On Immigrant Culture

Three marielitos, three manifest destinies for immigrants of cuban boatlift, freedom rings — in distinctly different tones.

By Marie Arana-Ward, Washington Post Staff Writer.

Every year about now, the memories rush back. The knock at the door. The police. The neighbors shrieking “Escoria! Gusano!” (“Scum! Worm!”) and wielding rocks. The bumpy bus ride through the Cuban countryside to the port of Mariel. The regiments of rifle-toting guards. The fierce-faced dogs. The biblical mass of humanity huddled beneath the hiss of a nearby electric plant. And then the heart-stopping sight of thousands of American boats bobbing in the water, waiting.

Sixteen years ago this summer, the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States in one of the most remarkable waves of immigration in recent U.S. history. It began when a driver seeking asylum rammed his van through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana on April 1, 1980. A fight broke out. A guard was shot. When Fidel Castro pulled Cuban security out of the area, 10,000 Cubans flooded the embassy grounds, clamoring to leave. Furious, Castro opened the borders and announced that anyone could go. American adventurers took to their boats, descending on Cuba by the thousands, eager to be saviors of the oppressed.

The Freedom Flotilla, President Jimmy Carter called it, and it was an invitation as clear and open as the one carved in stone: “Give me your tired, your poor . . . the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” The new arrivals poured into Florida, jamming immigration facilities, straining police and welfare services and giving Americans one less reason to reelect their president.

The lives of Eduardo Barada, Pedro Santa Cruz and Carlos Buergos converged in 1980 when each boarded a boat bound for Florida with nothing but the clothes on his back. Months later, fate brought them to the streets of Washington. They were led to the same destination, given the same chance to reinvent themselves. And yet, somewhere in the decade and a half between youth and middle age, they took divergent paths. Barada today is a radiantly successful entrepreneur. Santa Cruz has worked in dozens of jobs and found little reward. Buergos’s drug-soaked trajectory has led him to forfeit the very freedom he thought he had won in coming to this country, a paradox he contemplates in prison now.

“America,” George Santayana said, “is the greatest of opportunities and the worst of influences.” For many Marielitos, life has been good and work rewarding, but for just as many, the road has been bewildering and hard.

By any measure of success — money, love, status — the three men chronicled here occupy points far from one another on the grand American spectrum. Together, they offer a window on the perils and possibilities of immigrant life in the 1990s. Each has struggled, found love, encountered his weaknesses and strengths and discovered that in undertaking to become an American — a voyage every bit as stormy as the 90 miles from Mariel — he has traveled farther than he ever dreamed. The Convict

Although Castro implied that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba was either criminal or insane, most Marielitos were law-abiding citizens who passed themselves off as “antisocials” to qualify for the exodus. Of the 125,000 who came, according to Tomas Curi of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the great majority hailed from ordinary lives in Cuba and proceeded to ordinary lives in the United States. A small fraction of them — about 2,500 — were criminals and mental cases thrown into the mix by Castro.

One of those was Carlos Buergos, eldest son of a stevedore, a wiry, blue-eyed descendant of Spaniards — happy-go-lucky guy and convicted thief. He was hardly 25 when he clambered onto Florida soil but already had accumulated a history of misadventure.

His family was hardly the reason. His parents had raised nine children, a tightly knit, responsible group of siblings (“I was the only bad one”). But by the time America got him, he had fought in the war in Angola, been put in prison for stealing and butchering horses, and then, on his release, been imprisoned again for attempting to escape Cuba. He was exactly the kind of Cuban that Castro did not want.

On May 9, 1980 — one year into his 12-year sentence — Buergos’s prison threw open its doors, and he was taken to the port of Mariel. There, with very little ado, his wildest dream came true: He was put on a cargo boat bound for Key West. Forty-eight hours later — sunburned, sun-blind and dehydrated — he was whisked through a processing center with thousands of other Marielitos and put on a bus to Fort Chaffee, a military base in Arkansas. Five months later, he was in Washington, free to go out into the October afternoon. The Functionary

Pedro Santa Cruz, a 25-year-old accountant in Havana’s transportation department, got his first American break in the Krome detention camp at the edge of the Everglades. There he was spotted by Penn Kemble, now deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency, then doing research on Cuba’s war in Angola. “I was looking for Afro-Cubans. . . . There were not a lot of blacks in the Mariel camps. Pedro was a real black. He stood out.”

Kemble befriended him. “He was depressed and didn’t think he’d ever get out. But he was very smart. And well-educated, well-versed in world affairs.”

