The Miami Herald
Wed, May. 27, 2009

TV documentary chronicles Cuban Freedom Flights


In a new documentary on the Cuban exile experience, a poet weighs how her life and identity were shaped by the hand of a single man.

Amid her ruminations, she considers the what-if absence of Fidel Castro's rise to power 50 years ago.

''The revolution changed my life,'' Sandra Castillo says. ``Had there been no Fidel, would there be a me, the me that I am?''

Castillo's question is one of many in My Suitcase Full of Hope: The Story of the Cuban Freedom Flights that aims to illuminate the heartache and loss among exiles -- the Castro-christened ''anti-revolutionaries'' -- who fled the island to Miami between 1965 and 1973 aboard what came to be known as ``the Freedom Flights,''

The exodus threw some 265,000 Cuban refugees into a place with alien language, culture and customs. The new refugees arrived 200-a-day on two daily flights. Many were relocated but eventually migrated back to Miami.

Inspired by The Miami Herald's unveiling in December of a unique searchable database listing the passenger names compiled by reporters Luisa Yanez and Alfonso Chardy, filmmaker Joe Cardona sought to create a documentary that reflects what the Freedom Flights still means to that uprooted generation.

The hourlong film is set to premiere at 8 p.m. Thursday on WPBT-PBS 2. Cuban singer Willy Chirino lends his voice as narrator.

Cardona -- who recently documented the departure of Cuban children who took part in Operation Pedro Pan and directed a film on the life of Cuban singer Celia Cruz -- dove into the archives of the Wolfson Media Center to retrieve historic footage captured by local television stations of the refugee arrivals previously overlooked because labels weren't fully detailed.

Cardona also gathered photographs from the University of Miami's collection and Juan Clark, a sociology professor at Miami Dade College and an expert on Cuban migration.

The filmmaker emerged with fresh, seldom-seen-before footage of the Freedom Flights experience and the early years of the Cuban revolution that spurred the exodus. Grainy, black-and-white shots show the forced labor camps for soon-to-be departing exiles, students in uniform marching in sync, a Cuban flag draped over a Sears sign in Havana, the Pan American airplanes, the ``Nulo''-stamped passports and Miami's Freedom Tower -- the processing center -- buzzing with newcomers.

In one of many goose bump-inducing moments in the video, a husband and wife reunite. The same woman appeared on The Miami Herald's front page, which marked the arrival of the first Freedom Flight on Dec. 1, 1965. The headline blared: 75 Cubans land in airlift to begin life of freedom.

The couple had not seen each other in four years; he hadn't seen his child. Before fainting in the video, the couple embrace; she rubs his nape and hair with her hand, a weeping child in both their arms. The child holds the nugget-size vestige of a lollipop. The father showers his offspring's face with kisses, then his wife.

''To me that image is worth everything,'' Cardona, 41, said. ``Whether you're Cuban, Hungarian or Bulgarian, it's universal.''

Drawing on what he called his ''radar in the community,'' Cardona sought out subjects whose stories would forge a connection with the audience. Some speak Spanish, others English, sometimes the two languages intertwine into Miami's familiar Spanglish.

Those interviewed recount their Freedom Flight experience with amazing clarity and color. Their memories summon the personal belongings packed in suitcases. The long waits at Varadero airport, where the flights departed. The passengers' names called out as children cling to parents. The regime's efforts to humiliate. The in-flight Coca Cola and Chiclets.

The question on whether or not to return to Cuba also is discussed in the film, as is the topic of struggling with assimilation.

Some, like Valentin Prieto, are adamant about not visiting until the Castro brothers exit. Others, such as Castillo, return.

Castillo, the poet and an English professor at Miami Dade College, recalls a trip to her aunt's house after many years of being away. She knew it was her home when she saw the tiled floor on which she played jacks as a girl with her cousin.

In one moving scene, newspaper videographer José Iglesias speaks about the ache of exileship, of belonging neither here nor there. He flips open his passport, stamped ''Nulo'' in indigo ink by the regime.

''These guys basically nullified my existence -- it's like you don't exist,'' Iglesias says. ``Here's home -- and they're telling me I don't exist anymore.''

His conclusion: ``I don't have a home.''

If the hourlong documentary has a flaw, it's that it skims too quickly over the contributions freedom fliers have made to South Florida, though a large topic like that could warrant a separate film. Cardona concedes as much.

''I wish I would've included more local stuff on the impact,'' Cardona said.

Near the end, Rolando Llanes, who arrived as a child on a Freedom Flight in 1968 and went to live in New York, thinks back on the Orquesta Aragón records his father played in Washington Heights during their early years in exile.

Llanes, a Miami architect, realizes that it's not so much his nostalgia that has come to identify him, but his father's.

''It was the background music of my life at the time,'' Llanes says. ``Those Sundays mornings in New York, with Aragón playing in the background, you know, were extremely important in forming who you are today.''