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News Columnist
Vanessa Bauza Vanessa Bauza
Back to recent columns

Vanessa Bauza: Life in Florida stays a dream in a bottle

Published 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.

The papers 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."

A wave of hope washed over Valdes every time she saw it with one of the officers.

"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 asylum.

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 contraptions.

"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.

But 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 Straits.

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 sink it.

"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 it."

Despite his thwarted efforts, Diaz, 39, who works odd jobs as a mechanic and driver, says he one day will make it to the United States.

"If I don't, I don't think I'll die happy," he said.

Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at vmbauza1@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel





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