Where there’s a will…Makeshift Freedom
Makeshift chugs meant hope of freedom for those fleeing Cuba.
By Janet Scherberger
In 1998, when Ivan Torres was 19, he set out from Cuba in a makeshift boat, headed for a better life in the United States. Caught by the Cuban Coast Guard, he ended up in jail in Cuba for more than two years.
But he didn’t abandon his dream of living in America.
On his 16th attempt, he finally landed on the Florida shore near Key West after a 39-hour voyage. He captained the boat, with his brother, cousin, his cousin’s wife and five friends as passengers. Under U.S. policy, they were permitted to stay. Now, 10 years later, he is the 41-year-old owner of a computer animation business in Tampa. “I was born again here,” says Torres. “Everything is better. You can work. You have more freedom.”
The boat that Torres and his brother cobbled together using a 1.4 cylinder engine from a Fiat Punto for power and flotation devices made from tarps fashioned into cylinders and filled with expanding foam for a time was on display at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden. It was part of the Garden’s Cuban Chugs exhibit, showcasing 10 vessels that carried Cubans to freedom in the United States. Torres told his story in February as part of the Garden’s speaker series, which is supported with a $3,500 Community Project Grant from Florida Humanities. Florida Humanities also awarded the Garden a $10,250 grant in 2020 to develop self-guided tour materials and upgrade signage and landscaping for the Cuban Chugs exhibit. “For a long time these were considered junk,” Garden director Misha McRae says of the boats “But we’ve been telling people no, these are cultural heritage. They explain something.”
Known as chugs, some are old fishing boats, others are handmade from found materials like aluminium siding and tire tubing and powered by salvaged automobile or lawn mower engines.
“They literally made a chug, chug, chug chug noise. That’s how they got the name,” says McRae.
These vessels and their discarded contents, from medicine to children’s backpacks, offer rare insights into the lives of refugees and the social and economic conditions in Cuba.
“You start to get an idea of how desperate they must have been, to decide to cross with 20 people crammed into a boat the size of a Honda Civic,” says Joshua Marano, maritime archaeologist at the National Park Service (NPS), which also provides financial support to the exhibit. “Not a lot of people really want to talk about that horrendous journey, but these vessels are now tools for discussion.”
The significance of the chugs hit home for McRae when he learned the story of one woman who escaped from Cuba to Florida in 2010 with her son and grandson in a boat made from styrofoam, tarp and rebar.
“All I could think was they thought their best chance for their future and survival was to cross the Florida Strait in this thing. They were so desperate to enjoy the freedom that we have in this country,” he says. “As an American I had been taking my freedom for granted. To go through this to get out of Cuba—it was very impactful.”
The watercraft are displayed among the Cuban Palms section of the Botanical Garden, which spreads out over 15 acres and includes more than 547 different kinds of plants.
“We’re about the plants and animals,” McRae says. “But those chugs have more photos taken of them than any other tree on our property.”
Visit keywest.garden for more information on the exhibit and the presentation by Torres and Marano.
Featured image: Nine people traveled from Cuba to the United States in this makeshift boat cobbled together with a 1.4 cylinder car engine for power and flotation devices made from tarps fashioned into cylinders and filled with expanding foam. Photo courtesy of Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.
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