Escape from Cuba: One woman shares her family’s incredible journey to find refuge in the United States

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Marta Richardson says that before Fidel Castro came into power, she was a “spoiled brat” living in Cuba.

“We had everything. We had food, clothes, church — nothing changed. Once that was gone, we missed it,” Marta says.

Marta says that life in Cuba after 1959, when Castro came into power, was ruled by fear.

“I remember being scared,” she says. “Nobody should live like that. Everywhere we went, we had to be afraid.”

Marta, now 70, was my Spanish teacher in high school. I’ll never forget the day she told the story of how she escaped Cuba and came to the United States. Her harrowing journey stuck with me and she was the first person I thought of when I learned of Fidel Castro’s death.

“I can’t be happy about somebody dying,” Marta says. “But I am happy for the Cuban people. Maybe now something can be resolved.”

Cuba, Castro and the U.S.

Fidel Castro’s recent death was, for many, a source of both hope and reflection. The leader of the Cuban Revolution, a group that overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro declared Cuba a one-party socialist country, transforming the country’s economy and international relations for generations.

Marta’s father did not agree with Castro’s communist ideals. Before Castro came into power, her father had worked for the railroad, an American-backed industry. Under the new leadership, all businesses became government-run, and Marta’s father lost his job. He resented losing everything he had worked so hard for.

Her father also held a job at a movie theater, but it didn’t prevent her family — like the rest of Cuba — from going hungry. Marta recounts the story of her father, who upon finding a cow stuck in a fence, illegally butchered it to help feed his family. She recounts the vivid image of her father, gutting and slicing the cow in the neighborhood courtyard as nosy neighbors — who might normally tell the government of any illegal activity — asked for some of the meat.

“Beg, borrow and steal. That’s what happened. You had to become a thief, you had to become a liar, you know. You had to become all that to survive,” says Marta.

Marta’s father wanted something better for his four children.

The escape

Marta’s father was part of a wave of mass immigration from Cuba to the United States in 1961, sparked by the nationalization of Cuban education, health care, private land and industry.

Marta’s father legally immigrated to the United States to work for an airline company. He saved up money for the rest of the family — Marta, her older brother, and her two younger sisters — to also legally immigrate.

Two years later, her family faced new barriers to legal immigration. Even though they had all of their documentation, there were no flights that the family could take to the United States.

Marta’s father — ever the resourceful one — purchased a boat, with a plan to take his family out of Cuba and into the U.S. illegally. Once in the U.S., Cuban immigrants could seek political amnesty and secure a green card.

Her father and three other men navigated the boat, docking it under cover just outside of Havana. He then made the 330-mile journey on land to Marta’s hometown of Camagüey, gathering the remaining five members of the family along with 20 other people, retracing the long journey back to Havana with the group.

The group abandoned their cars in Havana, walking through the woods to reach the hidden boat. Marta’s said her father told the children “Okay children, go grab an adult and walk with them — don’t let go.”

Marta, then only 17, was surprised to feel two little hands holding hers.

“It was a little boy and a little girl — and they were all nice and quiet,” she says, choking up as she remembers the fortitude of the young children. “They never protested. They walked with me until we stopped overnight. It was amazing.”

All 26 people in their group boarded the boat, huddled together in the darkness, leaving the life they’d known behind them.

They landed in the British possession of Cay Sal Bank, just outside of the Bahamas. From there, a U.S. Navy ship picked them up and took them to Miami. Marta says the first American food she ever had was on that ship — Spam and peanut butter. She’d never eaten anything like that in Cuba and she “absolutely loved it.”

Adapting to life in the United States

Marta and her family settled in New Jersey, where they were the only Cuban immigrants in the area. She says she easily transitioned into American life and relished the freedom of speaking her mind. Sometimes, her talk would get her into trouble with her parents, who still had traditional Cuban ideas, but she was glad she was able to speak up about injustice without fear.

Marta says outspokenness runs in the family. Her family members speak their mind and are critical of the government — even those who are still living in Cuba. She says that in Cuba, the threat of prison looms for those who speak critically or act against the government.

Marta’s family has suffered such consequences.

Shortly after coming to the States, her brother and his brother-in-law returned to Cuba to try and help others escape. They were caught and put on trial. Her brother was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and his brother-in-law received a death sentence. Her brother was forced to watch his brother-in-law’s execution via gunfire.

Marta’s brother was released after 12 years, and now lives in the Dominican Republic.

Marta eventually married, had two children, and went to college to become a teacher. She worked at John Sedgwick Jr. High in Port Orchard as a Spanish teacher until she retired just last year. She enjoys sharing her culture through music and Latin dance. She hopes to write a memoir about her experience of escaping Cuba, proudly sharing the cover art for her future book with me during our interview, a drawing created by a former student of hers who was inspired by her journey.

The future of Cuba

Marta says that she is looking forward to 2018, when current Cuban leader Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother, says he will step down and the elections for the next Cuban president will take place.

“I’m hoping that it is a freer Cuba. That is what we all want — a freer Cuba.” Marta says.

She also hopes the country will change enough so that she can travel back to Cuba with her family. Marta has only gone back once, in 1996, with a group of Pacific Lutheran University students.

Marta visited some of her relatives still living in the area.

“They were all hungry. They don’t have anything over there,” she says. “They suffer a lot.”

Her husband and children have yet to see the country where she grew up. She has told stories of her life to her children, but Marta wants them to see firsthand the beaches she visited during the summers, the school she attended and the neighborhood she roamed as a child. She wants them to see the good life she had, before Castro.

Although she longs to visit again, Marta says she will never live in Cuba again. When she came to America, she gained her freedom back. She admits she still misses her country, saying “it is in my blood.” She still cooks Cuban food, and insisted on sharing sweet Cuban-style coffee during our interview.

Marta may not have had a choice about leaving the country, but she has made her choice about staying.

“I choose freedom.”

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