In a new documentary by West New York filmmaker L.E. Salas, the story of Cuban emigration is told by different generations of Cuban-American emigrants from around the country.
"I want to make a documentary like no other; more emotionally charged rather than political," said Salas last week.
"Exile: Lejos de La Isla" (Far from The Island) follows the stories of the major waves of the Cuban exodus as recounted by the people who lived them. The documentary will feature interviews with immigrants from most dominant Cuban-American areas in the nation including Union City, Miami, Los Angeles, and even Boston.
"I got the original idea when I was 21 for my senior [college] project, but I didn't have enough contacts so it fell through," said Salas.
American-born and of Cuban descent, Salas' idea first centered on the three generations of his own family, from his father and grandfather's emigration in the late '60s and '70s to his upbringing in the dominantly Hispanic communities of Hudson County.
"I wanted to make it more about the people, the other exiles," said Salas. "If you just ask, you would be surprised about the stories you get. There are different waves of exiles, and each wave has a different story."
Two months ago, the idea reemerged when Salas was introduced to the music of Cuban Folk singer Marisela Verena. Verena came to the U.S. through the largely unknown CIA operated Pedro Pan Project, which was the largest exodus of children ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.
This major wave of Cuban emigration, which has rarely been mentioned, had about 14,048 children between the ages of 6 and 18 depart Cuba for the U.S. from December 26, 1960 through October 22, 1962.
"Between 1960 and 1962, the CIA and churches did a mass exodus of children whose parents did not want them to grow up in the new Communist government," said Salas. "They were flown into the U.S., and placed in churches and foster homes all over the country."
Inspired by Verena's political and emotionally charged music, Salas decided to feature many of her pieces for the documentary. Verena agreed to give the rights to her music for the film, and the documentary will also feature her story.
In the film, Salas will touch upon six major waves of the Cuban exodus including the widely recognized Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, during which 200 Cubans were arriving in Miami everyday.
"[In 1966], my father had to jump from Guantanamo and swim to the U.S. Naval Base," said Salas. "The bay was full of water mines, so he had to swim outside of the area for about 10 miles."
The most recent immigrants have come between 1985 and the present such as the aptly named Balseros. They risked crossing treacherous shark-infested waters in the dead of night on tires and rafts in desperate attempts to leave the island.
"People wanted to leave at that point; they were hungry for a new life [and would risk anything]," said Salas. "[Interviewees] have said they heard people at night screaming [because] they were being eaten by sharks."
The latest in emigration has been the Cuban Lottery, which allows those who have family in the U.S. to submit their names in a lottery system, and if chosen, they are eligible to leave the country.
However, the Cuban Lottery also comes at a price. Once a family has entered their name, they are looked at as counterrevolutionaries, and are subjected to mental anguish from the government and loyalists.
"My cousin [and her family] came through on the Cuban Lottery in 2002 [but was eligible in 1998]," said Salas. "Throughout that time [until their departure] it was mental torture and mind games."
Lauradis Salas will also be one of the featured interviews.
"Another thing that the documentary is going to cover is the struggle [for these immigrants] to live here," said Salas. "People think that when they come here everything is going to be handed to them. You have to work for the American Dream."
Salas also hopes to break the stereotypes that have depicted Cuban-Americans solely as fanatical political revolutionaries contentiously fighting to bring down Fidel Castro.
"I want to show that they have a life here in the United States other than just fighting for Cuba," said Salas.
Salas has neared the completion of his interviews in Union City, and will soon be setting off to his next locations. Before then, there will be a fundraiser held at Schutzen Park in North Bergen on August 12 from 7 to 11 p.m., to raise additional funds for the film. Everyone is invited to attend, and contributions can be made at the event.
"It's going to be a great night; we're going to have a DJ, food form Union City restaurants, and the Fru Fru Cuban Drag Queen Group will be performing from 9 to 10 p.m.," said Salas. "It's a fun event focusing on Cuban nostalgia."
After the fundraiser, one of Salas' first stops will be to Boston, Mass., where not many would realize there would be such a high concentration of Cuban-Americans. But according to Salas' research, the Cuban community has flourished in this area for many years.
"Boston is really interesting; they even have this Cuban Social Club, and every last Sunday of the month they get together to hear [traditional] music, eat, and play dominos," said Salas.
Salas is hoping to finish the film by October. He has received an overwhelming response from Cubans all over the country interested in sharing their story, from Miami to the remote areas of Kentucky.
"It just goes to show you that if you have a good idea, people will come to you," said Salas.