In fact, Santa Cruz had graduated second in his high school class and had garnered honors at Jose Marti University. The only child of a seamstress, he was one of nine inhabitants in the two-room house of his mother’s second husband, a gas station attendant who adopted him as his own.

He held several government jobs, but he never made much headway because he refused to join the Communist Party. “I was having trouble with the revolution,’ ” he says in a lilting Cuban Spanish.

When the Mariel expulsion began, he got a call from an old professor. ” You haven’t built a good political base, Pedro,’ he told me. The best thing you can do for yourself is go.’ ” He began soliciting letters from friendly officials who were willing to lie on his behalf and say that he was antisocial, lazy and a liability to Cuba. He presented the papers to the police; two days later, a bus appeared at his door.

In another week, he found himself incarcerated at the Krome camp. As the weeks dragged on, he tried to forget his anxieties by helping fellow Cubans with their paperwork. When Kemble came to his tent asking about Angola, he decided to help him, too.

Kemble didn’t forget Pedro Santa Cruz. Months later, he offered to be his sponsor. By September, Santa Cruz was in Kemble’s home, scratching his head over the electric can opener and wondering how he would ever learn which bus to catch. The Dreamer

Eduardo Barada crossed to Florida on a 50-foot shrimp boat as a storm whipped the sea into a fury, sending streams of salt water across the deck. When he looked down, there was little left of his well-worn shoes. “I took them off and threw them overboard,” he says. “The next day, I arrived in the United States barefoot, walked onto my first airplane barefoot and stayed barefoot for the full first two weeks of my American life.

“My great good luck was to have grown up in Cuba,” he says. “It taught me discipline.” When he was 7, his mother died, and his father placed him in an orphanage. For the next 10 years, he was a ward of the Cuban state. When he graduated at 18, he got a clerical job and began dreaming about owning his own business. “Many of us were frustrated by the communist system, but of course we never said that out loud. And life went on. I got married; we had a baby. But one Sunday when I was 23, I was out having lunch with friends and someone mentioned that they were taking applications at Mariel. I said: That’s it. Let’s go.’ ”

His young wife was unwilling. They were black, and she had heard things about the way black people were treated in the United States. But she didn’t try to stop him, and he left, thinking that someday she would follow.

Barada convinced Cuban officials that he was a drug addict. They took him in one of the first roundups.

As soon as he passed through Key West, he was transferred to Miami International Airport and ushered shoeless onto a flight to Pennsylvania. They took him to Indiantown Gap, a National Guard training center where 20,000 Marielitos were held behind barbed wire.

In August, after several strikes in holding camps across the country, the INS began processing Marielitos rapidly. They gave Barada $20 in pocket money and asked him where he wanted to go. He pulled out a scrap of paper with an address someone in Key West had scribbled down for him. It was in Washington. The Slow Slide

When former convict Carlos Buergos walked out into the crisp October afternoon in downtown Washington, INS staff members had done three things for him: They found him a job as a busboy in American University’s cafeteria at minimum wage, no tips. They gave him a monthly stipend of $150 until he was settled into the routine. And they rented a room for him in a Mount Pleasant boardinghouse.

After a few months, he landed another job with a caterer to augment his meager salary. Coming home late one night from that second shift, he was robbed by three street toughs and shot in the stomach. For two months, he nursed eight perforations in his intestine. He underwent a colostomy and was unable to eat normally.

He had survived a shooting before. In the Angolan jungle nine years earlier, a well-aimed lead slug had pierced his skull, grazed his brain and exited the rear of his cranium. It took three months in a Mozambique hospital cot to bring him around. The scars are clearly visible on his forehead and crown.

When he recovered from the stomach wound, he started in on a carousel of short-lived jobs — waiting tables, tending bar, putting up drywall. But it was with a difference now: He’d sniff a bit of cocaine when he was out with friends. He had never taken illegal drugs before.

And he began collecting misdemeanors. INS correspondence shows arrests in 1982 and 1983 for carrying a concealed weapon. “I was with a group of Cubans both times,” he says, “and we were a little drunk in a 7-Eleven parking lot maybe. The weapon was my drywall knife.”

One day in 1984, he was offered several days’ pay to deliver a packet of cocaine across town. Before long, he was taking packages here and there for anyone who asked. On Sept. 24, 1984, according to Buergos, he was sent off with a thick stack of $100 bills to Springfield, Mass., but when he and his traveling companion checked into their motel room, the other man pulled a pistol from his belt, shot Buergos in the back and ran off with the money. Rushed to the emergency room, he was hospitalized for two weeks. The bullet is still lodged in his hip.

