo la deportación, así lo dejo claro en su declaracion en el periódico. Esta persona supe con los años se convertiría en secretario de defensa de Clinton o algo así.

Pei de la Paz: Cuentame de la llegada a Cuba.

Photo: Dr. John 2005

Ignacio: No fue nada fácil; muchos lloraban, este proceso de deportación duro años y nadie pensaba que llegaría la hora de bajar un avión de regreso a Cuba esposados. Era en el vuelo 110 con 22 personas a bordo, todos cubanos deportados! Personajes muy conocidos por sus actividades delictivas y su historial de violencia, criminalidad y enfermedades mentales. Traíamos pertenecías, aseo personal, ropa entre otras cosas de las cuales fuimos despojados de todo en Cuba; solo nos dejaron los zapatos y el aseo personal. Luego fuimos trasladados para la prisión de máxima seguridad en Cuba.

Alli te evaluaban de acuerdo a tu historial antes y despues de tu salida de Cuba para hacer una determinacion para tu libertad o para continuar tu tiempo en prisión. Yo salí antes de los 45 días estipulados. Fui de los pocos con suerte! Recibí como todos la ayuda del gobierno de 100 pesos cubanos (un equivalente a mas o menos $5.00 dolares) Imaginate el cambio!

Muchos de mis amigos fueron rechazados por su familia ya que según ellos nunca se acordaron de los familiares en Cuba cuando manejaban grandes sumas de dinero. En mi caso no fue así; yo le mandaba dinero a mi familia y ropa, así que por esa parte no me puedo quejar, pero esto no quiere decir que fue fácil. Todavía hoy después de 12 años no me acostumbro a vivir en Cuba.

Pei de la Paz: Como fue la relación entre usted y las autoridades cubanas?

Ignacio: Ellos tenían un control sobre mi. Me dijeron que tenía que ponerme a trabajar y ponian cada dia mas demanda de lo que debia hacer una vez afuera de libertad, pero el trabajo nunca llego y los oficiales que me atendían no se preocuparon del todo.

Photo: Aaron Escobar

Pei de la Paz: Donde empezó a vivir en Cuba?

Ignacio: Regrese a mi barrio natal en la Habana Vieja. Como yo regrese en muy buenas condiciones físicas debido a los ejercicios en la prision me fue fácil encontrar pareja.

Mi vida siguio tranquila hasta que me tocan la puerta antiguas amistades proponiéndome negocios ilegales y como no estaba trabajando para el gobierno ..tú sabes! Empecé en la lucha (termino que se usa para decir que estas sobreviviendo por la via ilegal o fuera de la norma) en Cuba. Así fue como me meten preso en Cuba de nuevo, sin pruebas de ningún delito por índice de peligrosidad o prision preventiva.

Pei de la Paz: Entonces estuvo preso en Cuba una vez mas, no?

Ignacio: No, mas de una vez; después de eso me recluyen por trafico de drogas.

Pei de la Paz: Como veas tu futuro en Cuba?

Ignacio: Mira, en la actualidad tengo más de 60 años y no estoy involucrado en ningún negocio ilegal. Trabajo por 12 dólares mensuales y crio un puerco para vender una parte en navidad. Es muy dura la situación que tengo ya que se lo que es el valor del dinero, se lo que significan $100,000 dólares en mis manos y verme ahora en esta pobreza total… es muy triste!

Pei de la Paz: Y tu familia de USA?

Ignacio: Hace años perdí mi contacto con ellas. No se qué paso! Ellas me enviaron dinero y ropa después que regrese de allá, pero ahora no se qué paso con ellas. Yo espero algun dia antes de morirme poder verlas o al menos hablar con mi hija Caridad y darles el adios que nunca pude. Eso me ha dolido a mi y te aseguro que a ellas tambien.

Pei de la Paz: Quieres irte para los Estados Unidos de nuevo?

Ignacio: Esa idea nunca se me fue de la mente, está latente en mí, yo quisiera irme pero no tengo los medios.

Hoy Ignacio vive sumido en la pobreza. Trabaja como mozo de limpieza para un policlinico en La Habana. El estado cubano le dio un pequeno cuarto para vivir como a una hora de la ciudad de La Habana donde diariamente tiene que transportarse para ver a su familia y para trabajar. Su vida es una de estas muchas que fueron repatriados a Cuba en los 90s por delitos cometidos en los EEUU. El alcohol le atrapo de la misma manera que el dinero, la droga y la vida rapida en los EEUU.

Photo: Senor Adventure

Para Ignacio la vida en Cuba no ha sido facil. Es un hombre marcado por los dos sistemas, victima de si mismo y de las circunstancias que lo rodean. Para muchos de los Ignacios la idea del sueno americano llega en la via de enriquecimiento ilicito rapido, convirtiendose en una pesadilla terminando en la carcel si es que estan de suerte o muertos defendiendo las calles que ellos controlaban como traficantes. Al parecer la lucha que ha enfrentado ha sido calle abajo con paradas espontaneas en carceles y prisiones.

Para Ignacio, Caridad y Maggie son solo una parte de la historia tragica de la inmigracion y la complejidad de su vida. Cuba se niega a recibirlo con dignidad y le ofrece muy poca ayuda para la reintegracion social. La falta de empleos en general, unidos a las condiciones de pobreza, escases e historial criminal son algunos de los obstaculos insuperables para muchos de estos hombres que como Ignacio regresan a su pais con las manos vacias para volver a reintegrarse a la sociedad que un dia los aparto. El sistema no le permite avanzar y mucho menos alcanzar su felicidad.

