Via Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program

I wanted to intern at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC) so much that it was the only internship I applied for as a law student during my last year of law school. I know it was a risky move, but thankfully, I got lucky. My time at HIRC has been illuminating. I have actively participated in the asylum process for multiple clients, drafted motions, conducted client interviews, and have visited multiple immigration court hearings. However, nothing has made me happier than being able to for the first time witness an asylum trial and listen to the judge say “I am granting your stay of asylum.” Hearing the judge utter those words, and seeing the client’s tears of joy, keeps assuring me that I am on the right field, and reminded me of my father – who escaped from Cuba and spent nine days in the ocean to seek asylum in the United States.

My father is my light, my rock, my hero. He and his story have influenced my life in so many powerful ways – so much, I decided in middle school that I would attend law school to become an immigration lawyer. I am happy that the day has come where I have the opportunity to put on paper all my thoughts and feelings with respect to his migration, in addition to some of the many details about his journey from Cuba to the United States.

June 3, 1970, is a date that will forever have a place in my heart. On that day, my father embarked on his journey through the Gulf of Mexico in a raft. My father wanted to leave the country, but there was no possible way that he could do it legally. For that reason, he decided to leave his loved ones behind, and take on a decision that could have meant his life.

Imagine leaving absolutely everything you have – your hometown, your family, your roots, your country – and taking only with you the memories of your childhood, six glass bottles of water, one bottle of rum mixed with coffee, and a knife for protection. Those are the exact things my father took with him when he embarked on his oceanic journey. It takes a great deal of inner and mental strength to take this step. Nevertheless, this explains my father today; he is the strongest and most optimistic person I know. I can say this with so much certainty: I have never heard my father complain, never. He finds light in every situation.

My father’s journey started with a plan between him and a group of his friends. After the plan went awry, he decided to build a raft from the inner tube of a truck and to flee Cuba by ocean. Not all of his friends accompanied him. Only one did – one brave soul who is in heaven. His friend, Alfredo, embarked on the journey with him. My father does not know much about Alfredo. He knows that Alfredo needed to leave Cuba because of the political situation at the time. He served two years in a Cuban concentration camp and his father was a pilot for Cubana de Aviacion, which is a national airline based in Cuba since 1929. Alfredo, however, did not make it to land. He died on the seventh day of their journey– only two days before my father was rescued. When he died, my father kept Alfredo’s body next to him.

They say people could survive without water for about three to four days. My father survived nine days adrift. On the third day in the middle of the Gulf, my father and his friend lost their most precious belonging – the only glass bottles of potable water that they had taken with them. At this point, my father’s desperation only grew, but so did his faith. He told himself that he was not going to let that loss keep him from going forward, and so he kept rowing. My father had and still has a strength unlike any other, a strength that had its roots and was built on hope. The power of such hope was key to his survival.

With no tools to fish, no potable water, and for obvious reasons no readily accessible means to any sort of aliment, my father had to look for any possible means and take any possible action to survive. This is the one part of his journey that if I had to describe verbally, it would be very painful for me to verbalize. I am simply of the belief that no one should be able to endure such experience. It breaks my heart that my father did. He had to use a bird as sustenance. I do not think I would have the gut, or even the mental ability to do something similar, even while being in that situation. But perhaps I would, I am my father’s daughter, and I like to think that I would be as strong as he was. Alfredo, my father’s friend, caught the bird and they both ate parts of it. My father ate the bird’s heart. To this day, my father still holds his tears when he describes this part of his journey, and there have been times when my father feels the taste of the bird’s heart in his mouth.

On June 11, 1970, his ninth day adrift, was the day my father thought to himself, “Today, I die.” However, it became the day my father was rescued in the Gulf of Mexico. An American merchant ship saved him. On the day of his rescue, my father who was 19 at the time, was skin and bones, on the verge of death. He was so severely dehydrated that the ship’s personnel could not merely give him large amounts of water. His body could not handle that. Instead, they had to immerse cotton in water and place it softly on his lips. Eventually, the merchant ship transferred him to a U.S. Coast Guard ship, which docked on June 12, 1970, at 12:01 a.m. – my father remembers that day and time clearly. June 12 was the day he was “born again,” as my father enthusiastically describes it.

My father still lives with the memories of his past. Those memories have become a part of him, a part of his foundation. I remember my father taking me to the beach when I was a little girl, and I would see him throw a dozen red roses to the ocean. I always questioned why he did this, but I did not ask questions. When I became old enough, he explained. He has done that every June 12 for the past forty-nine years, to honor the memory of Alfredo, his friend who died before the rescue. My father’s rescue was a miracle. My father was surrounded by sharks on that day. The raft was also already sinking. The U.S merchant ship saw him at exactly the right time and at exactly the right place.

This story likely resonates with those who flee their country looking for sanctuary in the United States. Today, my father is a successful business owner, and has also dedicated a lot of his life helping minority classes. I will be forever grateful to HIRC for trusting me and allowing me to actively participate in the asylum process of its clients, and, most importantly, for allowing me to be a part of bringing light in the lives of those who have been in the position of my father – those who have had no choice but to flee their country, leaving behind their family, their roots…and their lives.

This post was written by Giselle M. Rodriguez, a former HIRC summer intern. She is a law student at the Massachusetts School of Law.