Another inspiring exile story

Slowly but steadily the Miami New Times, a local Miami alternative weekly newspaper has evolved from something I loved to hate to something I look forward to reading every week. Among the compelling things published in the New Times are profiles of people in our community that you would never hear about otherwise. I posted a while back about an article about Cuban-American chess players that are among the best in the nation.
In this week’s New Times, the beautiful and very talented Tamara Lush brings us the story of Joel Armas. Joel competes in a sport called Fin Swimming and is quite good at it.

Fin swimming is virtually unknown in America. A group of Ukrainian guys started it in 1972; it spread through Russia and China and then to Greece, France, and Italy. Folks in a handful of Pacific Rim countries now practice the sport, as do a few swimmers in California and Texas. Most Americans use the monofins for training — it’s a quick way of strengthening the leg muscles — or for free diving to crazy depths below the sea surface.

Photo credit: Jacqueline Carini

Of course, what’s really compelling is Armas’ personal story.

…Armas’s mother, Maria Hernandez, and several other family members decided to take to the sea to join Ceren in Florida. They organized a trip with a local boat captain. At 2:00 one early morning, Armas — who was about five years old at the time — and his family slogged through the mud of a mangrove to the beach. They didn’t want to take the road for fear of being detected. They arrived at the boat just as the police did. The captain turned out to be a snitch.
Armas remembers the next few hours clearly: “They took us to the police station; then they gathered the whole town. People started throwing rocks at us, calling us gusanos (worms), screaming, “kill ’em, kill ’em.”
Armas’s mother was fired from her teaching job and sent to work in the sugar cane fields. His grandfather was ordered to clean sewers. At school, kids jeered him. “I was confused,” Armas says. “All I knew was that we were trying to follow my father.”

Later Armas got into swimming and his natural talent got him some perks but at a price.

He trained six-plus hours a day. “I never had a childhood,” he says. “I never had a chance to play with toys. All I knew was to be a champion.”
When Armas turned 16, he stood five feet 11 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Yet his times weren’t improving in the pool. He was exhausted and angry — about his father having to leave, his mother’s banishment, the teasing, the constant scrutiny. He decided to quit swimming as soon as he finished high school.

Armas’ story, like so many others, becomes a story of escape from the “worker’s paradise.”

August 21, 1994: Armas remembers the full moon, the silence of the black water near Santa Cruz. He sat on a raft with 13 other adults and five children. They were all as soundless as the ocean.
They were on the ocean for 13 hours, never eating or sleeping. Armas stayed at the front of the raft as a lookout. On the 14th hour, a Coast Guard cutter spotted them. The others on the boat cried as they were loaded onto the ship; as it turned out, the rafters were only five miles from Key West.
Armas stayed at Guantánamo for 18 months and was one of the last to be granted permission to enter the United States.
In 2002 he won a Ford Focus on Sábado Gigante for singing. That same year he enrolled in firefighter-paramedic school and was hired by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
He was also a part-time lifeguard. One day in 2005 he was at Flamingo Pool in Miami Beach. He noticed a tall, bald guy swimming fast laps using a strange-looking fin, like a whale’s tail, unlike anything Armas had ever seen. The guy was Cayetano Garcia, a lifeguard on the beach and a fellow Cuban. “¿Puedo probar ésas monaletas?” Armas asked Garcia. Can I try those fins? Garcia said yes.
Under Garcia’s tutelage, Armas began to train for his first world competition in Ravenna, Italy; his daily routine was unlike the torturous regimen in Cuba. There was no one telling him what to do, what to eat, and how to think.
Armas came in 17th in that Italian competition and broke Garcia’s U.S. fin swimming record.

But here’s the part of the article that put a smile on my face:

At overseas competitions, everyone knows who he is. Standing six feet two inches tall and weighing 220 pounds, he makes most of the other swimmers look like Lilliputians. “I’m the Americano,” says Armas, grinning. “I’m not the best in the world, but I’m the most recognized.”
“I’m doing what my original country would never let me do,” says Armas. “I’m prouder to represent the United States, this country, than Cuba, my home country.”

Make sure to read the whole article here. And pick up the New Times. It comes out on Thursdays in Miami-Dade county.