Juan Diaz: 'I Was Experiencing for the First Time a Superman, a Hero'

Posted by We'll Meet Again Editor on
Juan Diaz pictured with Captain Hooper's family.
PBS/Blink Films

In 1980, American Captain Hooper braved a harrowing storm at sea while aiding men, women and children as they departed Cuba and made way to the U.S. Juan Diaz, a passenger of his boat, the Sun Hippie, speaks with PBS about the impact of Captain Hooper's bravery and honoring the man who rescued him and countless others.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the interviewee. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

PBS: There is a moment during your journey when you describe the scene of Port of Mariel and hundreds of boats with American flags attached to them. Can you take us through this scene and what was going through your mind when you knew you would finally be safe and on your way to the U.S.? 

Juan Diaz: It was an overwhelming, emotional feeling of just feeling secured by seeing so many American flags on those boats. I had never seen an American flag in person in Cuba prior to this day; being a Communist government with a constant anti-USA propaganda, the USA flag was not a symbol permitted in Cuba.

Sun Hippie boatSun Hippie boatCourtesy Photo

It was very symbolic of freedom and that good things were about to occur going forward. Our state of mind was depressed and almost one of just giving up. We had just been transported to the Port of Mariel by the Cuban oppressive, intimidating military officials from a military camp in a zone in Havana that was called “El Mosquito” (meaning “mosquitos” because there we so many mosquitos in the area). It was so unsanitary, in the open, next to the ocean and with no facilities. We had been kept in that camp for five days and we were hungry, mentally drained and had no idea what was next. We were not informed why they were taking us away or where we were going.

Seeing the Port of Mariel and all of those American flags was seeing hope and escape from the oppression and conditions we had experienced from years of being in a communist country.

PBS: Through your story we learn that you followed a career as a firefighter and became a fire chief. Did Captain Hooper’s act of service and heroism influence your decision to go into this line of work and has it impacted your career in any way? 

Captain George Hooper with daughter Jewell (at Jewell's wedding).Captain George Hooper with daughter Jewell (at Jewell's wedding).Courtesy Photo

Juan: I am sure in a roundabout way what I saw him do influenced my career path. During that eventful voyage/night, seeing how he remained in control of the situation — [he] did not panic and executed his plan to keep us safe — I am certain that at least subconsciously that had a profound influence on me as young teenager.

I had never in my young life been in danger before nor had I seen anyone manage a dangerous situation. I grew up with no TV or being able to go to a movie. I lacked your average first world experiences that children see growing up, thus not even by a form of media was I ever exposed to a human doing something heroic for someone. So to me, I was experiencing for the first time a superman, a hero. I am sure seeing Captain Hooper had some impact on how I ended up wanting to be in a profession of helping others.

Juan, his sister and parentsJuan, his sister and parents.Courtesy Photo

PBS: As you recounted your story of your trip on the Sun Hippie to Captain Hooper’s daughters, you explained his act of courage during a rough storm that could have been devastating for everyone onboard. Much of this was new information to the Hooper family.

How did it feel to be able to honor him in this way and share his act of kindness? 

Juan: It was internally overwhelming to me that they did not know their father was a hero. I had assumed he had shared with them how risky that trip was. Their reaction to my story told me that Captain Hooper was a very humble man who did not want any credit for what he did for all of us. I was glad to then be able to account for his actions - to bestow onto them the honor that their father so much deserved for his tremendous skills as a seaman.

His quick decisions that night to keep us safe impacted hundreds of us - but not only us on Sun Hippie. To also stop the boat in the middle of a bad storm to find other smaller boats that were stranded and had taken on water, and bringing them onto our boat, was heroic.

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