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Third Eye

Keep on Truckin'

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 2/11/2004

The pictures airing on cable news networks and Internet wire services early last week hardly seemed real: Afloat in the deep tropical waters of the Florida straits was a 1959 Buick filled with 11 Cubans headed for American shores. They had traveled half the 90 measly miles that separate the two countries when U.S. Coast Guard officials nabbed them, dashing hopes of freedom among the six adults and five children, and doubly frustrating Marcial Lopez, Luis Rodriguez, and his wife Isora--three car occupants who had made a previous attempt last summer using a 1951 Chevy and were dubbed "truckonauts" by the media.

Obviously, their repatriation to Cuba didn't go so well. Not that die-hard Communist leader Fidel Castro had the escapees flogged upon their return, as Washington immigration watchdogs purportedly take measures to ensure no such punishments occur. But prevailing wisdom says El Presidente didn't try and ease Lopez and company's poverty-stricken lives.

In the Sunshine State, cat-and-mouse games between Coast Guard workers and Cuban and Haitian would-be exiles is part of life's regular fabric, just like citrus trees and two-for-one mojitos. The region is flush with immigrant activists who sound media alarms when such incidents as the one described above occur, appealing to America's increasingly viselike grip on liberty. If nothing else, the Elian Gonzalez matter showed us how much noise such champions can make.

With all the noise we've been making lately about our desire to attract immigrants to this region, you wonder what would have happened had the Buick's Horsepower Engine That Could--assisted by a boat prow fitted to the car's front, and propellers attached to the drive shaft--made it to Baltimore's harbor. Granted, illegal entry is illegal entry no matter how you slice it. But it happens even here, where some Latin American-born people endured torturous journeys by land to cross U.S. borders.

It's easy to sympathize with people who want the kind of good life they think Americans have; people who risk life and limb to get low-wage jobs, low-cost housing, low-achieving schools that struggle to teach even English--and the lowdown from poor citizens who could have told them life in these parts ain't no crystal stair. But that's not to say life here isn't better.

Several years ago, I spent a week in Cuba accompanied by a group of friends who'd previously visited the Communist country as Peace Corps volunteers, lecturing professors, artists, and (like me) curious travelers. The bad part about the trip was that it took place in hot and sticky August. The good part was that, by going with Americans who had formed friendships with Cuban families, I got an insider's view of lives that remain foreign to many tourists.

I recall visiting with my friends a family who lived inside what, prerevolution, had been a palatial mansion near downtown Havana--one of many such houses formerly owned by exiled wealthy Cubans that now serve as apartment dwellings for dozens of families. After negotiating crumbling marble steps, I squeezed through 12-foot-high wooden French doors, and met a man named Miguel, his mother, his fiancée, an aunt and boyfriend, and two children, all of whom had crowded into a combination living room/kitchen that was, maybe, 12-by-6 feet. Upstairs was a single bedroom with a ceiling too low to stand upright. The bathroom had a curtain door, no tub, and a toilet that had to be flushed manually by pouring buckets of water.

In this setting, laughter rang as my friends (several of whom spoke fluent Spanish and served as translators) and I shared thimblefuls (literally) of water, juice, or rum with our hosts who, I was told, would have been greatly offended had we declined to partake in what little they had. I also saw how they graciously accepted things that seemed so little to us.

In another family's house, in a section of Havana where electricity gets shut off during portions of the day to conserve energy, I sat in dimming daylight, searching through my purse for a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. My host's son, maybe 5 years old, watched intently as I stuck the gum in my mouth. When he was offered a piece, he unwrapped the gum gingerly and chewed it slowly, as if enjoying the finest Godiva chocolate.

That was just one of many seemingly inconsequential exchanges that, by the time I left, gave me a greater appreciation for what I have and how, room for improvement notwithstanding, I live. I met Cubans who were overjoyed to receive a bottle of aspirin, a cold beer, a $2.50 lunch, a scarf or piece of silver jewelry I was wearing. They were hard-working people far removed from beggars whose needs, much less wants, are seldom met in a country where even food is rationed.

Looking at pictures of the sea-foam green Buick--wheels still attached, ready to drive the "truckonauts" to family members awaiting in South Florida--those memories came flooding back, accompanied by wishes for next-time-successful voyages.

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More from Afefe Tyehimba

Here's Looking at You (5/19/2004)
...I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.

Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.

Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

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