Bringing the Border War Home

What will Americans pay to keep out immigrants

In the national din over immigration, Lizbet Martinez's story barely rates a whisper. She's just a little girl, born in Cuba in 1983. Her mother was a dentist, her father a truck driver, and Lizbet was their first child. Like all new parents, Danne and Jorge Martinez found that having a child changed their lives in ways they couldn't have imagined before she was born. Sleeping through the night was a thing of the past. And a simple trip to the market suddenly required so much planning and prepara tion that it seemed like a military operation.

Yet it was only when Lizbet was old enough to go to school that the most profound change of all became obvious. Like manyprobably mostCubans, Lizbet's parents led double lives. At work, they dutifully chanted the praises of the Cuban Revolution and its all-powerful leader, Fidel Castro. But at home, behind closed doors, they cursed him for turning Cuba into an economic waste land and political dead end, a country without a future.

That was fine when it was just the two of them. But now Lizbet would be leaving the house each day to sit in class with a teacher who owed his job to his membership in Cuba's Communist Party. What happened if the little girl repeated something she had heard at home? How long would it be until her parents were fired, or their ration cards were confiscated, or their house was seized, or they were summoned to the Ministry of the Interior for questioning?

So Jorge Martinez decided it was time for his daughter to hear the Cuban version of the birds and the bees. He sat down with her one afternoon a few days before she was to start the first grade. "You must never, ever say anything against Castro at school," he warned Lizbet, feeling a mixture of sadness and relief at the grave expression on her 6-year-old face. "And if the teacher seems to con tradict something you've heard at home, just keep quiet. When you have questions, ask your mother or meno one else." Most parents try to teach their children that lying is wrong. The Martinezes told their daughter that lies were the very foundations of their lives.

It was a difficult, dangerous thing that they were trying, but it seemed to workin part because in Lizbet the Martinezes had been blessed with an uncommonly intelligent and poised child. Not only did she manage to stay out of trouble at school, but she flourished. Her grades were always the best, and her talent with the violin seemed almost supernatural. Word of her musical skill spread through Havana and even reached the ears of the Communist Party's arts commissars. Lizbet was made first violinist with the Havana youth symphony, even though it is mostly reserved for the children of high party officials.

Still, the Martinezes were unhappy. "We're corrupting her, the same way everything in Cuba is corrupt," Danne Martinez said to her husband. "Everyone here says one thing and does another, says one thing and thinks another. It's a sickness. And we're infecting our daughter."

So they decided to leave. Because Danne Martinez was a dentist, they would never get permis sion for one of the handful of legal visas to emigrate that the Cuban government hands out each year, mostly to the old or lame. Instead, Jorge Martinez began keeping his eye out for inner tubes at the trucking depot, slipping away with one whenever he could. And the Martinezes made sure that their daughter knew how to swim almost as well as she could play the violin. They waited, watching for their chance.

It came in August 1994. For reasons known only to himself, Fidel Castro relaxed the security patrols along the island's beaches. Word spread quickly on what the Cubans call radiobemba, lip radio: If you want to try to get out on a raft, no one will stop you. Dozens, then hundreds, of people flung themselves into the Caribbean on flimsy rafts, praying for a strong wind toward Florida.

"It's time," Jorge Martinez said to his wife. "It might be 10 years before we get another chance. And that would be too late for Lizbet."

Jorge and Danne thought no risk was too high to exchange the manacles of Cuba for the free dom of the United States. But they didn't believe they had the right to bet Lizbet's life without her consent. So that afternoon there was no violin practice. The family gathered around the kitchen table, and once again Jorge told his daughter the facts of life: On one hand, the high seas, the voracious sharks, the pitiless sun; on the other, a chance to go to a school where she could say anything she wanted.

When they were finished, 11-year-old Lizbet looked steadily at her parents and said: "I have been praying for this day." She went to her room and returned a moment later with her asthma inhaler, a Bible, and her violin. "I'm ready," she declared.

They left that night, on a fragile raft made of nine inner tubes, a few pieces of plywood, and a tarp, 181/2 feet long and 8 feet wide. Thirteen people crowded aboard as they pushed off a beach outside Havana. With eight oars, they paddled steadily for what they hoped was north, although within a few hours they were hopelessly confused about directions.

They were out there six days, huddling under the tarp to shield themselves from the maddening sun, clinging desperately to the raft as summer storms sent waves crashing overhead. Always they were scanning the horizon, hoping for the first flickering glimpse of the Florida coastline.

It was a couple of hours before dawn on August 22 when they saw the lights of the ship. "Too big to be the Cuban navy!" Jorge Martinez exclaimed, and they desperately signalled with a flash light. In a few minutes, a small motorboat was lowered from the ship and buzzed toward them. Its deck lights illuminated a red, white, and blue flag fluttering in the breeze. Moments later the refu gees were clambering aboard.

It took just a few minutes to make their way back to the big U.S. Coast Guard ship. As they stepped onto the deck, they were greeted by a smiling officer in gold braid. Lizbet couldn't under stand the words he spoke, but they sounded good all the same. In Cuba, men in uniform were to be feared, but this man had rescued her family from the lonely sea. She wished she could speak English, even just a little bit, to thank him. Suddenly she had an idea. Handing her Bible to her mother, she popped open the latches on her violin case. And putting the instrument to her shoulder, she played a song that she had been practicingsoftly, in a closed room, where no one could hearfor the past two years. She played "The Star Spangled Banner."

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