A successful artist in Havana, Jacqueline Zerquera risked life and limb to escape to America. Did she make a terrible mistake?
It was only six years ago that Jacqueline Zerquera was on the other side of the Florida Straits, looking toward Miami, longing for the United States. She wanted out of Cuba. She wanted to be able to travel without having to fill out a long line of forms, logs and requests. She didn’t want to have to report every move she made abroad to the authorities. She wanted to be free. Today, only a few years after leaving, she stands on the opposite shore, looking back. She’s in the place she so desired, in the place she fought to be. Yet she is still longing—this time, for the life she had back home. “I miss the air, the light; I miss Cuba like a memory,” Zerquera says.
These days, Zerquera, forty-eight, lives in southwest Miami, in her sister’s house. It’s so far south that you can see portions of the Florida Everglades seeping through the suburban paint job. Amid the large, cookie-cutter homes, the mega-Walgreens and Publix supermarkets, there are patches of wild grass and dead ends where the road’s black tar meets the liquid charcoal of the swamp.
It’s a far cry from her native Havana. You don’t see Cuba’s beaches, or its famous sea wall, the Malecón; there’s not the chatter one often hears among next-door neighbors in La Habana—the houses here are far apart and lonely. At the same time, there are echoes of the island everywhere: Cuban flags scattered throughout the neighborhood, on dashboards and in windows, and houses donning concrete mailboxes, painted green and shaped like the island of Cuba.
Inside Zerquera’s sister’s home, the square footage is so ample, there is a ricochet of sound when you speak. “Grande por gusto,” she says, laughing at her new home. “Big for nothing.” Four people live in the house: Zerquera, her sister, her sister’s husband and an elderly uncle; there is room to spare.
Zerquera seems laid back, dressed comfortably in shorts, a T-shirt and an open long-sleeved shirt; her hair is pulled back in an attempt to tame her unruly curls. The two cigarette packs she holds in hand, however, betray an underpinning of nerves. Generous from the start, she wants to make sure her guest feels comfortable: She offers cheese and crackers, olives and wine before telling a story of escape; a quest for freedom. A story of illusion, and disenchantment.
“Actually, there are many stories,” says Zerquera, as she pours red wine into two glasses. Her eyes are sad and heavy, though she is smiling.
One story begins in 2008 with a woman at the Havana airport. She has spent her life asking the government for permission: permission to purchase what she needs; permission to travel outside the island she lives on; permission, it sometimes feels like, to live and breathe. She is tired of having to fill out forms to cross the furious border of water that surrounds her, and having to deal with the erratic responses she receives—sometimes yes, sometimes no, for no specified reason. “The only thing you know in Cuba,” says Zerquera, “is that you never know.” This woman, standing in the airport in Havana, is tired of feeling trapped. Cubans living in America, including family members, have fed her full of promises. “In America,” these voices told her, “you can do anything you want. In America, you can make money, you can travel, you are free…” And so this woman makes a plan to get there—to this free place where parts of her family live and thrive, leaving behind other parts of her family—an elderly mother and father, a younger sister, nephews, nieces, a goddaughter, and many friends.
Which brings her to the Jose Martí Airport, about to get on a plane to visit a “friend” in Belize. A “friend” she’s actually never met, who has been arranged through the embassy of Belize. He will, in turn, arrange for someone to pick her up at the Belize airport, take her to a hotel, where she will be locked in a room with a group of Cuban immigrants she does not know. The final goal is to cross the Mexican-American border—it will take several days and cost her between $15,000 and $20,000 to achieve. From Belize, she will board a cruise ship to the Mexican island of Cozumel, where she will be locked in a house, until she is taken to Monterrey, in mainland Mexico. From the hands of one coyote, or paid guide, to another, she will move like illegal goods. “Human trafficking,” says Zerquera, “it’s more common than you think. Happens all the time.”
