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Vanessa Bauza: Life in Florida stays a dream in a
bottlePublished February 15, 2004
HAVANA · In the hours before she embarked on the 1959
Buick's short-lived odyssey at sea, Nivia Valdes carefully rolled up
her marriage certificate, her sons' birth certificates and her
medical diploma and pushed them through the narrow mouth of a
rinsed-out plastic soda bottle.
The documents were among the
only possessions she took with her to start a new life in Florida
and she kept the capped, water-tight bottle beside her in the back
seat of the green clunker as her husband, Rafael Diaz, and the other
men took turns piloting it to the Florida Keys.
were supposed to prove to U.S. immigration officials "that we are
good people," Valdes, 39 and a doctor, said. "I wanted them to see
who we are. We are not terrorists. … What we wanted was to travel to
the United States."
Once the group of 11 would-be immigrants
was intercepted and taken aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter 45 miles
north of Cuba's shores, an officer took the bottle and marked it
with a black permanent pen: "Buick, Case #4, Migrant #6."
wave of hope washed over Valdes every time she saw it with one of
"I told Rafael, `Look, they have the bottle
under their arms, maybe we have a chance,'" she recalled. "At least
it meant they were interested in us."
Now, back at her
tin-roofed home, perched on a bluff in the Havana neighborhood of
Diezmero, the marked bottle is still sealed with Valdes's documents
inside, like a dream in gestation.
"Until the last moment we
thought they would let us stay [in the United States]," Valdes said.
"We talked about having a house, the children going to school,
learning English and struggling to validate my degree. Maybe taking
a job as a nurse at first."
But her family and another family
of four who joined them aboard the Buick were returned to Cuba last
week. A third family will be sent to the U.S. Naval Station at
Guantanamo Bay for further review of their request for political
The repatriation means Valdes, her husband and sons,
Pablo, 15, and David, 9, now begin another long wait. She was
selected for the visa lottery, which grants 20,000 Cubans the
opportunity to move to the United States every year. However, as a
doctor she says it could take three to five years before the Cuban
government grants her an exit permit.
In the meantime, she
hopes to return to work at a nearby hospital and save enough money
on her $20-a-month salary to replace the precious belongings she
sold -- clothes, kitchen utensils, a VCR and her sons' bikes -- to
pay for the repairs and parts that transformed her husband's Buick
into a boat.
The idea for a floating jalopy was born a decade
ago on Valdes' patio when her husband and several other men decided
to leave Cuba during the 1994 rafter crisis when tens of thousands
of Cubans took to the sea in homemade boats, inner tubes and other
"We started joking that we could seal a Buick,
and we did," recalled Diaz, who still has the hand-drawn blueprints
of the modifications that led to their first car-boat.
that round-nosed 1947 Buick short-circuited several miles out to
sea, forcing the family to return to shore.
Ten years passed
and Diezmero's young men and women continued to take to the sea in
hope of building different lives across the Florida
With the newer Buick, Diaz and the other mechanics
tinkered for months to attach a more advanced, retractable propeller
and even injected foam into the car's spacious fenders, making it so
buoyant that the Coast Guard had to seek Diaz's advice in order to
"They fired at it and filled it with water," Diaz
recalled. "At 11 p.m. the captain called me over and asked what was
in the car that made it so it wouldn't sink. I suggested burning
Despite his thwarted efforts, Diaz, 39, who works odd
jobs as a mechanic and driver, says he one day will make it to the
"If I don't, I don't think I'll die happy," he
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004, South Florida