The Gulf of Mexico, 1994
Javier Becerra, then four, found himself seasick on a homemade raft built by his father, Pedro, and two friends. Becerra and his family—mother Maria Julia Tocoronte, brother Yoel Gonzalez, and sister Maydelin Gomez—were not alone in trying to escape Cuba. Tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen had also taken to the sea, attempting to make the 90-mile trek from their island to the Florida coast or other nearby islands on makeshift vessels built from anything that might float.
They were called Balseros—“rafters”—and they were searching for a future outside of Cuba.
Pedro Becerra and friends had toiled away deep in a forested area of the mountains to build the raft. Nearly two years of work had gone into the project, and when it floated, it was considered a success. But that didn’t guarantee safety. Anywhere from 16,000 to 100,000 Cubans are believed to have lost their lives making the perilous trek from their native land, and setting off from shore was a dangerous gamble for anyone, let alone a family attempting to emigrate to the United States with small children.
“We left with maybe 20 people on this raft,” Becerra recalled. “It was this 20-foot by 20-foot vessel that had 50-pound water barrels keeping it afloat and an old Soviet Union motor in the middle. Thinking of it now as a parent, the risk and the courage it took my parents and everyone else to do this was unbelievable.”
The raft made it between 20 or 30 nautical miles toward the Florida peninsula before a U.S. Coast Guard vessel intercepted them and transported them to a U.S. Navy vessel. Javier Becerra remembered being hoisted up a ladder by a Navy sailor and boarding a giant military boat.
Back then, evading the authorities wasn’t the goal—getting caught was. Balseros were known to paint their makeshift rafts as brightly as possible to attract attention. Flags would be flown as high as they could go. Anything to get on a true ship, and away from where they were leaving.
Once everyone on the raft had made it on to the Naval ship, sailors aimed two .50-caliber guns at the vessel Pedro had spent years building. The bullets shredded the motor, pierced the water barrels, and the Becerras’ raft slipped slowly into the gulf.
The boat may have only made it 30 miles that day, but Javier Becerra would go on to make it much further.