Within a few months of his release, he began buying cocaine regularly. By 1987, he was doing errands for small-time dealers, keeping himself in gold chains and designer clothes, feeding a spiraling habit. He robbed a store and a private house in Ocean City, Md., and served 12 months in prison.

In 1988, he met a young Venezuelan woman who was cleaning houses in Bethesda. Responsible and hard-working, she tried to instill some order in his life, and for a while he was off drugs and working regularly as a drywall finisher. The two were married and had a baby boy in May of the following year.

Buergos got his best job yet — as a waiter at Rockville’s Woodmont Country Club — but it didn’t last long. He quit in a huff when the headwaiter complained that he was too slow. To take the place of one job, he now found two: working room service at a Bethesda area Marriott hotel and then heading out with his best friend to work as a waiter in a Baltimore Holiday Inn. “I was getting right,” he says, “trying hard.” But when that friend died of cancer in 1991, Buergos stopped showing up at either job. Soon he was back on cocaine with a vengeance and into the netherworld of freaks and thugs who traded in it.

When a big-time drug dealer moved into his apartment building on 16th Street NW, he began running drugs for him. Before long, Buergos’s wife and their 3-year-old checked into a shelter for battered women, and then she moved into a separate apartment altogether, resolving to do something for her sickly little boy, who was exhibiting acute signs of attention deficit disorder and emotional confusion.

On his own, Buergos surrendered completely to his habit. He was, he says, pocketing no money, just getting from one snort to the next. By the time he landed in Lorton prison for selling cocaine, he was a ghost of the young blond boy who had marched off to Angola 20 years before — a gaunt, twitching, 130-pound basket case.

Buergos’s 6-year-old son died last summer of heart failure; his wife has drifted away. He speaks now, in rapid-fire Spanish, from a meeting room in Lorton. “I can’t blame this country for my flaws,” he says, his arms resting on a bare table. “This place has given me nothing but opportunities.” Dreaming about a possible parole next year, he is hopeful about his future: “I’m ready now to be responsible. I can do it, I’m sure of it, if God and this country will just give me another chance.” Gridlock

Pedro Santa Cruz eventually figured out the bus schedule from Penn Kemble’s comfortable Northwest Washington home and began an English as a Second Language program at Georgetown University. He had friends in high places: Frank Calzon, for instance, director of an organization called Of Human Rights and a prominent anti-Castro activist, had secured him the place at the university. He studied by day and washed dishes in the school cafeteria by night.

Santa Cruz was among the best performers in his class, and when he finished, Kemble offered him a job in his Institute of Religion and Democracy, a group helping Latin Americans. But when Santa Cruz found himself stuffing envelopes and being paid a pittance, he left.

He began a series of menial jobs — running errands at a Rosslyn printing shop for $3.50 an hour, making sandwiches in a L’Enfant Plaza deli, cutting grass at Arlington National Cemetery, even flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s. In those jobs, he often was tossed in with other Marielitos, among them Carlos Buergos, whom he still calls a friend. But unlike Buergos, he was never caught up in the lure of the illegal.

“Pedro was always straight,” says the woman he eventually married, Carolina Santa Cruz, a white Honduran. “He was quiet and tranquil, a man with good manners and a good nature. His problem was not any given temptation; it was that he never understood what it takes to make it here.”

Although he was constantly signing up for courses — computer skills, insurance sales, real estate and banking — his career never seemed to take off. He found employers became nervous when applicants identified themselves as Mariel Cubans, something Santa Cruz always did openly, proudly.

When he and Carolina were married, he was still working construction, taking odd jobs as a salesclerk in the evenings to augment his income. She was a university graduate, but she cleaned houses in Potomac for a living. “That sort of thing never bothered me,” she says. “I was studying insurance on the side, and the people I worked for were so nice to me.”

By 1990, when their daughter, Mariel, was born, Carolina had landed a $26,000-a-year job selling insurance for Allstate. Shortly thereafter, Pedro became an $8.50-an-hour part-time accountant for a printing company in Virginia. They moved into a three-bedroom town house in Arlington, acquired an assortment of credit cards and sent for Pedro’s mother in Havana to come live with them and mind the baby.

Pedro’s mother did come, but she balked at the baby-sitting responsibilities. She felt hoodwinked and complained that she hadn’t come to the United States to be anybody’s slave. She wanted to go out dancing, have some fun. And she insisted on being paid. Within weeks of her arrival, there was all-out war between the two women. Before long, Pedro was driving his mother to Miami in a car he could barely afford, hoping the Cuban environment there would be more welcoming for her.

