SEASON 2, EPISODE 5
Escape from Cuba
Premiere Date: Jan. 1, 2019
Join Ann Curry for emotional reunions between two Cuban refugees and the U.S. strangers that offered them a chance of a better future decades ago: the man searching for the Mexican-American family that gave him a home as a young boy after Castro’s regime executed his father and a Californian fire chief looking for the shrimping boat skipper who brought him to safety.
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Escape from Cuba
Two men search for the people who helped them settle in the U.S. when they fled Cuba.
More About the Episode
After Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, many Cubans found themselves at the mercy of the communist dictator. As U.S. sanctions took hold over the course of two decades, the population suffered terrible poverty, persecution, and summary executions. But two young boys who fled in the most difficult circumstances owe a debt of gratitude to U.S. strangers who helped them find sanctuary and gave them hope.
Fifty-two-year-old Juan Diaz grew up under the Communist regime in Cuba. His father had been a policeman during President Fulgencio Batista’s administration, but when Batista was overthrown in 1959, Fidel Castro’s regime viewed Juan’s family with suspicion. His father found it difficult to find a job that would support the family, and Juan and his siblings grew up poor in Havana.
In the Spring of 1980, the opportunity to leave Cuba arose when 10,000 Cubans stormed the Peruvian Embassy seeking asylum. Juan’s father gathered the family, and they jumped the walls just before government troops closed it off. The Peruvian Embassy took a protective stance towards those who sought refuge within its walls, refusing to release them. Castro responded by announcing the opening of the port of Mariel; those who wanted to leave could, but it wouldn’t be made easy. Cubans who left were marked as traitors to the revolution.
Within six months, 125,000 Cubans made the treacherous 90-mile journey across the sea to Key West aboard fishing vessels and yachts, a mass migration for which the U.S. was not prepared. Juan and his family endured Cuban soldiers, a dangerous deportation camp, being harassed at sea by Cuban Coast Guards, and a treacherous sea voyage marked by storms and sharks in their quest for a better life.
Courtesy Photo On Juan’s journey from Cuba, one person stood out: Captain George Hooper, the skipper of a 50-foot shrimping boat, the “Sun Hippie,” who safely brought Juan and his family to America despite the odds. Captain Hooper embodied hope and security at a time when everything was uncertain. Juan never forgot the man who brought him safely to this country, where he has thrived.
After arriving in Miami, Juan’s uncle suggested the family move to California. Within six months they had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. Juan went to Santa Clara High School and later got involved in the volunteer fire department there. In 1989, he joined the San Jose Fire Department and rose through the ranks. Today he is Fire Chief of Mountain View, California, and has three children.
Courtesy Photo In the spring of 1961, nine-year-old Nelson Figueras and his younger brother fled Cuba, two of the 14,000 children who came to the United States on flights organized by the Catholic Welfare Bureau and the underground network in Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan.
Nelson’s father, initially a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, had been executed under Fidel Castro’s regime in September 1961 for his involvement in a counter-revolutionary movement. Fearful for her children, Nelson’s mother seized the opportunity to get her sons out of the country, not knowing when she would see them again.
It would be five years before Nelson’s mother was able to come to the U.S. and find her sons. In the meantime, Nelson and his brother were taken in and shown love and kindness by complete strangers.
Courtesy Photo Nelson is searching for the young Mexican-American family who took him in. Based in Washington state, they had three children and another on the way, but looked after Nelson and his brother for a year, giving them a taste of what a safe family life could be. He never forgot their kindness and generosity and believes they helped shape a positive future for him in America.
Nelson is now 66 and lives in New York with his partner. He is a father of two and grandfather of four.