Jose Hernandez finds a new life in America; freedom is truly worth the wait


Editor’s Note: Jose Hernandez is a guest services supervisor at Belterra Casino Resort and Spa. It’s a position that he has held since June of 2005, but it is also another step in his journey – physical and emotional – to achieve all of the opportunities that are set before him. In this second part of this series, readers will see that being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard marks only the beginning of his journey to a new life.

The rescue

All great achievements require time.

– Maya de Angelou

Moving from his makeshift raft to a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft carrier, Jose Hernandez and his fellow refugees found themselves in the middle of a hoard of others who had also been rescued from the sea. The members of the ship’s crew spoke Spanish, which calmed the fears of Jose and his fellow refugees, and the sailors began to explain the process of what would come next.

“All along the deck where the planes would land were lines and lines of tents,” Jose Hernandez said. “They gave us some food and a shot for our health, and gave us a tent to sleep in.”

The Coast Guard also made sure that no one else would use the raft that Jose and his friends had made. Driving near it bobbing in the ocean, machine guns from the ship blew the raft to bits.

“It was a strange thing to see,” Jose Hernandez said. “All of our work for a raft that had kept us alive was all blown up.”

Jose and his fellow Cubans stayed on the ship for nearly two days, regaining their health and stamina. The group had rowed to within 12 miles of Key West, Florida, but instead of continuing north, they were informed that they had to be taken to a military base for processing, so the carrier headed south – back to Cuba.

The ship took the refugees to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, an American military base and detainment camp that is located on the Southeastern tip of Cuba and encompasses about 45 square miles.

Although relations with Cuba on any level are forbidden by the U.S. Government, the Guantanamo Bay base is still under the control of the United States. This country controls the land because of a lease signed at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1903, but the Cuban Government fails to recognize the lease – which has created a great deal of tension since Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba.

A renegotiated lease in 1934 sets the annual lease payment for the rights to the land at $4,085, and there are currently just over 9,500 American troops stationed there.

So, although Jose Hernandez and his fellow refugees were basically back where they started from; the one huge difference was that they were on American-held soil.

Even though they were in American hands, conditions at Guantanamo Bay were horrible.

“We had no clothes, no shoes to wear,” Jose Hernandez said. “We rarely took showers because there were fights. There were fights to use the bathroom. There were fights to eat. We slept in tents and ate military food.”

A big part of the problem came from overcrowding. Guantanamo Bay was designed to detain 12,000 rafters, but when Jose Hernandez was there, there were 32,000 refugees on the grounds.

With overcrowding a real problem, the first few days at Guantanamo Bay were spent trying to figure out what was going on and who you could trust.

There was, however, one piece of good news for Jose.

“People were working as a reunification group trying to find members of families,” he said. “When I got there, I filled out a form about my brother, and the next day they told me that he was in Camp Alpha, while I was in Camp Delta. It took another two days before I was able to see my brother, but it was the first time that I knew that he had made it, too.”

The reunion was emotional.

“When we first saw each other, we gave each other a hug that must have lasted two or three minutes. We cried. We ate together. It was like we were young again,” Jose Hernandez said. “I stayed the whole day with him. We talked like it was the first time we had ever met. We couldn’t believe that we both made it. We were walking around holding hands. We couldn’t believe it.”

That was the last time that Jose Hernandez and his brother would be apart.

But the processing of the refugees was a long one, and with the overflow of people, it got even longer. Because of a longstanding agreement between Cuba and the United States, each country had agreed to return to the other country any refugee who had plotted against their own government. Before any Cubans could be allowed to be processed into the United States, American officials had to get clearance from the Cuban government that they had not been political activists.

Sounds easy enough, but because there are no formal relations between the two countries, American officials would ask the Mexican government for the information; and Mexico would then ask Cuba; who would in turn relay the information to Mexico, and on to America.

This process also caused several problems.

Once the Cuban government got the list of names, it knew who had left the country, which left their families in peril. Jose Hernandez said that his parents lost their jobs when the government found out that their two sons had left.

The overcrowding continued, too, and Jose Hernandez said that many of the refugees were told that they were being transferred to a detainment center on a military base in Panama – and he and his brother were among those leaving.

The brothers would spend the next nine months in Panama before returning to Guantanamo Bay, and that would result in another nine months of waiting.

It had now been 18 months since Jose Hernandez was pulled from the Gulf of Mexico by the Coast Guard. Soon they were told that a lottery would be held to see which people would go to America first – and soon Jose and Ricardo Hernandez were on their way to Homestead, Florida.

A new birthday

We can do anything we want if we stick to it long enough.

– Helen Keller

Jose and Ricardo Hernandez had an aunt already living in Miami, Florida, and when the brothers stepped off of the plane and onto American soil, their family was waiting on them.

