It was January the nineth. We were approaching La Romana shortly after nightfall. Leo, the captain, was smoking a cigarette and the other passengers in the car were
talking about the sea. I was twenty three.
I had four hundred dollars in my wallet and the determination to get to the United States. My one hundred and thirty
five pounds made my six-foot body look thin. My coffee-colored eyes reflected
as yet a naivete, the naivete that I still held within me due to years of my adolescence devoted to the Evangelic Church. I was deep in thought while our car headed East down the narrow road surrounded on
both sides by the immense green sugar cane fields. "Don't leave in a yola" my
mother had told me. "Those voyages are very dangerous. You had better stay here, get married and have your children at an
early age". I remembered her words. I was pleased that I had not paid attention to them, for, in spite of the apprehension
and anxiety that such trips cause, I was starting to taste the flavor of victory, the victory of leaving a country of poverty
and misery and not to return to it until my luck was a little better. "I will
spend seven years without returning home", I would say to myself, without even suspecting that I would come back sooner than
I could imagine, crushed by an overwhelming defeat.
---We have to wait until later to continue the trip to the
beach ---Leo explained as he detoured through one of the barrios of La Romana-; it's safer to make these trips after midnight. In the mean time, you'll wait in one of three groups which will also make the trip. When everything is ready, we'll pick you up.
Don't worry, where I'm taking you is a safe place with people that I trust;
besides, you'll wait for just a few hours.
Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the front of a home. It was a house being rebuilt, Leo, tall
and skinny, thirty years old, led us through a narrow dirt alley to the back patio of the house. It was a big patio, lit only somewhat by the light that filtered through from inside the house. There were lots of people in the backyard. Some of them got
up and came over as they heard us arrive. All of them had found a spot on the
ground. Some were reclined against the wall smoking. Leo addressed us:
---Find a place over there.
I laid down on the plastic bag in which I had brought my things. Juan sat down by me. Meanwhile, Leo was
answering people's questions. But Leo did not stay too long, explaining that
he must make sure that everything was going according to plan. Then, as he was
leaving, he said:
---I won't take too long.
Soon we'll be on the beach and by this time, tomorrow, we'll be approaching Puerto Rico. Don't go out to the street but if you do, not in groups of more than
three or four people. We have to avoid suspicion there are lots of "chivatos"
Having said that, he departed.
Behind him, he left the murmur of excited travelers.
It was easy to get involved in conversation. Where are you
from? Why are you leaving in a yola? How many hours does the trip take? Will
we get wet? Do you think we can trust these people? These were some of the questions
hanging in the air. Time passed quickly, everyone asking questions and giving details of their fears, hopes and the situation
that pushed them to make this trip. Most of the people were well informed about
the latest tragedies reported in the newspapers. The perilous voyages in yolas
to Puerto Rico began to multiply during the early eighties. Since then, the poor
have attempted to flee the country by any means, often being arrested in the attempt or dying as victims in one of the many
shipwrecks that occur. They also perished in cases as astonishing as the so called
"Regina Express" tragedy. This was the name of a Colombian Ship in which, on the sixth of September of 1981, intending to
leave as stowaways, 30 of an original group of almost 40 people trying to get to Miami, were loaded into the ballast tank
in order to escape detection by the authorities. They were led into the tank by the "jefe de maquina" and other employees.
It was said that before the ship departed there were rumors that stowaways were on board. The Port Authority ordered a thorough
revision of the ship, but the "jefe de maquina" and his accomplices, advised of this, rushed ahead and hid 30 of the illegal
passengers in the ballast tank and, to avoid suspicion, added water to it. But
the water added was too much, before the departure, 22 of the stowaways drowned in an event that caused an uproar throughout
the Dominican Republic.
On the other hand, people with more money, interested in traveling to the United States,
very often, traveled first to Central America, then to Mexico and once there, tried, usually successfully, to cross the Mexican-American
In the backyard, people went on talking. Those who had attempted the trip before garnered the most attention.
A young man who claimed to know a lot about the matter was talking about his crossings. He said:
---These voyages can be extremely difficult. I was able to make the trip three years ago; but after that I tried and failed in four other attempts. The first time I left it was a great trip.
We were about twenty five. We made the crossing in around thirteen hours. The sea was always calm and flat. Like a mirror!
The difficult part was when we got to Puerto Rico. We landed at about
3:00 in the morning. As soon as we reached the shore, the organizers
forced us to get off the boat, so they could return at once in their yola. We
all ran into the forest and, in the blink of an eye everyone had gone their own way.
I remained with a friend. At three o'clock in the afternoon we were still
lost. That's the hardest thing that I have endured in my life. Our skin was cut by the bushes. Mosquitoes and ants were killing
us. We were hungry, thirsty, sleepy, tired and very far from Villa Palmera.
