In the summer of 1994, Gustavo Martínez attempted to flee his native Cuba for Miami on the tugboat 13 de Marzo, named after a seminal date in the Cuban Revolution. Martínez was making the dangerous journey with his wife, Yuliana, and their children, 10-year-old Yandy and six-month-old Hellen. He and the 66 other friends and neighbors accompanying his family had spent months meticulously planning the escape.
But several days into the voyage, when the group was approaching open sea, Martínez’s boat was discovered by a small fleet of Cuban government ships tasked with patrolling the waters for fugitives. In the ensuing attack that came to be widely known as the Tugboat Massacre of July 13, his wife and daughter, along with more than 30 others, tragically drowned. Martínez and his son were forced to return to Havana, where they lived for six more years until they won visas in a lottery and were finally able to leave for Miami.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Martínez, now 64. His initial attempt to leave Cuba in the mid-1990s took place on the eve of the Cuban Rafter Exodus, also known as the Balsero Crisis, when nearly 35,000 Cubans hurriedly left their homeland in boats or makeshift rafts to take advantage of the government’s decision to let people leave without hindrance. The exodus was part of an on-going emigration of more than a million Cubans to the U.S. that began with Fidel Castro’s 1959 overthrow of the government.
In the new exhibition “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States,” opening June 18, in the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, stories like that of Martínez will be commemorated with the display of a raft, known as a balsa in Spanish.
The show is the first to be organized by the new National Museum of the American Latino and offers a reconsideration of U.S. history through the lens of the Latino experience. An expansive collection of artworks and artifacts—such as prehistoric coins, sacred figurines, engravings, sculptures, pottery, and contemporary arts and crafts—was amassed after curators exhaustively combed the Smithsonian collections and those of prestigious museums and archives around the globe.
The raft is crafted from Styrofoam and wood, and is coated with tar and cloth coat to safeguard against sharks and protect it from water leaks. It was used by two young Cuban migrants in July of 1992 when they fled across the treacherous 92-mile ocean strait to reach the Florida coast. Pilots working for Brothers to the Rescue, a non-profit organization founded in 1991 by Cuban exiles, spotted the pair and notified the U.S. Coast Guard of their location.
“The raft is a piece of living history,” says Ranald Woodaman, the Latino Museum’s director of exhibitions and public programs. Until January 2013, Cuban criminal law made it illegal for Cubans to leave their country, the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere, or to assist others in fleeing without receiving official government permission. This was part of the strict legal regime imposed by Castro, the leader of Cuba's communist revolution who ruled over the island nation until 2008 and died in 2016 at the age of 90.
The experience of living in Cuba under Castro was fraught. Political freedoms, like the rights to a free press, to join a trade union and to openly disagree with the government, were widely repressed even as its population experienced a systemic reduction in illiteracy, saw the implementation of electricity in rural areas and benefited from the development of a world-renown public health system.
For the U.S. government, Cuba's revolution was a little too close for comfort. Just a year after Castro toppled the military dictator Fulgencio Batista, the U.S. ended all diplomatic relations with Cuba, enacting a harsh embargo; and when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Cuba lost its most important political and economic trade partner. The country could not produce on its own; supplies as fundamental as soap, milk and sugar virtually disappeared from store shelves.
As Cuba’s economy went into freefall, Washington tightened its economic sanctions against Cuba, exacerbating the abject poverty that forced Cubans to illegally flee. Riots broke out in Havana on August 5, 1994, prompting Castro to announce a temporary reprieve of the enforcement of emigration laws. According to The Cuban Rafter Phenomenon: A Unique Sea Exodus, a digital archive published by the University of Miami, 32,385 Cubans "left from all parts of the island."
"Between 1959 and 1994, in defiance of the law, more than 63,000 citizens left Cuba by sea in small groups and reached the United States alive. Thousands more washed up in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and other Caribbean shores... At least 16,000 additional rafters did not survive the crossing."
Smithsonian visitors will learn firsthand the ways Cubans used spare tires, pieces of wood, random pieces of rubber and other household supplies to create any kind of boat, vessel or raft that might be able to carry them on the ocean.
Woodaman says the “huge range” in the types of rafts, from their size to the materials used, are demonstrative of the “incredible desperation and incredible ingenuity” of these men and women. Just over six feet long and three feet wide, the tiny vessel on view is lined with a blue plastic shower curtain. It has undergone conservation to stabilize and preserve it.
“I had to leave the only way I could—in my boat—it was all I had,” according to one account at the time. “I had no one in the United States. I didn’t want to leave.”
Woodaman anticipates that the artifact will have an immediate impact on its viewers. “People look at it and think—Would I do this?”
While many viewers, especially children and adolescents, might arrive at the exhibition knowing very little about Cuban-American relations, seeing the tiny makeshift raft might help spark the curiosity to learn more. “It’s legible, it inspires empathy,” Woodaman states.
Martínez agrees. His family’s loss is forever in his heart. “From my point of view, a balsa signifies a life.” But his son, Yandy, is a graduate of the University of Florida and is now married with two daughters.
“I’ve finished my life on a high note, and I have peace in my heart. I’ll never be able to put into words the gratitude I feel.”