The setting was definitely more Cuban but hardly more welcoming. Miami Cubans were largely from pre-revolutionary Cuba’s upper classes. And they were largely white. “When I started looking for an apartment, it hit me how racist the established Cuban community there was. I’d call and people would be pleasant on the telephone. Yes, Mr. Santa Cruz, how nice, a Cuban from Washington. Please come over, have a look.’ And then we would show up, they would see that we were black, and suddenly the apartment wasn’t available anymore.” Santa Cruz eventually did find a Miami home for his mother, and after a rocky period of adjustment, she settled down in the job she still has: ironing clothes in an apparel factory.

By the time he returned to his wife and daughter in Arlington, however, his world had changed. He began to miss Cuba, to resent the standoff between his wife and mother, and to hop from job to job again.

Amid rampant credit card debt and day-care costs for the baby, he and Carolina found themselves fighting about money, fighting about work and contemplating separation. In February 1995, after years of unhappiness, they were divorced.

Today, Carolina is still at Allstate, making $44,000 a year. Pedro, after a series of jobs, is a sales representative for First National Bank of Maryland, making $21,000. He lives in a rent-controlled building in Arlington, where he often spends time with 6-year-old Mariel. Life is simpler now, he says.

“He’ll stay at that job for a while,” his old friend Penn Kemble says, “and then he’ll start to wonder why he’s not getting anywhere. He’ll get angry and discouraged, and he won’t realize that he has to promote himself. That he has to go out and do the middle-class American thing of hustling, doing favors, getting in with the boss, getting noticed, pushing his way up the ladder.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m from a communist country,” Santa Cruz says, “but I think it’s very difficult here. It’s not the racism. There’s racism in Cuba, too, though everyone there is trained to deny it. What’s hardest for me about the United States is the lack of security. You can get the pink slip any time. There’s more to life than a job, but you’d never know it living here. This stressed-out, work-obsessed, credit card culture is not for me. I can do it, but I don’t like it. . . .

“Sometimes I think that if all 125,000 of us had stayed,” says Pedro Santa Cruz, leaning back in the mauve chair of his bank’s tidy little conference room, “Cuba might have been a different place today. All the unhappiest ones, all the frustrated ones left. We could have been a force for change.

“No, I don’t want to die here. Someday, when Fidel’s gone, I’ll take my mother and go back to Cuba, have a little house on the beach, teach English and business and be free of the tyranny of the almighty car and dollar. Jose Marti said it long ago, but it has taken me 16 years to appreciate his words: Nuestro vino es amargo pero es nuestro vino.’ ” Our wine is bitter, but it’s ours. The American Dream

Across the Potomac, a Marielito with a fraction of Santa Cruz’s advantages was thriving. Eduardo Barada arrived at the scrawled address, settled in with a Cuban family and took a job with the garbage and floor-polishing detail at Blair House, the U.S. government’s guest house for visiting dignitaries. “You had to be careful in those days. People would hire a Marielito, ask for his Social Security number, then throw him out and use the number for somebody else. The Latins especially treated us badly.”

It didn’t seem to matter. Barada was making his own opportunities. For a while, he did menial jobs at the Four Seasons Hotel, the place he calls “my school.” He credits Omar Cardenas, a Peruvian waiter there, with teaching him everything he knows about the business.

“I met Eduardo Barada in the hotel personnel manager’s office one day,” Cardenas says. “He spoke no English, and the manager wanted me to explain to him that there were no openings. He was just sitting there, understanding nothing. But there was something about him. So honest.” Cardenas persuaded the manager to hire Barada as a kitchen boy, and then trained him up the ranks.

Three years later, pursuing his dream of owning his own business, Barada decided that he needed to know how goods moved from wholesale to retail, and so he offered to work at Potomac Wines in Georgetown for nothing. “I was more interested in what they could teach me than in what they could pay me, but they paid me anyway. Eventually the owners even trusted me with the store’s money.” He worked there for two years.

In 1987, Barada opened Altagracia, a small shop in Adams-Morgan, selling herbs associated with Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion. Four years later, he had raised enough money to open Habana Village, a scruffy little bar and dance spot that would change his life.

On Thanksgiving 1995, when the nightclub was closed, a fire consumed the premises. Barada had no fire insurance. But this apparent disaster turned to his advantage when two investors came forward to help him rebuild.