---And what happened then? ---someone encouraged him to continue
---God helped us. We came upon a Puerto Rican. He led us out of the woods, he took us to his house and let us spend the night there. The following day,
he helped us get transportation.
---How lucky you were! -commented a woman in her forties---,
what I don't understand is why you are here?
---Trash got into my head, señora! I spent three months in
Puerto Rico. I even had a job, but as time passed I missed my country and my
people more and more. Here, I had lots of friends and my girlfriends.
---That was really stupid! -I said to him---; after I'm gone,
I'll return with documents so that I can go back any time I wish; I'd return without them only if they bring me by force.
---Now, I'm pretty sure I won't return. I've lost my love for
everything here. If we're able to make this trip, I doubt that l'll return -he
concluded, somewhat absent--minded, as if he were talking more for himself than for those who were listening to him.
This conversation gave Juan and me a more realistic idea of
what the trip might have in store for us. We were not prepared for a hard trip;
we had not even bought food. The others
were carrying food and clothing. Some of them even had containers with water.
In a plastic bag, I was carrying underwear, two pair of pants
and two shirts. I had with me a small radio-cassette player with earphones and
some cassettes containing -"Merengues" and ballads. I was wearing khaki pants
with a black leather belt. The shirt was white, with narrow vertical gray stripes.
The shoes were gray, almost brand new; my uncle Manuel had brought them to me in December from Puerto Rico.
A young man took us around the barrio; in a nearby corner grocery
store we bought salami and crackers. Juan placed these provisions in his back
pack. When we got back, we found the others talking about the same things as
when we left. There were about sixty people in all. Most of them were young women of not more than thirty years of age.
One of the young women was very talkative and, as before, she made use and mention
of her fancy camera. After taking pictures of some of us who were lying
on the ground, the girl, said bragging:
---This is an expensive camera!
It was sent to me from New York. Tomorrow, when we are at sea, I'm going
to keep taking pictures.
---Not tomorrow, Ana! You've got to say today! It's past midnight.
Those guys are almost here. You had better shut up and be quite ---said the another
young lady who was lying by her side using her baggage as a pillow.
I looked at my watch. It was 12:30 PM. They had already closed the rear door of the house and no more light was filtering out from inside. But the night had cleared up. People
and objects were clearly visible. At the end of the yard, in a corner, we could
see the latrine; a burlap sack covered its entrance. It was one of crude concrete
blocks, so was still the house and the walls dividing the yard. Undoubtedly, the reconstruction of the house was advancing
along well. It only needed the concrete floor, the electrical wiring finished,
and plaster and paint on the walls.
At 1:30 am, I took another look at my watch. By then, Juan and I were well informed of a lot of things. Ana,
the young woman with the camera had given out quite a lot of information. She
wore her hair pulled back, a pair of black jeans, a yellow blouse, and white tennis shoes.
Ana's skin was cinnamon-color as was that of the girl that accompanied her. At
first, I thought the two girls were sisters, but as they spoke, I realized that they were friends. The shorter one's name was Carmen. She hardly spoke; but Ana
kept on chatting with the men and the other women.
---I love the way you talk ---Ana said to Juan, which my friend
took as insincere. He felt that she was making fun of him, because of his pronounced
accent from the central region of the Dominican Republic, El Cibao.
Our sleepiness came and went, interrupted by our restlessness
and the voices of the people around us. Concerning Leo and his voyages, they
said "he never deceives his customers, he always makes sure that every one gets to Puerto Rico." And they were his best advertisement, for, they, themselves, were following friends and family, former
customers of his, to New York or Puerto Rico. This was one of Leo's best trips. The
total number of travelers was over a hundred. Not only did they come from El
Cibao and the Capital, but there were travelers from La Romana proper, and others coming from Higüey. The rest of the passengers were distributed in two houses nearby.
The area from which we were to disembark was El Macao Beach, two hours away from where we were.
A few minutes before Leo's return, Juan somewhat nervously
muttered in my hear:
---¿Raul, cuanto te va a cobrai, Leo?
¿how much is Leo charging you?)
---Augusto! ---I said, reminding him that that's how we were
to refer to Leo, because he did not want anybody to know his real name. Hence, everyone said Augusto when talking about Leo.
---Well, Augusto or
whatever name he wants to be called, how much is he charging you? ---insisted
Juan and I were perhaps the only people who were not forced
to pay in advance. As well, Leo had also lowered our fare. I had to pay $300 dollars and Juan a similar amount. Leo asked
us not to say how much we were paying because the others would have wanted a
discount. Besides we were not to mention the captain's real name nor were we supposed to say that he traveled legally to Puerto
Rico, since he had U.S. residency. I thought that Juan was going to pay more
than I, that's why I found it hard to reveal to him the amount I was to pay. For
the trip, Leo usually would charge $500 dollars or 1,500 pesos. The latter being the equivalent, in Dominican money, of the dollars charged. The money had to be paid directly to Leo, or to Frank, who was one of his three assistants.
