The Miami Herald
Wed, Aug. 25, 2004

Sad child finds joy, opportunities in U.S.

HAPPY HOME: Yudelka Cesar Femenias, center, 
looks at old photos with her father, Jose Cesar, left,
mother Lourdes Femenias, boyfriend Mario Varona
and sister Daymara Cesar at her parents' house in

In 1994, the Herald published part of 10-year-old Yudelka Cesar Femenias' touching diary. Now that girl is a successful young woman in America.


PHOENIX - Last of a series

Yudelka César Femenías no longer keeps a diary. But back in 1994, when she was a sad-eyed 10-year-old living under a dusty yellow tent, her diary of her family's high seas journey from a Havana shore to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, touched hearts.

''No, I don't write anymore,'' the 20-year-old said, surrounded by her family, Cuban balseros who settled far from Miami in this desert landscape of cactus and rugged buttes. ``I tried to retake the diary, but after I came to the United States, I didn't feel the same need.''

One of more than 3,000 Cuban children who endured months of confinement among strangers in barbed-wire enclosed tent-city camps isolated from the world, Yudelka tenderly wrote about her experiences on white instruction cards that came with the packaged military meals the refugees were served.

She lamented leaving behind her beloved grandfather without saying goodbye and giving away ``my best jewel -- a little dog with short hair, all black, with little eyes dark like an azabache [jet-black good luck charm].''

As young girls often do, she labeled her diary, ''Por favor, no lo lean (Please don't read),'' but she tearfully gave it to a Herald reporter visiting the camps. ''It's our story,'' she said between sobs, ``take it to the United States and print it.''

Ten years later, Yudelka sat at her cubicle in an immigration lawyer's downtown office, a professional woman dressed in a black pantsuit, assisting with the paperwork of other hopeful immigrants.

At night, she studies computer information systems and business management at the community college. She lives with her boyfriend, 24-year-old Marko Varona, a Cuban from the eastern province of Camagüey who won the visa lottery and settled here with his mother eight years ago.

''My soul is happy,'' she said.


Yudelka's mother and father, José César and Lourdes Femenías, own a four-bedroom house in suburban Surprise with a kidney-shaped pool and a sandy lot in the backyard for the family pet, Tula the turtle, named after a famous Cuban dance song. Their two older children, Daymara and Reymar, have married and had children, but remain close to home.

They've all worked hard -- often two jobs at a time -- but they've done well. César, a lathe operator in Cuba, works in a similar job at an aviation parts manufacturer. Femenías works in housekeeping at the Mayo Clinic.

''We didn't have any family in this country, and we didn't want to be a burden on anybody,'' César said, ``so we chose the church sponsorship. When they gave us a list of places where they had jobs and apartments to get us started, we chose Phoenix because the others were in cold climates, and if we were going to struggle, we were going to struggle in warm weather.''

During a week's stay in Miami after the family arrived from Guantánamo in March 1995, César said he got a good look around and thought: ``If we stay here, we'll never learn English. We might come back, but we've got to try our luck elsewhere.''

They discovered they weren't the only Cubans who had chosen Phoenix.

One day César was being driven in a church bus to the Social Security office when the driver said he had to stop and pick up another couple.

Out of the apartment came María Esther Cárdenas and Luis Rey García -- acquaintances who had spent months living near their tent in Guantánamo.

''We've been together since -- like family,'' César said.

Yudelka calls them ''tía y tío,'' aunt and uncle.

On this Sunday afternoon, all were gathered for a reunion with The Herald reporter who came to return Yudelka's diary and to bring photos of the family at Camp Oscar and a copy of The Herald in which Yudelka's diary was published on Oct. 2, 1994.


They broke into sobs and hugged each other with every photo, every memory -- a close friend who helped César build from car parts the boat they named La Esperanza, The Hope, but whom they never heard from again; Muñuna, the baby for whom they made a cake out of peanut butter, jelly and bread when she turned 1 at the camp.

''Guantánamo was a very sad chapter in our lives, and we closed it because it hurts,'' César said.

