Long voyage to ‘freedom’

Cuban woman becomes nurse, citizen, voter in Saranac Lake

Sara Diaz smiles at Blue Moon Cafe in Saranac Lake Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — Sara Diaz has an adventurous personality and said she felt like “a caged bird” in her communist home country of Cuba.

That’s not so much because Cuba won’t let its people leave but because other counties are hesitant to let them visit.

“We Cubans tend to go to another country and just stay there,” she said, “to improve your life.”

Eight years ago, at 22, she was married to a Canadian man and trying to leave Cuba for good. Canada wouldn’t give her a visa, so she initially went the other way — to Ecuador. Then in 2012 she made an arduous journey through South and Central America by foot, bus and boat — including numerous stays in detention centers. It took two-and-a-half months to reach the United States, she said.

Unlike people from other Latin American nations, Cubans are automatically welcomed into the U.S. as refugees fleeing communism, as per the “wet feet, dry feet” policy. The hard part is getting here.

She came to Saranac Lake five years ago because it was close to her husband’s home city of Montreal. Her marriage didn’t work out, but her newfound hometown did.

“I love it here, so I never left,” she said.

This has been a big year for Diaz, who is now 30. In May, she graduated from North Country Community College as a registered nurse. She then passed her board exam and started a new job at the Mercy Living Center nursing home in Tupper Lake. She became a U.S. citizen on Oct. 22, and on Tuesday she voted in her first U.S. election. She was excited about that Tuesday as she shared her story at the Blue Moon Cafe.

With her was Sully Alquinga, 32, a visiting friend who just arrived Monday from Ecuador. Diaz calls Alquinga a “sister” and said Alquinga’s family was kind to her in Ecuador.

“When I first left Cuba and went to Ecuador, my first job opportunity was when I went to her mom’s store to buy a mattress and I started teaching English to her little sister, and we became like family,” Diaz said.

While Alquinga had heard about Diaz’s journey, this was her first time hearing so many details. By the end, she was in tears.

Not Diaz, though. She told her tale with drama, saying at several points how scared she was, but she brimmed with confidence the whole time. This is the woman who, at her RN pinning ceremony in May, was described by class speaker Jodi Borzilleri this way: “I learned from Sara that if you want people to know how great you are, just tell them.”

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At the time Diaz was trying to leave Cuba, Ecuador had loosened its visa requirements in an effort to draw tourists. She remained in Ecuador from October 2010 to February 2012, well overstaying her 90-day visitor visa.

She teamed up with a Cuban man to make the overland trip north to the U.S.

“The scariest part was to actually start it,” she said. “I know I am very brave, but at the same time I acknowledge the fear.”

“We, my family, were very worried about her,” Alquinga said, remembering helping Diaz pack.

The first step, getting into Colombia, proved to be pretty easy.

“It was around midnight, and the police was not paying a lot of attention, so we were able to get off the bus, cross the border and get a taxi to a bus station,” Diaz said.

On the other side of Columbia, most Cubans hired guides and trekked for at least a week through the roadless jungle of Darien National Park into Panama. Diaz said she watched survival videos and loaded her backpack with jungle gear, but instead, she and her companion snagged an illegal boat ride to a small island that is half in Colombia and half in Panama.

As they hiked over a hill to the Panamanian side, she said the sound of gunfire deafened them. In fact, there were no guns; they had triggered a gunshot-sounding alarm. Panamanian border patrol officers captured them, along with eight more Cubans who had been caught just before.

They were stuck on the border island for a week, as neither Colombia and Panama wanted them. Then Diaz and other Cubans phoned relatives in the U.S. who “started making noise.” It worked.

“I hadn’t made it to the States, and I was already on the news,” she said. “My picture was on the news — everything.

“Panama took us in, but it wasn’t without a fight.”

In Panama City, they and hundreds of other Cubans were put in an immigration jail. It was her first time being locked up, but not her last.

“I always try to make the best of things, so I turned out to be the life of the party,” she said. “I put pillows in my butt, pillows in my boobs, do a dance, get everybody laughing.”

After a week they were released and ordered to leave the country within a week.

“Back then Costa Rica was allowing Cubans to ask for refugee (status), and you could stay and have a life in Costa Rica,” Diaz said. “But nobody wanted to do that. Everybody wanted to just keep going.”

Costa Rican officials took the Cubans’ passports and, despite promises, never gave them back.

“I think it’s karma because you’re kind of abusing the kindness of the country in some degree,” she said.

Getting through Nicaragua turned out to be an “absolute nightmare.” Four times her group was caught and sent back to Costa Rica, despite “coyotes” they hired to help smuggle them through. Her traveling companion ran off during one arrest. Finally they were able to pay Nicaraguan officers to let them pass, but then masked robbers with guns ambushed them near the Honduran border.

“I thought I was going to be raped and killed and everything,” she said. “Thankfully they didn’t do too much to us. They just took our things and left.

“For me, I was smart. I had money hidden in my shoes; I had money hidden in different pockets. … You’ve got to be creative.”

The trip “was simpler after that, thankfully.”

They were arrested briefly in Honduras, breezed through Guatemala and spent two weeks in an immigration jail in Mexico. Every time they were apprehended, officials contacted Cuba and asked if it wanted these people back. Some were deported, but Diaz had been away long enough to lose her Cuban residency. Cuba didn’t want her.

Another bus took the Cubans to the U.S. border, where they took advantage of the “wet feet, dry feet” policy. Diaz no longer had her Cuban passport, but a copy of her birth certificate and a Cuban ID eventually did the trick.

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Why go through all of that to get to the U.S.?

“I will tell you in one word: freedom,” she said. “And this is something that boils my blood, when I meet Americans that take for granted their freedom. Americans are born with a privilege that many countries don’t have. You have your passport, you can buy a plane ticket, and you can go anywhere in the world.

“The other reason is that I wanted to be close to my husband. The other reason is just, you have more opportunities here. They don’t call this the land of opportunity for nothing.

“I didn’t want to work all my life for no profit. … Here, you want something, you work really hard, you get it. My mother works really hard back home, and she makes 20 dollars a month, and I just didn’t want that.”