Juan and I met Leo in a car rental agency where we had been
working together. To both of us, very often, Leo had offered to take us to Puerto
Rico at a lower price than what he usually charged. Juan had decided to make
the trip before I did. He had been working in the rent-a-car for the last five
months. Ever since he was aware of Leo's trips, the idea of being part of one of them fascinated him. He was twenty two, round faced, white skin, short and somewhat chubby. He was a newcomer to the capital
from San Francisco de Macorís, his home town. He was living in the Herrera section
of Santo Domingo at his brother's house. Shortly after he arrived from El Cibao,
he was hired by the rent-a-car. Juan substituted for Tonin in the morning shift,
an affable old man who had trained me in the task of renting cars and handling office duties, and who, contrary to what he
expected, was fired. Juan had a sister in the United States. She promised him she would file a petition to bring him legally to the United States. But Juan did not want to wait for this long process.
---Raul let's leave this fucking country ---Juan repeatedly
I did not want to quit my position as sales representative. It was the first important job I had. Since
the office I worked in was in the Las Americas International airport area, it was easy for me to practice English with the
tourists that came to rent vehicles. I had learned English on my own, without
a teacher. My knowing the language aided me in obtaining the position.
I loved my job, but everyday my salary became worth less and
less: The spiraling inflation would reduce more and more. I used to make $133 dollars monthly and I dreamed of having a house
of my own, a car and sons and daughters that would not grow up like I did, same as most of the children of Santo Domingo's
barrios do: going hungry, no clothes on their backs, lack of medicine and education...
That's why I decided to leave. The arrangements for the trip were made very much
in a hurry, almost all of a sudden, although I had a lot of time to think it over.
I met Leo one
afternoon, one of my first days at work for the rent-car. It was one of those
days when I was still receiving my training in the car rental business. That
afternoon when I met that skinny, knifed-faced man, I overheard my fellows workers comment:
"The fishers are coming today to get a minibus! They've got
another catch on their hands!"
A few hours later Leo arrived accompanied by two other young
men. They were warmly welcomed. Tonin, the sales representative that was training
me, was asking questions like:
"How was the last catch?; how many fish did you take?; how
did they get there?; when are you going fishing again?"
I did not find any logic in the jargon they spoke. When the three young men left, I asked Tonin:
---Are those guys men fishermen?
Even though Tonin was an old man, he still loved to make jokes
as much as he loved good rum and young women. With these words uttered, he burst in
laughter. He even let the other fellow workers know of my naive question. After everybody laughed, Tonin, more serious now, whispered into my ear:
---Leo, the skinny one, he makes trips to Puerto Rico. Look, if you want to go, he'll take you in a jiffy!
---That's fine ---I answered--- for those who don't have a
job. But since I have a job here, I'm not in a hurry to leave this country. Besides, I'd like to leave, but not for Puerto Rico.
I have always dreamed to go to the United States.
---In Puerto Rico, you'll make the same as you do in the United
States: dollars and not the miserable pesos you're earning here. Besides, once
you're in Puerto Rico, you'll only need to take a plane to go to New York or to Chicago where you've said you have a friend
who wants to help you.
---I don't think it's that easy ---I argued- to get from Puerto
Rico to the United States. People who travel say that in San Juan airport immigration
and even federal employees are alert to stop illegal Dominicans from getting to the United States.
---That's what they say.
But once you're in Puerto Rico you'll get to the United States with no problem.
---Since you say everything is so easy, why don't you make
Then Tonin answered me in a very serious manner:
---I have my house, and wife and my sons and daughters are
adults. Besides the owner of this business is a friend of mine. There is no chance that I could get fired from this job... but if I were your age or at least forty years old, that's to say, eighteen fewer
than what I am, I'd have left already. You know how things are here. They're
expensive and inefficient ---he counted with his fingers---: the transportation service, the water, light, gas and medical
services. And there is no sign that these and the
other things we put up with on a daily basis are going to change for the better, quite the opposite.
After I spent almost two weeks in training, Tonin went back
to cover only the morning shift. I took charge of the office during the second
shift. Leo would often come in the afternoon, so I waited on him most of the
time. One of those days, while I was filling out his rental contract, Leo said:
---Tonin told me that you don't want to travel to Puerto Rico.
---I want to leave this country -I made clear-, but without
risking my life.
