Dealership's sea-worthy auto a tribute to Cuban 'truck-o-nauts'
BY JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ
Motorists traveling along Southwest Eighth Street in Miami have been slowing down to check out a fluorescent green 1951 Chevy pickup parked in front of the Maroone Chevrolet dealership.
It's not for sale, though.
Consider the retrofitted antique a salute to the imagination of the so-called Cuban "truck-o-nauts.''
During the summer of 2003, an identical model was ingeniously adapted to float in calm waters. The truck was ''driven'' across the Florida Straits all the way from Cuba, hauling 12 Cuban refugees seeking new lives in the United States.
Although the group was intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and the '51 Chevy sunk by the guns of a cutter, the tale of the amphibious pickup circled the world. To the Cuban exile community, it became a symbol of the ingenuity and perseverance of people trying to escape Cuba.
The truck on display pays homage to the original.
''My dream was to build a replica of the truck that was used in the first attempt, to keep it as a museum piece. And here it is, six years after the voyage, it's incredible,'' said Luis Grass, 41, the man who came up with the idea of the seafaring truck and made history by escaping from Cuba twice in amphibious vehicles.
Grass made the first attempt with family members and friends, including Marcial Basante and Rafael Diaz, both now living in Miami.
Diaz was the first Cuban ''truck-o-naut,'' using a modified 1948 Buick to try to escape the island with his family during the 1994 Cuban rafter crisis. On that first attempt, he had electrical problems was forced to turn back.
Diaz finally escaped in 2005, along with his wife and kids, aboard a 1948 Mercury that he adapted for the ocean voyage.
They were detained just a few miles from Key West and held temporarily at Guantánamo. U.S. authorities allowed them to travel to Miami a few days later because they had immigrant visas.
The '48 Mercury was also sunk. Diaz now works as a mechanic for Kendall Chevrolet in South West Miami, but did not participate in rebuilding the vehicle now on exhibit on Calle Ocho.
In 2004, Grass drove an old Buick that also ended up being sunk by the Coast Guard, after the passengers on board had been rescued. He and his wife and kids spent several months in Guantánamo -- after avoiding a second repatriation -- and ended up in Costa Rica, where they remained until mid-February of 2005.
Finally, Grass, who had decided to enter the United States at all costs, traveled from Costa Rica to the U.S.-Mexican border. He and his wife, Isora Hernandez, and their 5-year-old son, Angel Luis, walked across the border.
Grass, a career mechanic, martial arts expert and former naval engineering student in Cuba, found a steady job in Miami at one of the Maroone Chevrolet dealerships, where his bosses supported his efforts to build a replica.
The project began two years ago with a hunt for a similar pickup truck in Miami. They found the truck, abandoned, at a garage in northwest Miami.
''It was curious, because the owner didn't want to sell it. He said he knew perfectly about the story we lived through and that the least he could do was to give us the Chevy as a gift,'' recalled Grass, leaning against one of the air tanks installed on either side of the truck and needed to stabilize the vehicle at sea.
Grass did take it for a test drive in Lake Okeechobee.
''It navigated without any problems,'' he said.
The project to modify the truck cost more than $100,000. Grass' supervisors are convinced that the investment was worthwhile.
''We did it with a lot of pride because we are part of the community. Now it is available to South Florida, where it has caused a great impression, because people stop by to take pictures and videos,'' said Rene Castillo, general manager of the Maroone Chevrolet dealership.
The amphibious vehicle will remain on open display -- unless extraordinary circumstances occur, such as a regime change in Cuba.
''In that case, I would like to make the ocean voyage and enter through Hemingway Marina,'' Grass said.