Cubans build lives in Mexican border town while still dreaming of America

Eléonore Hamelin   |   Special to the Times Lourdes Lisett De La Torre was trying to get to Houston, where her daughter live, but she says she didn't want to be denied asylum in the United States and has opted to stay temporarily in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Eléonore Hamelin | Special to the Times Lourdes Lisett De La Torre was trying to get to Houston, where her daughter live, but she says she didn't want to be denied asylum in the United States and has opted to stay temporarily in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Published July 21, 2018

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Lourdes Lisett De La Torre arrived at the Gateway to the Americas bridge carrying nothing but a backpack and a phone.

She had left behind her mother, her house and her country. A daughter and grandson waited for her in Houston.

But five days before De La Torre began her journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Obama administration eliminated a policy that allowed Cubans to enter the United States without a visa, putting an abrupt end to the pipeline of islanders crossing Latin America by plane, boat, bus and foot to reach Texas.

In the weeks following De La Torre's arrival, more Cubans made it to the bridge. There was Joel Arroyo Blancart, who slept at a park with others in peaceful protest against the U.S. government's decision to shut them out. And Yudalmis Quesada, who hoped the new president, Donald Trump, would change course and let them pass.

About 1,200 Cubans were turned away at the border after the "wet foot, dry foot" policy ended on Jan. 12, 2017. They felt stranded in Mexico, living on the streets, at migrant shelters and in churches.

For the U.S. government, revoking the decades-old policy was a move to normalize relations with its communist neighbor.

But for the Cubans in Mexico, it meant failure. The Rio Grande and politics divided them from the American Dream.

• • •

Before he crossed 10 countries and 3,800 miles, Arroyo was a taxi driver in Bayamo, on the southern end of the island west of the American navy base at Guantanamo.

Arroyo, 34, felt stuck in Cuba. There were no other jobs for him. He dreamed of becoming a truck driver like his cousins in Oregon.

So he flew to Bolivia and lived there for a year, opening a small Cuban restaurant crammed with plastic tables and chairs and saved money for the trek north. He left on Dec. 19, 2016, and spent the first six days of his journey riding buses through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

In Colombia, he hiked through a jungle for six days with a group of Cubans. They ate Spam and tuna from cans and drank water from creeks. During the day, Arroyo trudged through mud and vegetation with a machete in hand. At night, he slept in pitch-black darkness. Monkeys hollered above in the branches.

Finally, at the edge of the jungle, the group boarded a small boat packed with 35 passengers. Arroyo stared at the cracks on the floor and hoped the waves would not overtake them on the way to Panama.

Through the rest of Central America, he boarded more buses. In Costa Rica and Nicaragua, he paid $400 to a coyote, a paid guide who helps migrants make it to the U.S.

In southern Mexico, he heard the news: Cubans were being turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"We had hope that the border would be reopened," he said. "We were positive."

Arroyo kept heading north.

• • •

Since Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, Cubans have migrated to the United States in waves, fluctuating with economic and humanitarian hardships on the island.

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In the early 1960s, roughly 250,000 headed north to escape the new regime. The U.S. granted them entry, treating them as political exiles. Both the Americans and the Cubans believed that Castro's government would be short-lived, said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act that allowed islanders to apply for residency after spending at least a year in the U.S.

Thousands more came over the years on the Freedom Flights funded by the U.S. and then Cuba's Mariel exodus in 1980 allowed those with boats to pick up relatives.

In the early 1990s, when the island's economy collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly 31,000 Cubans arrived on rafts after crossing the 90 miles to South Florida. To end the crisis, the Clinton administration created the "wet foot, dry foot" policy: any Cubans stopped by the Coast Guard would be sent home, but those that reached U.S. land could stay.

Between 1995 and 2015, about 650,000 Cubans made it to America, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

But during the Obama administration, the migration path drastically shifted when several Latin American countries waived visa requirements for Cubans and the Castro regime lifted travel restrictions for its citizens. That meant they could go to South America and then travel thousands of miles to Texas, avoiding the dangerous voyage across the Florida Straits.

"It shows how desperate the Cubans are today as they were back in the 1960s to flee their country," Arcos said.

Migration to the border surged when the U.S. announced plans to renew ties with Cuba. In 2014, 24,278 Cubans arrived at the border. By 2016, the number had more than doubled, to 56,406 that year, according to the Pew Research Center.

Many feared that the end of "wet foot, dry foot" was near.

"They knew that would not last," Arcos said. "They were right."