---Risking your life! ---he protested---. I know what I'm doing. I've been in this business for several
years and up to now not even one of my people has drowned...-
Leo went on talking, giving all the reasons as to why his business
was different from the others. He kept talking and smoking, I had his drivers
license in my hand, issued in Puerto Rico. From it I was taking the information
to fill out the contract and while doing so, I told him:
---You might be as good as you say you are, but, as far as
I know, you travel to Puerto Rico by plane while you send your passengers by boat.
---I travel by plane -he tried to justify- after I put the
passengers in the yola. And I do it like that to be able to receive them with
transportation in Puerto Rico. My people do not have to endure what many other
travelers do, simply cheated out of their money without being taken anywhere. I
don't abandon them when they get to Puerto Rico. I don't do what most of the
trip organizers do. They just take people to the shore of Puerto Rico and, once
there, they abandon them to their own luck. When they try to find transportation
to get to their destination on the island, they take a great risk of being arrested, or held up by delinquents, who even rape
some of the women...-
At that moment, one of Leo's companions, dark and short, with a strong body, interrupted him and, with great conviction, said:
---There is nobody that works like us in this country! Not
only do we get vehicles here and in Pueto Rico to accommodate our passengers, but we also get large, sturdy boats...-
Thereupon, Leo interrupted the young man who was talking. To introduce him, Leo said:
---This is Frank, my right hand man. At the beginning I used to go myself in the yolas, now he accompanies the travelers, just as if I were doing it myself.
That afternoon they rented a minibus and kept the car they
had rented. Both vehicles were in Leo's charge.
The minibus was to be driven by the third young man: a tall guy, with long straight-hair, white skin, twenty six year
old and, according to his drivers license, his name was Jose Perez, who resided in La Romana.
In the following eight months, the group would come to the rent-a-car once or twice a month. In that time they convinced and successfully took to Puerto Rico people that I knew, among them they took
Nelson, who was one of my fellow workers. Although Leo and his companions were
making lots of trips, they never reported a problem. They never lost an opportunity
to advertize themselves in order to get new people interested in considering the trip.
That is why, one afternoon, after eight months of employment, Leo insisted again that I should go.
---It's a piece of cake, "hermano"! Don't be afraid; it's a matter of a few hours!
So far, the possibilities of my going were far away; that is
why I smiled and told him;
---The day you travel in the yola, I would dare to make the
He quit insisting. But
eight months later, in another of his visits to the rent-a-car, he surprised me when told me:
---Well, mi hermano ---he said "my brother", for, he never
called me by my name, though he knew it, for it was printed in each one of the contract
copies that I handed him-, we have decided not to continue with our business. In Puerto Rico, the coast guards are quadrupling the watch. They claim that they do it not only to prohibit hundreds of Dominicans from getting into Puerto Rico daily,
but also to stop the smuggling of arms and drugs.
---Are you really quitting? ---I asked somewhat doubtfully,
and maybe even sadly. It appeared to me that I was to loose the opportunity to
realize my undeniable dream, an illusion that I had postponed, which consisted of my going abroad to better my life and to
learn about the world.
---Yes ---with an emphatic voice, he confirmed---; I'm quitting
this work. But before that, I'll make my last trip. I'll be in it myself. I'm interested in taking some customers
who won't travel if I'm not in the yola. I suppose that'll encourage you to travel!
---When are you making this trip? ---I hastened to ask.
---It will be made at the end of December or at the beginning
of January. Decide for yourself now if you'll go with me. Otherwise you'll have to do it with one of the many "salteadores" who are cheating or drowning people. What do you say?
---I'll let you know between now and then ---I said. I did
not have the money to pay him, besides, I had to make sure I had a place I could go once in Puerto Rico.
In a very short time I ran my errands and, by the beginning
of December, I gave my notice at work of my determination to leave for Puerto Rico.
Juan got excited with my decision and he also decided to leave. Luckily,
my uncle Manuel, who had been living in Puerto Rico for the last few years, was in the country to celebrate Christmas. I let him know my plans to come to Puerto Rico and the way in which I intended to
get there. He did not refuse to offer me his house and his support, but he opposed
me risking my life in a yola. Among other things, he told me that in Puerto Rico,
there were daily reports of the deaths of a great number of Dominicans who gave their life to the sea attempting to get to
Puerto Rico the same way in which I was planning to get there.
---I don't want the same thing to happen to you ---my uncle
I tried to convince him that I was going to be successful. I failed to persuade him; however, as he saw me so determined to make the trip, he
just wished me good luck. He also reminded me that not only was he at my disposal
at any time, but his house as well.
My uncle and Nereida, his young Puerto Rican wife who accompanied
him for his trip to the country, had come in the "Dominican Ferries", a tourist ship that would go from one island to the
other daily. They had brought their car in that vessel and, when they returned,
they took with them some of my clothes and a few of my books so that I could have those belongings when I arrived in Puerto