“It was September 7th, 1998,” Jose Hernandez said. “That’s when I was born again. That’s when my life began, because it was my first day in the United States.”

Still speaking only Spanish, Jose and his brother stayed with their aunt for a few months. Now legal immigrants to this country, the Hernandez brothers received food stamps and Medicare benefits from the government for a short time until they could find jobs.

Jose Hernandez got a job unloading boxes from semi trucks, and used part of his salary to help his aunt with the rent and expenses. Jose’s cousin spoke English, so Jose also began to learn the language of his new country; as well as getting educated into all aspects of American society.

With Miami filled with Spanish-speaking residents, Jose Hernandez decided that if he was truly going to fulfill all of his dreams in his new home, he had to find a place to live that was more typical of America.

“I didn’t like Miami,” he said. “It was too Spanish speaking and I knew that in order to have opportunities to get a better job, you had to learn the language.”

So Jose Hernandez went to the U.S. Immigration office and told them that he’d like to move, and the officials gave him a couple of days to choose a new place to live. After some thought, he told them that he would like to live in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I still didn’t speak English, so the government gave me one month’s rent on an apartment and some food stamps for food until I found a job,” Jose Hernandez said. “I got a job as a roofer and in a warehouse. I also washed dishes in a restaurant.”

But living in America was only part of Jose Hernandez’s American dream.

Still learning the language, on August 6th, 2000, he enrolled for classes at Sullivan University in Louisville. He began studying for a BA in business administration with hopes of working in the hospitality industry. At the end of his first semester at Sullivan, he earned a spot on the dean’s list – and still couldn’t speak English.

“I had learned German in eight months when I was sent there by the Cuban government, so I began to teach myself English the same way that I had learned German. I worked hard at night to learn to speak English.”

Working hard to do well in his courses, Jose Hernandez graduated from Sullivan University in December of 2004. Now speaking English, Jose Hernandez also taught himself to use a computer and how to write in English, and was assimilating himself into all aspects of American life.

He put in an online application for a job at Belterra Casino Resort and Spa, and shortly thereafter he was hired in June of 2005. He works third shift, starting at midnight, but you won’t hear Jose Hernandez complain about his nighttime hours.

“I love this country and I love my job,” he says. “America is everything that I thought it would be and more because of the opportunities that you have. Here, you can be anything you want to be.”

But from Cuba to Switzerland County?

“It’s a great place to be,” Jose Hernandez says. “Very friendly. A very warm place. Everybody helps you and wants to give you a hand. It’s a quiet place, and I love it here.”

He also stays in communication with his family back in Cuba, although he’s not allowed to visit them. He mails his family money every two weeks, which allows his brother to have a bicycle and a Nintendo – and his mother gets to watch color television.

“My mama is treated like a queen because we help her economically with American money,” Jose says. “American money is also helping the Cuban economy.”

Jose is also working toward the day that his family will be able to join him here. He said that his mother will be able to come to the United States when she turns 62, but that’s more than two years away. Once she is here, they will begin the process of bringing his younger brother, Damberto, here; and his father would then follow.

A written legacy

Become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise you sight and see possibilities – always see them, for they are always there.

– Norman Vincent Peale

So driven by his dreams and goals, Jose Hernandez also sees the need to remember the events which brought him to this place at this time. While still in college, he began to pen a book of his experiences. “The Final Odyssey: How to row your own boat 90 miles” is the result of that work, in which Jose shares his struggles and his insights. The book was published by Cork Hill Press in Indianapolis, and is available through various outlets.

About 20 copies of the book are available to be checked out at the Switzerland County Public Library in Vevay.

“I wrote the book because, when I have a family, I want to share that with them,” Jose Hernandez says. “I want to show them what I went through to get to America. To show them how they have what they have. That way they won’t take it for granted.”

Jose says that the book is a motivational way of expressing to people that when difficulties come in life, each of us needs to use those difficulties to grow.

“You can accomplish everything if you are determined to take a risk for what you want to be in life,” he says. “You are a reflection of what you are. You can be anything you want to be in life.”


Ambition is rated by what you finish, not what you start.

– Author unknown

It’s now been a decade since Jose Hernandez climbed on that raft and began his odyssey to America. He admits that he still has emotions when he thinks about his journey; but prefers to look forward to his next set of goals, including earning his master’s degree and starting a family.

But he is mindful of those eight oil barrels, pieces of foam rubber and netting, and those larger inner tubes that came together to form his vessel to a new life.

“It seems like it was yesterday,” Jose Hernandez says. “It seem like I am still on the raft sometimes. Every time I have problems, I think about that time I spent on the raft. I thank God for giving me those difficulties and problems because He know that I had the resolve to come to the U.S. and make it. I’m living my dream.”