When they talk about it, he said, ''se nos afloja la tuerca,'' meaning it makes them weak-kneed tearful.

Today, Femenías cooked a Cuban meal to celebrate -- chicken fricassee, white rice, a lettuce and tomato salad and tostones, fried plantains. Someone popped a Dominican merengue into the CD player, but the crowd clamored for something Cuban.

Yudelka played Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular band, and invited tío Luis to dance. Her moves were as sultry and rhythmic as if she had grown up in the middle of Havana.

''¡Cambio de pareja! Change partners,'' Yudelka's sister, 25-year-old Daymara, called out. Her father stepped in right away.

''Tell me she's not Cuban with those moves,'' Daymara said.

There's much joy now, but in the beginning of exile, there were struggles.


Yudelka's early school years were difficult. She spoke no English and was homesick.

''She would come home on the bus crying,'' her mother said. 'I would ask her, Yudelka, what's wrong? And she just would say, `I miss my grandfather and I want to go back to Cuba.' Then, she would lock herself up in her room all afternoon.''

Yudelka said she was always ''the lone girl'' at school.

''I just didn't fit in with any group,'' she said. ``I was the only Cuban in my entire school. The gringos thought I was Mexican and wanted nothing to do with me. The Mexicans knew I wasn't Mexican and didn't want me either. Neither did the African Americans, even though I am brown-skinned.''

Children made fun of her name. ''You donkey,'' they called her.

''I felt so alone,'' she said.

She again turned to writing to deal with the pain, but not in a diary. Instead, she wrote poetry, becoming a finalist in a junior high school contest with a bilingual ode to friendship, La flor de la amistad (The Flower of Friendship).

Another poem, For You I Long . . . Mi Patria, spoke of her longing for Cuba:

. . . On a star I made a wish/I closed my eyes and I wished to feel/the astonishing breeze of the sea/For a moment I remembered/how the sand felt in my hands. . . .

In her first year of high school, she felt so lonely and alienated -- both her parents worked two jobs -- that she began to hang out with the only people who paid any attention to her, a group of girls who weren't interested in school work.

''Before I even knew what was happening, I was a member of this little gang,'' Yudelka said. She got caught skipping school and was forced by school officials to tell her parents.

''I was terrified of shaming my parents,'' Yudelka said. ``After all the sacrifices they made for us, I was messing up.''


After the incident, her mother quit one of her jobs to be home with Yudelka after school and she was strictly chaperoned. But the girls wouldn't let her leave the gang -- until one afternoon, tired of being accosted, Yudelka went to the group leader's house, and in front of her mother, told her: ``I don't want any part of this. I don't want you in my life. Please leave me alone.''

After that, Yudelka turned her full attention to school. She got involved in sports, playing tennis, and became vice president of the student government. She made a new friend, Melanie, an honor student who was Puerto Rican.

''We had a lot of things in common,'' Yudelka said. ``I guess it's the Caribbean -- the music, the food, the mix of races.''

Her life revolves around her family now.

She adores her parents and dissolves in tears when speaking of their ordeal to get to the United States -- ''We owe all this to papi's determination,'' she said. Although her parents live a 40-minute ride from her home in Glendale, Yudelka visits them often, almost every day when she doesn't have school.

Her grandfather came to visit from Cuba -- ''my greatest joy,'' she said. 'I spent all my childhood in his company. It was, `Yudelka come with me to do this, Yudelka come with me to do that.' ''


He brought her a statue of Santa Bárbara to replace one Yudelka had carried with her on the boat from Cuba, but which broke apart in Guantánamo -- another painful moment she chronicled in her diary.

Yudelka keeps the statue on her nightstand, surrounded by offerings of flowers and beads in red and white, the saint's colors.

Her longing for Cuba and her beloved abuelo remain, Yudelka said, but nursing her dreams for the future -- she and Marko hope to have children soon -- fills her with joy.

''Sometimes I think about the young people my age in Cuba with no future, no opportunities,'' she said. ``Here, I have open doors. I can be whoever I want to be with my ideas and my religion. I can be me.''