When I’m too lazy to do anything, which is all the time, I call up my dad and ask him why he didn’t get into the drug game back in the ’80s, when he came to the United States. To think that with a little gumption and a complete lack of morals, he could have spared me from this dreadful life of working and cooking.
Not that I know much about the hard-knock life. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t “pawn wedding rings for grocery food” poor, either. The most trying thing I’ve ever endured was 18 months without snacking when I got Invisalign. Real hardship is leaving your family and new wife behind and immigrating to the United States via the Banana Boat Express with nothing but a toothbrush, a tube of Colgate, and a small bag of underwear. Which is exactly what my dad did when he was 28.
A Light On The Horizon
With dreams of a better life in America, my father set sail from Haiti with 200 of his countrymen, just two weeks after his wedding day. Eventually, he landed in Miami, on a barely-seaworthy boat. He describes the briny ocean smells, mixed with fear and sweat, filling the hold — like ghosts of passengers past. That stench seemed to rob the travelers of their appetites.
“You’re not too excited about eating when the only thing you can see is the sky and the sea,” my dad tells me. “We didn’t know what the next minute or hour would bring. We drank water for survival.”
We might be getting ahead of ourselves. My father’s remarkable journey to America actually started after he left former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier’s military forces — The Leopards Corps. A high school dropout at age 20, he joined the Leopards in ’73, where he was trained for “military eventualities.” He was later honorably discharged, and by 1980 he was overcome with a desire to move to the United States.
“Everybody kept talking about Miami and I saw it on television,” he says. “I went to the United States consulate in Haiti to get a U.S. Visa, but the Visa department declined me. So, I had to get on a boat, because the dream of going to the United States was still floating in my mind.”
See that? Rather than give up, like I would’ve done, my father kept pushing.
“I said to myself, ‘I have to come to the United States no matter what,'” he continues. “A friend of mine introduced me to a boat guy who made trips to the U.S. and the boat guy took me on as a passenger. I don’t remember how much I paid but we had to make contributions for food and supplies.”
It was not a success. In fact, my dad’s first three trips were complete failures, with the the second trip nearly proving fatal.
“The second time was the worst trip because we got lost at high sea,” he says. “It was about 100 of us. We didn’t know where we were. It was night and I made believe I was sleeping, but I was really closing my eyes because I thought it was the end.”
He eventually did manage to fall asleep, and had vivid dreams of his older brother, promising him that everything would be okay.
“When I opened my eyes, I told my friend we would perish if we didn’t get help.”
Luckily, just before sunrise, my father and his friend spotted a light on the horizon, “maybe 20,000 yards away.” The two friends woke up the sleeping captain, who directed the boat towards the light. “Around 9:30 a.m., the boat sent us a code, telling us to stay where we were.”
It wasn’t long before a plane flew past, dropping supplies into the ocean — including a barrel of water and food. The rescue boat sent over rafts.
“Seven to 10 passengers for each raft,” my father says, “and they used a long cord to keep us all together. When the last person came off the boat, it sank. It was pouring rain too. My God. So much rain! But guess what? Even with the rain, I slept on the raft through the night, and woke up in the morning.”
It took a full day before the refugees made port at Nassau, Bahamas with the help of two Bahamian ships. They arrived at the docks in the evening and were shuttled onto two buses that took them to the Haitian Consulate, where they slept on the concrete floor. By morning, the passengers were brought the breakfast of half-starved champions — bread, coffee, and milk.
The Bahamas aren’t usually synonymous with misery but it was a trying time for my father. He was shuttled on another boat to Paradise Island, which is now home to the Atlantis resort. Back then, it was a tent city, created by the Bahamian government for refugees.
“We spent, I think, 15 or 25 days there,” my father tells me. “They didn’t give us beds so I found plywood and four buckets. I filled the buckets up with sand and that was my bed. The second or third day, I got sick — I had a fever and the guards gave me medicine, a pillow, and a comforter. It was really bad when it rained. The water would run underneath us. The guards dug holes around the tent to stop the water from getting inside the tent. ”
After all those days living it up on a Caribbean beach, my father was sent on another boat named Lady Moore, which took him right back to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Dream deferred. In the end, my resilient old man would actually need two more attempts and a quick detour to Cuba before finally making it to U.S. soil.