• • •

At the bridge on Jan. 18, 2017, De La Torre, 50, contemplated her situation. She had flown in the day before, to Mexico City, and made her way to the border.

"It was a mixture of sadness and joy," she said. "I was so close to my daughter, but I was desperate knowing that the border was closed."

A group of Cubans walked to De La Torre. One woman hugged her. "You're with us now," she said.

With eight others, De La Torre checked into a room at the Don Antonio hotel, paying 300 pesos, or $16, a night. At the Benito Juarez plaza, she ate breakfast and lunch — a combination of tortillas, eggs, soup and rice — that the city of Nuevo Laredo offered the newcomers.

She called her daughter, Maray Martin. They talked about what to do.

"I told her she should wait," said Martin, who had reached Texas a year before, after crossing through Latin America with her husband and 6-month-old son. Martin had just become a permanent resident, and in a few years, would be a citizen. "I knew that I could bring her here."

So De La Torre decided to make Nuevo Laredo a temporary home. Her tourist visa allowed her to stay in Mexico for 180 days. She cleaned rooms at the hotel so she could pay for her share of the daily rate. She opened a small Cuban restaurant with a few friends.

Just seven blocks from the Rio Grande, El Cubanito served black beans, yellow rice and fricasé. Some plates were prepared with a Mexican twist: customers could request a chili garnish on their steaks.

"I needed to survive," De La Torre said. "I didn't want my daughter to send me money."

Within three months, the number of Cubans in Nuevo Laredo dwindled to roughly a dozen. De La Torre noticed the turnover of her staff as they requested asylum at the bridge.

She heard of friends who made it to Las Vegas, San Antonio, Houston, Miami and Tampa. But she also learned of Cubans being deported back to the island after their asylum claims were denied.

De La Torre refused to take the risk.

• • •

During the era of "wet foot, dry foot," Cubans could arrive at the U.S. border and show their passports as proof of their nationality. That was enough to be welcomed into the United States.

Now, they must stand in the same line as immigrants from every other country and request asylum.

That process begins with making a case that they fear persecution in their country under one of five categories: race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion.

If they pass a "credible fear" interview, they can be released on bond and have one year to apply for asylum.

If they don't pass, they're deported.

Cubans will typically claim persecution over political reasons, said Elizabeth Blandon, a South Florida immigration lawyer who handles asylum cases.

"There's a belief, a misunderstanding about political opinion, that it's only for people who go out and willingly protest," she said. "It's also for anyone who's against any policy of the government."

With "wet foot, dry foot" gone, Arcos said, only one avenue remains for Cubans to come here legally: a 1994 agreement between the U.S. and Cuba to take in at least 20,000 islanders every year.

But even that provides no guarantees. The U.S. reduced its embassy staff in Havana, which will significantly delay visa requests and family reunifications.

Cubans looking to immigrate can still apply. The catch: they have to do it at the U.S. embassy in Guyana.

• • •

On a recent afternoon, Yudalmis Quesada settled into the rolling office chair where she spends several hours a day applying acrylic nails on the hands of customers. American magazines, from Pottery Barn to Elle, were stacked on a nearby shelf.

Quesada and her husband were granted political asylum in Mexico and became friends with the other Cubans who now live here.

As Quesada painted De La Torre's nails a cobalt blue, they drank Mexican coffee. They miss Cuban espresso, but it's not sold in Nuevo Laredo grocery stores.

They visit each other's homes, joke about losing their Caribbean accents and still wonder about a future in America.

In November, De La Torre married a Mexican who was a regular at her restaurant. Her daughter has visited and still hopes her mother can live with her one day.

Arroyo married an American who lives in Nuevo Laredo, because she, like many other U.S. citizens, has family in Mexico. He's applying for permanent residency. On his phone, he keeps photos of his journey through the Colombian wilderness: the bonfires, the mud, the snake they killed near their campsite.

He zooms in on one. A skull is nestled among the leaves on the ground.

"If I had to cross again," Arroyo said, "I wouldn't."

For Quesada, seeking U.S. asylum isn't an option. She fears deportation or being held in a detention center, her future at the mercy of border officials. She sacrificed so much to come this far, selling all her belongings to afford the trip across Latin America.

"They don't imagine what we go through to get here and then spend five, six months in detention. People who go to the United States want to work, better their lives, help their families," she said.

Quesada says she is happy in Nuevo Laredo. But she thinks of visiting the U.S., just 11 blocks from her home.

"If one day the border is opened to us, I will go," she said. "I don't want to live my life without knowing the American Dream."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.