Fue a traves de él que entiendo con mas claridad que la naturaleza humana es cambiante y no fija, que debo prestar atencion a la politica que me rodea porque esta me afecta, que el papel de la prision es atrapar tus años jovenes y arrojarte como viejo y que te vas de Cuba, y ni regresando regresas!

A los 60 años Ignacio se siente un hombre que no pertenece ni de aqui, ni de allá. Ya nadie le teme y no es un peligro para la sociedad. Es uno mas de los hombres sin país, ni hogar espiritual que lo pueda llamar suyo.

“When I was 31, it was a very good year…”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo

As the last two weeks of 2008 spin towards history, I find myself in bitingly cold New York City, where I’m wrapped in at least two layers of clothes by day and sleeping under two comforters at night.

New York has been my home since I moved here in 1999 after graduating from college, accepting an internship, and deciding to stay. It’s a city I love for a thousand reasons at least.

But in 2008, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a very good year for travel–the best yet–and now that I’m finally settling down at home for a period of more than a week, I’m sorting through the year’s (and a 250 GB hard drive’s) photos, stories, and memories.

Here are a few I wanted to share with you….

JANUARY, Cuba/South Carolina, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Tijuana, San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway, and San Francisco:
Francisco and I started the new year apart, he with family in Cuba and I with family in South Carolina.

We met up at our part-time home in Mexico City, made quick trips to Cuernavaca and Puebla, crossed the border, and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway before…

We practiced settling for a while in this city where we met each other and where we both feel at home. We saw a Gonzalo Rubalcaba concert, watched old buildings be demolished and observed the new contour of this city begin to take shape.

MARCH, Mexico City & New York:
A split month, half in el DF and half in New York. In DF, I’m working on an assignment. In NYC, I’m a passionate observer of my own neighborhood.

APRIL, New York, Washington, D.C.:

It’s spring in the city, one of the very best times of year for a New Yorker. But I’m getting restless. I organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for my mom’s birthday.

Francisco and I also meet fellow Matador editor and the amazingly talented photographer, Lola Akinmade. Still, there are stories all around, as there always are, no matter where we are.

MAY, Cuba:

I visit Cuba for the first time since Fidel handed power over to his brother, Raul. Of seven or so visits to Cuba since 2005, this is the most special one, filled with incredible moments.

I interview Chinese Cubans, spend hours with a Cuban musicologist, & work on a documentary about Juan Antonio Picasso.

Francisco’s son and I go to Mariel, where Francisco set off from Cuba in 1980. We visit Cojimar and Hemingway’s home. And I celebrate Mother’s Day with Francisco’s mom and the mother of his son.

JUNE, New Orleans:

Francisco and I meet up in New Orleans to volunteer with the Culinary Corps and write about New Orleans. Seeing the state of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina reminds me why traveling and stories are important & why I believe so passionately in both.

JULY, Colombia:

A full month in Colombia, with the bulk of our time spent in Mompox, where we meet the coolest kids in the world and begin making plans for an after-school program for them.

We also visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Barranquilla.

AUGUST, Guadalajara, Mexico:
Back home in Mexico, we also visit Guadalajara on assignment. Not only does Sally Rangel and the staff of Villa Ganz set a totally new standard for service and hospitality, we discover that Guadalajara is quite possibly the only city where we’ve enjoyed every single meal we’ve eaten in restaurants. We were also fortunate to participate in and interview others who attended the Iluminemos Mexico march for peace.

SEPTEMBER, Perote and Veracruz, Mexico:

Perote: The town that tourism forgot. Not for long, if we have anything to do with it. Along with our friend, Carmen, we toured the San Carlos prison, visited an ostrich and orchid farm, dreamed about opening a bed and breakfast in an abandoned hacienda in the middle of a corn field at the base of some mountains, and found ancient pottery sherds just littering the side of the road as we drove up into the mountains. We also happened upon a local boxing match.

We drank strong coffee and had my palm read in Veracruz.

OCTOBER, Mexico City & Oaxaca, Mexico; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

October was all about connection.

We met Matador member Teresita and her husband, Ibis, at our home in Mexico City, reconnected with my old friend, Arely, and her husband Ivan at an airport restaurant, and visited with weavers at their home and interviewed protesters in Oaxaca.

I also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to report about the military detention facility there.

I could have spent weeks there. In any event, I have a notebook full of stories that I’d like to write.

NOVEMBER, NYC, Washington, D.C., Chile:

NYC: To vote. Of course.

Washington, D.C.: To blog live from NPR on election night.

Chile: The press trip of a lifetime: 7 days. Santiago, Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine. Cordero (lamb). But most of all… incredible people: Roberto, Francisco, Andres, Paloma, Carolina… que buenos son!

DECEMBER, Puerto Rico:
Francisco and I moved to Puerto Rico (shuttling back and forth between the island and NYC) in 2005 and left for good last December. While we had no active plans to return for a visit, our friends Wally and Marina asked us if we wanted to take care of their dogs for a couple weeks while they went on a much-needed and deserved vacation.

It was nice to see the sun every morning, to feel it on my skin, to watch as it penetrated just-rained skies and made light shows with rainbows, and to collect the grapefruit it ripened and scattered the ground with.

As visitors, we also went to places we’d never visited as residents, including the small island of Culebra and the town of Guanica, where the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War 210 years ago.


As I write this, I begin to realize that everything important is left out. It’s the people and the stories, and there’s a hundred folks at least. And for every person, a hundred stories.

I haven’t forgotten a single one of them. The stories are on the way….