MIAMI — Félix took five days making a journey that, on a plane, takes no more than 40 minutes.
He left Havana one Sunday afternoon and arrived in Miami Thursday night. He was exhausted, unbathed, unshaven, famished and several pounds underweight, but when he hugged his relatives on this side, he was very animated. After all, he had been lucky.
Félix and his girlfriend were medical students in their fifth year in school but decided not to finish their career to avoid the two years of what is known is Cuba as “social service.”
They found a contact — nobody knows how because such things are not revealed — a coyote who, for 6,000 dollars, would help them cross the border in a relatively safe manner. There are more expensive and safer alternatives, but they could not afford them.
The greater the safety, the higher the price, and both knew that all the money in the world will not guarantee a safe trip. You depend on luck or, what’s the same, the honesty of the person who brings you across.
They were told one week earlier that the flight would leave the following Sunday at 3 p.m. Beyond the concealed farewells, the restrained, badly concealed tears, the half-spoken secret that everyone imagines, the discreet certainty that there will be no return (at least not soon), came the sensation of being torn away, of being flung into the void, into the vortex of the universe.
Besides the minor mishaps typical of emigration, the first half of the trip transpired without complications. Nobody asked too many questions when they left Cuba or when they arrived in Mexico City. Outwardly, theirs was nothing more than a harmless tourist holiday.
The problems began shortly after they went on the bus that would take them to Laredo, to the border between two worlds.
Barely three hours after they departed, they were stopped at the first federal police checkpoint. An officer got on the bus, said hello, exchanged some words with the driver and walked straight to their seat.
The officer asked Félix to step down, as his girlfriend watched, shivering, from the other side of the window. A couple of policemen led him to a bathroom next to the checkpoint shack. They weren’t looking for weapons or drugs, only for money.
They stood Félix face to the wall and frisked him from head to toes; then they had him turn around and asked him to lower his trousers. That was unnecessary. They had already found the cash he carried with him, when they saw the money belt around his waist.
That had been a rookie mistake, the coyote later explained to them. The money is usually carried by the women in their underwear, close to the skin. According to the rules, the police are not permitted to frisk women, which gives them a certain advantage — if and when the policemen follow the rules.
One of the guards counted the money and pocketed it. Félix tried to protest, but the policemen shoved him. They were still not satisfied.
“Listen, pal,” said the one who had counted the cash, “you’re going to cross the border and we know it.”
“I’m not going to cross anything. I’m on a holiday tour and my papers are in order.”
“Don’t play smart, you crumb. If you want to reach the border without problems help us, and we’ll help you.”
“I didn’t come to cross the border. I’m on a holiday tour.”
“If you don’t cooperate, we’ll bring your girl here and frisk her the way we frisked you. Is that what you want?”
“I didn’t come to cross the border.”
“We’re going to take your documents.”
“I didn’t come to…”
The exchange lasted several minutes, until someone — Félix doesn’t know for sure who — phoned police headquarters. After talking a few seconds on the phone, the guard who was questioning him kept the money and told the others to let him go. Apparently, the contact was reliable.
The same scene was later repeated a couple of times, with slight variations: the bus was halted, a federal policeman went aboard, went directly to their seat without checking anyone else and asked them to step down.
Félix believes that it was the driver himself who told the police that they were Cubans. But from that time on, Félix managed to keep from surrendering his money, no matter how much they tried to extort him.
When the bus arrived at the final checkpoint in Nuevo Laredo Tuesday morning — aided by the coyote, who finally did his part — the two had clear symptoms of what is called the Ulysses Syndrome, the syndrome of the emigrant, with chronic and multiple stress.
Once across the border, in Laredo, Texas, they were not taken to a detention center for immigrants because it was full. They had to stay in the border station the three days that it took to process them, sleeping on the floor, using their backpacks as pillows, near the bathroom (the warmest place in the building, nobody knows why), along with many others who had crossed the border, just like them.
From those people they learned that they had been lucky. Lucky that they had been stopped by the federal police, not by the Zeta or Mara gangs or the kidnappers.
Lucky that they didn’t go through the experiences they heard: Cubans who come from Ecuador and disappear; Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans who cross Mexico in a freight train called The Beast, because the people climb aboard while it’s moving, risking mutilation or death. Once aboard, they risk being mugged during the night, while they try not to fall asleep.
They heard the stories of 72 migrants who were gunned down by narco guerrillas because they refused to join their gang; about women who are raped and/or forced to become prostitutes.
Barely one day after their arrival, they saw two Salvadoran children under the age of 10, unaccompanied. Nobody knew how they got through.
That’s why, when Félix and his girl arrived at Miami International Airport five days after leaving Havana and he was asked about the trip, despite the exhaustion, the stress and the hunger, he essayed a half-smile and answered, “Us? We came in business class.”