Zerquera tells me this story, although she does not actually say this is her story, for it is a tale of illegal immigration. And Zerquera is now a full-fledged American citizen. “I pay taxes,” she says, “I follow the law, I’m a good citizen.” All she is saying is that by the grace of one god or another, she arrived at the Mexican-American border. “Once you’re there,” she says, “the Cubans have it easy in one sense, but they also have it hard.”
The easy part is due to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 and its “wet foot, dry foot” policy revision of 1995, which basically says that any Cuban refugee seeking asylum in the U.S. can pursue a green card just one year after arrival, provided they were not found at sea (“wet foot”), but were able to reach land (“dry foot”). If you are caught at sea, you are likely to be deported.
And so, when Zerquera’s dry foot reached the longed-for border, she felt a great relief. The hardest part was over, not that the following steps would be easy. “The problem,” she says, “is that a lot of the officers at the border are Mexican-American, and they, I don’t want to say hate us, but…it’s complicated. It’s understandable. Here we are, with our Cuban Adjustment law, and they, Mexicans…They try and get you to say things you don’t want to say.
“I saw grown men cry in detention, big grown men, who had been all macho throughout the rest of our journey and now were falling apart,” Zerquera continues. “We were placed in cells that were more like cubicles without bars, and the walls were thin, so you could sometimes hear the other people being questioned.” Like this, she could hear how others broke around her. She, on the other hand, was determined to remain strong. Eventually, she was paroled and allowed to travel within the U.S. legally. She made it out to Texas and then, finally, to Miami, where she reunited with her sister, who had been in the U.S. for seven years. She had finally joined her family in the American Dream.
“It’s not what people tell you it is,” says Zerquera. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, very grateful, it’s just that it’s layered.” In Cuba, she was a professional artist. She was able to survive while doing what she loved—painting and taking photographs. Tourists and American art dealers bought her work. “You never quite knew who you were selling to, or how much they were selling it for on their end, or who ended up with your pieces at the end of the line, but people bought what you made,” she says. “You could make a living.”
She was also a member of the UNEAC (The National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba), which allowed her special privileges. Unlike most Cubans, she could occasionally travel abroad to places like Spain and Holland to exhibit. Still, she felt the laws could change at any moment and then she could be trapped. And it wasn’t just Cuba that changed the rules abruptly, but the U.S. as well.
“I knew I’d had enough when, in 2004, I was denied a visa to travel to the U.S. That’s the year they denied the Buena Vista Social Club and Ibrahim Ferrer a visa, too. We were called terrorists. That was it for me, that’s what finally did it.” (Ferrer, a Grammy winner, and several other artists were blocked from visiting the U.S.; officials cited their authority to block the entry of people who could be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”) Zerquera felt she was trapped in an age-old political feud, and she wanted out. Because it’s not, she explains, just hunger that gets to you in Cuba. “There are many monsters,” says Zerquera. The biggest of these, in her view, is the instability of your freedom.
While still living in Cuba, Zerquera started a photography series called Emigrante (Emigrant). The pieces are manipulated photographs that address, at once, a deep desire to follow the American Dream, while, at the same time, demonstrating that the dream itself is a shackle. In several images, there are close-ups of arms and legs, all in handcuffs. Some of these disembodied limbs are drifting at sea, some about to launch themselves into it. “You risk imprisonment and more for the dream,” says Zerquera, who can now reflect on whether it is worth it. “If you are caught, and brought back to Cuba, your life becomes hell.” Another photographic montage, called Reposo (Repose), illustrates a man resting on Havana’s Malecón. “The Malecón is where you go to fall in love in Cuba, it’s where you get fucked over, it’s where the prostitutes look for Johns, but it’s also where you go to dream, and where you dream of leaving—the water is right there,” says Zerquera. “Everybody is preoccupied with leaving to the U.S. Everyone thinks you’ll leave the island and your problems will be over. The dream is freedom. The dream is happiness.”