Today, Barada is a legend among Cubans in this city, and in recent years, his fame has reached back to Havana. Even the diplomats who represent Fidel Castro in the Cuban Interest Section at the Swiss Embassy can be found raising a glass or smoking a cigar at his new Columbia Road bar. Barada’s nightclub is a throbbing center of Latino culture, where classes and exhibits are held, where you are likely to find a law partner dancing with a garage attendant, black with white, rich with poor, young with old, where “at least one night at a time,” Barada says, “we can all be equals.”

Last year, when he returned to Cuba for the third time, Barada went through a grueling week of ordainment into Santeria. He is a high priest, a babalao. Even his management style verges on the inspirational. “The most important asset is the human component,” a recent memo to his staff says. “No pessimism or negativity allowed.”

At first, he says, he had problems with white and Latino police officers. “All they could see was this” — here he points to his cinnamon skin — “my exterior.” His face breaks out into a wide, sunny smile. “And now that they see this part of my exterior” — he flings his arms about to indicate the pleasant ambiance of Habana Village — “they are my friends.”

He and his wife divorced last year, but he continues to support his 16-year-old daughter. He sends money to the Cuban school that helped raise him. And he wants to help the Marielitos who keep appearing at his doorstep.

Someday Carlos Buergos may be among them. “Si si, Barada. I’ve heard all about him,” Buergos says, his blue eyes shining momentarily out of a haggard, tic-tortured face. “When I get out of here next year, I’m going to go see him. I hear he helps Marielitos like me. Maybe he’ll let me work for him.”

“If they come to me,” Barada says, “I help them. But I have no sympathy for people who waste the chance this country gives them. The addicts, the hoods. They are incompetents, irresponsible. There are 9 million people sitting in Cuba right now who can do exactly what I have done, if given the opportunity. I feel sorry for the ones languishing on that island with no chance at all.”

Someday, he says, he will marry Julia Aymerich, a serious young Spanish woman who is finishing her doctorate in linguistics at Georgetown University. Barada himself is almost entirely self-taught. His success in America is not a result of any particular credential. It seems to be a direct result of his state of mind. “Live with love and act from discipline, and life will treat you well,” he says.

“I feel sorry for my sad fellow immigrants who came to this country chasing the almighty dollar. I want to shake them and tell them: Don’t think so much about the money. That’s not what’s important. Destiny’s the thing. That’s what you can change in America. I’ve done it. I know.’ ”

1,400 Marielitos Detained in U.S. Official Says Crimes Here, Not in Cuba, Are the Reason

Today 1,400 Marielitos remain in detention in the United States, 963 of them in federal prisons, the rest scattered among Immigration and Naturalization Service facilities and county jails. Keeping Marielitos in correctional facilities has cost the federal government half a billion dollars since the 1980 boatlift.

“Nobody is being held based on their criminal records in Cuba,” said Tomas Curi, of the INS. “Everyone who came in 1980 was released at one time or another. If they are being held now, it is because they have commited crimes in the United States, some of them repeatedly. Five or six hundred of them are very violent, with records of assault, murder or rape.”

In 1984, the INS got Cuba to agree to repatriate 2,700 of those the service categorized as “the worst offenders” — Marielitos repeatedly found guilty of serious crimes. But after 1,300 were returned, Cuba’s Fidel Castro refused to admit any more. In the last three years, the INS has managed to repatriate about 100 Cuban criminals a year.

Besides Carlos Buergos, five Marielitos are incarcerated in the Lorton Correctional Complex. Until last year, 100 or so with serious mental problems were being held at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the District. They have been dispersed to halfway houses and federal prisons.

— Marie Arana-Ward

CAPTION: Cubans crowd the deck of a boat in the Straits of Florida during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States. CAPTION: Eduardo Barada relaxes in his Columbia Road nightclub, a center of Latino culture that even attracts diplomats representing Fidel Castro. CAPTION: Pedro Santa Cruz, once an accountant in Havana, works in a bank office after a series of menial jobs. He dislikes the “work-obsessed, credit card culture” here. CAPTION: Carlos Buergos, a convict in Cuba, has ended up in prison in this country, losing the freedom he had sought in coming here. CAPTION: Carlos Buergos’s drug habit led to a prison term. He is hoping for parole next year: “I’m ready now to be responsible.” CAPTION: Pedro Santa Cruz’s plans for a post-Castro Cuba: He’ll teach “and be free of the tyranny of the almighty car and dollar.” CAPTION: During a visit to Havana, Eduardo Barada pauses in the neighborhood where he was born. Word of his success in the United States has reached his homeland.