The Cuban Diaspora

Lisette Poole González

2016 - Ongoing

When I first got into photojournalism as a young student, I hoped to change the world. After years in the field I have found that it’s become a way to explore different parts of myself.

In 2014, I moved to Cuba, my mother’s homeland, and began working for international publications documenting the effect that United States’ changing policy had on the island. Things were opening up for Cuba in a way that many had not experienced in their lifetimes.

I had spent many summers in Cuba and though I always felt I was Cuban —to locals I was just another outsider. This surprised me but I was driven to prove myself and claim to my identity. I began to photograph.

The country was complex. Beyond old cars, crumbling buildings, communism and any cliche visuals, the essence of Cuba lie in its people. They had a magnetic charisma and beautiful resilience, despite the deplorable conditions among which they lived at times. It was something indestructible that I admired and hoped to capture with images.

The bulk of my assignment work focused on positive evolution in the country after relations with the US opened up. But I saw another phenomenon taking shape: record number of Cubans were leaving. Quietly en masse, they boarded planes for South America and took the long route overland to Texas. I was compelled to show this reality when I met Marta Amaro in 2015.

Marta smiled at me with the kind of familiar charm that lit up the room. The 52 year old told me that she was tired of being poor and hoped to be reunited with her eldest son in the United States. She planned on making the trek from Guyana to Miami and said I could come with her if I wanted to. For the next eight months I would go to Marta’s house in Marianao on my days off. In old Russian Ladas with no A/C I’d arrive at her "reparto" (or barrio), Las Yaguas. Marta lived on this block with her two adult children, she was born there; it was the only home she’d ever known. She let me into her life, and I became a fixture on the block.

Marta was tough, she chain smoked and had hardened to the trauma in her life. But she was also warm, with a young spirit. She had both a youthful attitude and a maternal instinct that drew young people in. Her ability to comfort and cook for those around her meant that they came to her often seeking solace, or a little fun.

In late April of 2016, Marta called me to say she and her friend were buying plane tickets the next day. They would fly to Georgetown, Guyana and travel to the United States in just two weeks. She asked me, “are you coming or not?”

Marta’s friend Liset was a 24-year-old sex worker and her personality was refreshing. In life, it was taboo to discuss the transactional nature of relationships, but Liset just owned this fact. She had no shame. Both she and Marta did what many Cubans did in the absence of resources, they minted currency out of their big personalities.

Meeting Liset also gave me a glimpse into an alternate reality where my family had never left Cuba and I had been born there instead. My "tocalla", we had the same name.

I followed Marta and Liset through 11 countries between Cuba and the US. I witnessed them facing their greatest challenges and by proximity faced them myself. Liset and Marta were brave in the face of adversity.

In total we went through thirteen countries, ten borders and spent six days walking through the Darien Gap. In the jungle I focused on photographing things like Liset putting on her make-up, or Marta smoking a cigarette in the middle of a river. It was the indestructible Cuban pride they brought with them through dire moments. I spent 51 days with them as they migrated and became part of the Cuban diaspora that birthed me.

Eventually I would spend three years making a book about their story. Along the migration trail, I made images on whatever format was available to me. I had several cameras including a GoPro, a 35mm point and shoot, a professional dSLR and my phone. For the book, I wrote essays, created maps and published my notes and other reporting, all with the hopes of creating an immersive experience which delved into who they are as people.

The book published last year with Red Hook Editions and named one of TIME’s best photobooks of the year, it was also shortlisted for Pictures of the Year International. It was covered by NPR, The Washington Post and The New York Times. I have had several speaking engagements and even performed an adaptation of the work for Pop-Up Magazine, a live show which toured major theaters in seven US cities. Recently, Google purchased 100 books to donate to refugee educational programs.

My work continues. From my new home in Mexico I plan to document the current state of Cuban migration in light of the current US policy. The special privilege which allowed Liset and Marta almost automatic asylum in the US (“wet foot, dry foot”) was cancelled just six months after they migrated. Now, Cubans have bottlenecked by the thousands, stuck at the Mexican border with Texas and California.

I recently visited Marta at her new home in New Jersey where she sells beers to the local Cuban émigrés on weekends while they play dominoes in her garage. As I met her group of friends, I heard testimonials —one after the other— about harrowing journeys to the US.

I plan to visit the US-Mexico border soon to document the Cuban diaspora community there. As a Cuban American I hope to add an intimate and personal voice to the canon of journalists covering the migration crisis of our time.

This photo edit shows Liset and Marta's lives in Cuba, before and after their journey, and on the migrant trail. The sequence demonstrates the tension between their present reality, their futures, and their dreams.

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  • A female coyote or human smuggler trails a car where Liset, Marta, and other migrants travel from the border of Brazil. May 2016.

  • Marta's hand, the very first day we met, Havana, Cuba. October 2015.

  • Marta in Brazil poses with a grocery store. It is the first time she has ever seen a fully stocked store like this in her life. May 2016

  • Liset kisses a candle in Havana, before leaving for her journey she makes a promise to the goddess Yemaya in exchange for safe passage to the US. May 2016

  • Marta at her home in Marianao shortly before leaving, with Liset (center) and her son and daughter, along with neighbors and Marta's grandson. This is the only home she's ever known. May 2016.

  • Liset on a bus in Peru during 40 hours of continuous bus rides. Taken on 35mm film later damaged in the Darien. May 2016

  • Marta in Panama after a harrowing journey through the Darien Gap. June 2016.

  • Marta and Liset as they cross the border illegally into Colombia from Ecuador, they found moments of joy throughout the terrifying migration. June 2016.

  • Marta cuts plantains in the Darien Gap with a smuggler's machete. June 2016

  • Marta back home in Marianao after gaining residency in the US. She was able to travel home and throw her grandson a birthday party. March 2018

  • Liset and Marta (not pictured) head to a boat for a treacherous journey over the open waters of the Gulf of Uraba in Colombia, for two hours. June 2016

  • Liset at her job in Austin, Texas as a stripper. July 2018

  • Marta smokes in the Darien while Liset rolls a joint, migrants and smugglers look on. June 2016

  • Liset in Portland, Oregon, on February 25, 2017, where she awaits a court date after 12 days in jail for check fraud. She vows to get her life on the right track, and will seek to deepen her relationship with spirituality and the religion of Santería to guide her through life.

  • Liset's friends and family await her Santeria ceremony, she will be ordained as a priestess, completing her promise to Yemaya. July 2018

  • Marta (right) and her son Osday (center) accompany their roommate while she files a police report against her abusive boyfriend after a fight on October 13, 2017 in New Jersey.

  • Liset leaves Customs and Border Patrol after she is given Parole, a free pass to move about the United States after crossing the border. When she arrived, the "wet foot, dry foot" policy was still in place, allowing Cubans to enter easily. July 2, 2016

  • Liset is presented to her friends, family, and religious community during the week of her initiation into Santería. It is believed that deities enter the room once drumming begins. On this day, Liset began to dance mimicking the waves of the ocean with her dress and collapsed after the spirit of Yemayá entered her body. July 29, 2018

  • Liset and Marta reunited in Miami, they quickly forgave each other after fighting in Costa Rica and parting ways.
    Marta crossed into the United States twelve days after Liset, with a group of Cubans. October 11, 2016

  • Liset in Havana, Cuba fully dressed in white during her yearlong initiation as a Santeria priestess. January 2019