In another piece called Retorno (Return), a male angel crashes against the Malecón. But the Malecón is Photoshopped so that the seawall joins with the wall of Cuba’s most beautiful and historic cemetery, El Cementerio Colon. In the image, the ocean crashes against the seawall/cemetery. “When the water hits the wall in Cuba, it’s incredibly powerful,” says Zerquera. “Sometimes it lifts the pavement, it’s that strong. In my mind, that power is illustrative of all the people who have disappeared into the sea, trying to leave; this is them, this is their return.”
Zerquera was hoping to keep working as an artist, selling her work through galleries like the ones that used to buy it when she was still in Cuba. In the United States, however, it became impossible to live as an artist: Her work would not sell; the same dealers who once coveted her work no longer wanted it. She had lost her exoticism. “I go to galleries and they tell me they don’t want my work anymore because I’m not working from Cuba anymore. Now that I’m in Miami, they don’t care what I make.”
She looked for work outside her field, but couldn’t find any. “Miami is not good for jobs,” she says. Zerquera’s friend, the Cuban sculptor Rene Vergara Gómez, was living in Syracuse at the time, and told her New York would be better, that she should try it out. Zerquera had also heard that they paid more in the “north,” that it would be easier to find a job, so she went. “But, as it turned out, they didn’t pay that much more, and you had to spend more, on coats and jackets, and special kinds of tires, more rent, all those things. I froze, both literally and figuratively,” she remembers.
“I go to galleries and they tell me they don’t want my work anymore because I’m not working from Cuba anymore. Now that I’m in Miami, they don’t care what I make.”
One night several months after she had started working as a janitor at a department store near Syracuse, Zerquera found herself returning home from work in the middle of a snowstorm—the first one she had ever experienced. “I didn’t know how bad it was outside, I didn’t get it, and the manager didn’t bother to tell me not to come in that day,” she recalls. “I’d never even seen snow before that. The road was eerie and dark, no one was anywhere.” Suddenly, her car just stopped. There was nothing around but the white noise of deep snow. “Knee deep,” she says. “I got out of my car and I started to walk. My car was broken, my GPS was frozen—everything was frozen.”
She’s not sure how many miles she walked, improperly dressed for the weather, and completely unaware of her coordinates. “I had no idea where I was. I couldn’t see anything.” But she kept treading, lifting one leg and then another, until she saw heavenly golden arches – a bright, luminous McDonalds. It was just a roadside drive-thru. “There weren’t any regular doors, just a large metal door, sealed tight, but I started banging and banging on it. When they opened the door, they picked me up from the collar and dragged me in, helping me immediately; they gave me a hot drink, hot chocolate. I couldn’t move. I tried to tell them what had happened, but nothing came out, and what did come out was in Spanish; my fingers didn’t work, I tried to get something from my bag, to show them who I was, but nothing. A couple of days later, I almost lost my toe because of frostbite, from walking in the snow for so long.”
That’s when Zerquera decided to go back to Miami. If America was something less than the dream she had dreamed, the north was more like a nightmare. “The north turned out to be a myth,” she says. At least the heat of South Florida was familiar and, as far as she knew, less likely to kill her.
Back in Florida, she began working at Libertad Adult Day Care Center, a facility her sister had recently founded. She had to get certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and take courses on nutrition in order to work there. “It takes a toll,” she says. “You take care of eight or nine elderly men and women with Alzheimer’s all in the same room at one time and it’s crazy, your life becomes as absurd as their fantasies.” Once she gets home, she says, she’s drained. And yet, it’s a job she’s lucky to have. She knows this.
At one point, after she returned to Miami, Zerquera made a painting called Frozen, painting out of a friend’s studio out in Hialeah, another Cuban enclave in Miami-Dade County. The piece shows an androgynous figure, face up in the snow, a storm blowing all around her. The image is black and white, and the snow, at times, looks like dangerous and drowning sea foam. “In Cuba, I have one just like it,” she says of the image, “except that the one in Cuba is a desert. All that white is sand instead.” In Cuba, she explains, you feel immobilized and alone, as if in a desert. “Here there is a similar feeling, but colder,” she says of the United States. “That’s the difference.”
