In the last few years, thousands of Cubans have left the island for South American countries. From there, they make their way north, trekking thousands of miles, hoping to get to the United States.
Last year, 29,000 Cubans crossed the border from Mexico into Texas — quadrupling the total from a decade ago. Now the numbers are even higher.
Heidy Vera, a young Cuban woman, made that journey in 2015. She then headed to Miami, where Cubans have settled for generations.
When she arrived there, she thought she was done traveling. She had been on the road for a long time, from Ecuador all the way on up.
“I saw things you don’t see in Cuba. Gangs, you may be killed, people may shoot guns. But I was ready for anything because I knew I wasn’t in my country any more,” she remembers.
She crossed borders. Walked many miles. Took planes, buses, trains. Several times she was detained. Once hospitalized. She slept on streets and in laundromats. Along the way, she met other Cubans making the journey. They stuck together.
She was robbed, forced to pay bribes and all the while fiercely guarded her Cuban citizenship paperwork — which helped promise her residency in the US.
“It was a difficult trip for us. Because other Latinos, in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, they’d say, if I’m also Latino why don’t they give us the opportunity to come to this country. But you yes. We were afraid of the other Latinos — in fear that they’d assault us, they’d steal our passports, our papers because with those papers you can come in,” she said.
For decades, Cubans have been allowed to stay in the US under the Cuban Adjustment Act. But now, as the relationship between the two countries shifts, Cubans wanting to leave wonder if that policy will end. So many Cubans are migrating now that earlier this year, US Sen. Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants, spoke about it on the Senate floor.
“We have a significant migratory crisis that’s building,” he said.
Back in Pinar del Rio on the western side of Cuba, Vera's mother makes the equivalent of $8 a month at a pig butchery. Vera had studied to do administrative work and wanted more from life. By the time she arrived in Miami, the 24-year-old was broke and forced to stay in shelters with some of the people she’d met on her trip. But she got lucky — a local activist posted on Facebook that newly arrived Cubans needed help.
Gregoria Fernandez, a 50-year-old woman in Pittsburgh, saw the post and commented on it.
“I said, 'look my house isn’t big but I live in Pittsburgh. If they’re willing to come here, here there’s work, there’s possibility for everyone,'” she said.
Fernandez and her partner live in a run-down two-bedroom apartment. She remembered how hard it was when she herself came from Cuba.
“First of all it’s the language. You know that without language, it's like throwing yourself in a river and not knowing how to swim,” she said.
She left Cuba during the mid-1990s. At that time Cubans were going by raft to US soil at Guantanamo and from there onto South Florida. She settled there and then, during the financial crisis, she moved to Pittsburgh, looking for work.
Her life was pretty quiet until the Cubans showed up.
They slept all over the house. It was pretty makeshift but Vera says she felt so at home.
“When we got here, she had everything. It's like we say, ‘You're at your family’s house now.’ We didn’t have to do anything,” she says. “We got food, clothes.”
For Fernandez, it wasn’t totally altruistic — she was alone all the time because she and her partner work opposite hours — he at a Chinese restaurant, she stocking shelves at Macy's.
“I was also looking for company. So I said, why don’t I have those people come this way, that way they can keep me company. And I can keep them company. Because I was very lonely,” she said.
While the group of nine Cubans was there, it was fun for her — hearing stories of what life is like back home, helping them figure out the US for the first time, cooking big meals, which she hadn’t had a chance to do because her own kids were already grown.
“I helped them, to bring them to interviews, I took a bunch of them to immigration, to do their paperwork to be allowed to work. I was an interpreter as much as I could be, but I also don’t speak amazing English,” she said.
But then slowly, they started leaving. All these months later, the Christmas stockings are still hanging on the living room wall, the glitter from their names slowly crumbling onto the floor.
She shows off a rack of coats left behind at the top of the stairs. Some moved to Houston, others to Jacksonville. A couple went to Phoenix. One man decided to return to Cuba.
Now it's just Vera left, who recently applied for her green card. She sends money home to Cuba she earns at an Italian restaurant.
Lately Fernandez hasn’t seen any posts looking for help. And because her landlord said he’d raise the rent if more people lived there, she can’t host too many more. Still, if they showed up, she says she’ll help them out.
“Until now, I’ve never had the opportunity to help people. I always wondered, how does one do this, but I didn’t have an idea,” she said.
In the meantime though, Fernandez likes having Vera around. Vera calls her "Tia" — aunt — and plans on staying there indefinitely. They keep each other company and connect each other to a homeland they both miss.