When You Made It To US Waters, You Were Welcome
“The fourth trip, we made it past the Haitian government and sailed for a week,” he says. “We had to stop in Cuba because of the high seas and rough waters. We stopped to save our lives. The Cuban army saw us coming and met with us and helped us. I’ll always love Cuba for that.”
Once the boat was in good enough shape to travel, my father, along with the rest of the passengers, set sail again, spending another hellish week tumbling and rocking toward Miami. As I learned from watching Cocaine Cowboys, the Miami coastline in 1981 was as open as a 24-hour Walmart. Border control was non-existent. This made it extremely easy for my father to enter the country.
“We got there during daytime and there was nobody to stop us,” he explains. “I saw two Cuban fisherman boats. They saw us and they came to get us. There weren’t any restrictions. When you got to the coast, you were in. That’s it. President Carter said when you made it to U.S. waters, you were welcome in the country.”
After the close calls, being lost at sea, getting sent back to Haiti, feverish nights and a tremendous amount of uncertainty, my old man finally set foot ashore in the U.S. in late June 1981.
“I felt proud of myself,” he tells me, “I had a dream and my dream became a reality.”
The journey was over, but my dad still had to be processed. He was transported to Krome Service Processing Center, where Lady Luck continued to clutch him close to her breast.
“At Krome, if you had family in the U.S., you give the immigration agents their name and telephone number and they give you your working papers and your family come and sign you out,” my father says. “I had relatives but I didn’t have any contact with them so I couldn’t put them down. When you go on those kinds of trips you don’t tell anyone anything. You keep it a secret until after you’ve succeeded.”
Home At Last
In the end, my father was signed out by a pastor who he’d never met before. “I saw my paper on the immigration agent’s table along with everybody’s papers. I pulled mine and gave it to the pastor and he signed it and I left. By that time, I was already there for 15 days, because they were processing my paper. On July 16, 1981, they let me go.”
Once outside the center, my father was completely clueless.
“I didn’t know where I was,” he says, laughing. “But Miami looked amazing. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! The street was so wide!’ When I turned around, I saw the pastor coming out with his brother-in-law, his sister, and their newborn. He didn’t tell me anything. I grabbed the baby’s bag from his sister’s shoulder. He opened the car door and I sat inside the car. He drove me to his house and gave me food. My friend, who was supposed to take the trip to Miami with me, left on an earlier trip, but left me the address to look him up when I made it. I gave the address to a friend of the pastor’s who took me there. My friend wasn’t there, but his brother was. I told him who I was and, I’ll never forget this, he said, ‘If you can be my brother’s friend then you can be my friend, too.’ We’ve been friends since.”
My father stayed in Miami from 1981 to 1982, where he worked as a landscaper for $30 a day, learned English well enough to attend a trade school, and earned an HVAC certificate. In December 1982, he moved to New York City with two friends and worked at a tobacco manufacturing company for $4 an hour. He sent money and cassette tapes back home.
In 1986, then-president Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted my father amnesty and a green card.
“As soon I got my green card, I applied to become a U.S. citizen,” he says with pride, “I became a citizen July 7, 1987.”
Interviewing my dad about his lionhearted journey to America was the first time I’d ever heard him tell the whole story. He’s given snippets of it a million times before, but it was always abridged. “I got here by boat,” he’d often say. I didn’t know about the multiple failed trips, or that he left two weeks after marrying my mom and never told her of his plans, or that he got lost at sea, or any of the other visceral details that left me with a lump in my throat.
I think I needed to hear it, in its entirety. Knowing that my father risked his life for my future is a powerful motivator when this lazy millennial wants to hit the snooze again, rather than doing something productive. Because, as much as I jokingly take it for granted, this life of mine was so close to not happening at all.