In Miami, Zerquera has also continued the Emigrante series: the new pieces are an American extension of what she started in Cuba. There aren’t as many handcuffs, but there are tombs and ghosts to take their place. Miami’s bridges play a big part. In one image the ocean parts, as in Moses’s biblical exodus, beneath an underpass in Downtown Miami, where monuments and gravestones from El Cementerio Colon have found their way. “As if the exodus,” says Zerquera of this image, “has brought another cemetery. A different kind of cemetery. We have lost so much. Not only people and human lives, but people that have lost their values, their principles, themselves.”
Six years after she left Cuba, Zerquera still does not see herself as truly free. Laws regarding travel to Cuba change from administration to administration. “During the Bush years my family was only allowed to see each other every three years. That’s not right,” she says. Today, the laws have loosened under Obama, allowing her to visit family in Cuba every year, if she can pull the trip off financially—it can get expensive, considering that the plane ticket from Miami alone costs an average of $500, and Cubans now living in the U.S. usually feel obliged to bring much-needed necessities to their loved ones, such as food and medicine. “But you never know when that [law] can change,” she says.
“I am grateful for this country,” she says again, “and I admire all those Cubans of earlier waves that had to fight, fight even harder than me to get out, all the Cubans that were killed, whose family members were murdered even; I understand that they don’t want to go back. But I do. I do not want to be cut off from Cuba. I don’t want to break from Cuba. I know I’ll get hell for saying that from a lot of people here, but that’s how I feel.”
It’s not that she wants to return to Cuba for good, she says. “I’ll just face the same monsters there.” But she also doesn’t know how long she can sustain the American life she is living here either. She is back to square one, dreaming of freedom. “That’s what I’ve always desired,” she says. Here, in the States, she can say what she wants to say, go where she wants to go, but she still cannot be who she wants to be, she explains. Unable to make a living as an artist, her selfhood has been one of the sacrifices she’s had to make while chasing America’s other freedoms.
Zerquera considers herself both Cuban and American, but the two places she belongs are so cut off from each other, despite being only ninety miles apart, that it’s hard to reconcile her identity. What she longs for is a bridge. She knows this is a very big hope, politically speaking, but perhaps, she thinks, it can happen first through culture. She understands the paradox of her claim, considering that she cannot live off of her art in America, and that America seems not to want her art, but she still believes that cultural exchange is part of the answer. “If Cuba allows artists into the island, like the Cuban-American singers Gloria Estefan and Willy Chirino.” Then, she explains, there can begin to be an exchange of ideas between Cubans inside and outside the island. Many have attempted to bridge the political rift between Cuba and America through art, but it has not been an easy feat. Both Cuba and the U.S. have a contentious relationship with artists from the opposite shore. In Miami, Cuban musicians have been booed off stage in years past, accused of representing communism and keeping Castro in power by supporting his regime with the money they earn abroad. Back on the island, Cuban-American artists like Estefan, whose family fled Cuba when she was a child, are considered persona non grata by the state, their songs once blacklisted from the radio.
For now, the photographs Zerquera cobbles together quietly in the room allotted to her in her sister’s house will have to suffice. These are her bridges. One of her photographs is set in Cojimar, Hemingway’s old digs in Cuba. It depicts a piece of broken bridge, abandoned, left like a drifting, amputated limb. She has titled it Soledad, which means “Loneliness.” These ruins show faulty construction, and so Zerquera keeps trying to build a better bridge, to realize a better dream.
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Gregory Castillo is a twenty-one-year-old Cuban-Nicaraguan American photojournalist from Miami, Florida. He works at the Miami Herald and is a student at Miami Dade College.