Story of a lifetime: Escaping Cuba

Rosemond Crown

Most days he is just the cheerful custodian that roams around residence halls, cleaning and making conversation with students. But it ist hard to guess that Raubel Navarro’s story began 48 years ago and nearly 1,400 miles away in Cuba.

Navarro was born in 1968 in Cuba. He remembers his early childhood growing up in Cuba as the good times. Through a translator he gushes about his home country.

“We lived in a socialist system ran by the Soviet Union. I remember there were moments, where the livelihood in Cuba was in its peak — in its best moment,” Navarro said.

He says things went bad after the Soviet Union left but nevertheless he loved Cuba because it was the only home he knew.

In 1986 the time finally came for Navarro to fulfill his military duties as ordered by the law passed in 1963. He was sent to Angola to fight in the Angolan Civil War against South Africa. Navarro recalls that he was terrified.

“I arrived on Dec. 3, 1987 to Luanda, the capital of Angola,” Navarro said. “At first, I felt very unfamiliar and scared because I had never been to another continent, much less an African country,” he said.

The idea of fighting in a war was terrifying to 18-year-old Navarro. Today as he reflects on it, he thanks God that he was sent to northern Angola instead of southern Angola, where the war was mostly booming. For two years Navarro lived in Angola away from all his family and all he knew.

He returned to his home in Guantanamo, Cuba to find that his father had been killed in a car accident a month earlier. Navarro came home to only his mother, brothers and sister. He also came home to a Cuba he could not recognize. At that point, many Cubans were frustrated and just looking for a way out.

Navarro, his brothers and some colleagues became desperate. They took the risk and swam from their home in Guantanamo to the nearest piece of American land they could touch.

“There’s a U.S. military base on the province of Guantanamo that has been there for over 100 years,” Navarro said. “One night, I jumped into the ocean and swam towards it, and the marines helped me to shore. I was there for 28 days, then I flew to Miami. That was in 1994, and I now have 22 years of living in this country, thank you God,” he recalls.

They knew that once they touched American soil they would be cared for as refugees. Navarro and his brothers were sent to Miami where there was a huge concentration of Cubans. But they were soon separated when an opportunity came for Navarro to move.

“There was this Cuban organization that helps Cuban refugees. They advised me not to stay in Miami, to go somewhere calmer, better,” he said. “They paid for my flight to Houston, and then from there I flew to the old airport in Austin.”

Upon his move to Austin, Navarro worked as a custodian at the University of Texas in Austin. He worked long hours to provide for himself.

“One time, I passed by St. Edward’s, back when it was smaller. There weren’t as many buildings,” Navarro said. “I put in an application, they called me, and I’ve been working here ever since.”

He says he loves working at St. Edward’s University and meeting young people who care about education. He loves advising them and helping them and in turn he gets to practice his English.

“I love working at St. Edward’s. I’ve always loved talking to the students here, and giving them advice, especially the Hispanics. I want them to realize that this is an important time in their life,” he said.

During his 14 years at St. Edward’s, he met his wife Tina, who also works at the university with Bon Appetit.

“We’ve known each other for about eight years, but have been married for four and a half years,” Navarro remembers. “We didn’t see each other during work hours, but we would spend time together after work.”

While Navarro has created a life in Austin for himself, he still misses his family and his home in Cuba. With smiles in his eyes he talks about his mother and sister who are still in Cuba and about his two brothers who are in Miami.

“I talk to my family using the camera on the computer. I taught my brothers how to use it. I just don’t have the time to go visit, because of work. One day I hope my wife and I can go visit,” Navarro said.

He is happy about President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba. He is excited about the relationship being rebuilt between the United States and Cuba and the prospects of him returning home one day.

“I would like to see the United States and Cuba have a strong relationship again, so that they can change the current situation and bring a good democracy,” he said.

“One day I hope my wife and I can go visit.”

Raubel Navarro’s primary language is Spanish, therefore quotes in this story have been translated from Spanish to English.