Young Cuban rafter who played Star-Spangled Banner on boat is now a mom and teacher in Hialeah
Posted on Sunday, 08.31.14
Young Cuban rafter who played Star-Spangled Banner on boat is now a mom
and teacher in Hialeah
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
Lizbet Martínez, the Cuban rafter girl who warmed the hearts of U.S.
Coast Guard officers and many others across the nation 20 years ago with
her rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, still has the violin that
made her famous.
Martínez, then 12 years old, became the endearing face of a successful
campaign to bring other children out of Guantánamo refugee camps and
into “the land of the brave and home of the free.”
She was among more than 30,000 Cubans rescued in the Florida Straits
during a one-month summer exodus from Cuba that became known as the
rafter, or balsero, crisis.
Today, she’s a Florida International University graduate with a music
degree, teaches preschool children in Hialeah and is raising two kids of
her own as a working mom.
But it was the events of two decades ago that made her a part of South
Martínez, who traveled on a makeshift raft with her parents and 10
others, became so famous that she was invited to Tallahassee to play
before then-President Bill Clinton, and was honored by Florida lawmakers
who declared March 29, 1995, as “Lizbet Martínez Day.”
During her encounter with Clinton, Martínez handed the president a
ceramic angel and a postcard asking him to “open his heart” and help the
Cuban children who were then still in camps in Guantánamo and Panama. In
return, she received Clinton’s promise that the children would be
“relocated in the very near future.”
Indeed, the last of the Cuban balseros left the refugee camps in May
1995. Most ultimately made it to the United States under a new
immigration accord that put an end to the mass exodus and required that
most of those interdicted at sea be returned to Cuba to apply for a visa
at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Known as the wet-foot, dry-foot
policy, those who set foot on U.S. land were allowed to remain in the
“When I left Guantánamo [five months after being intercepted at sea],
there were still many children there because the first who were able to
leave were those with medical problems,” said Martínez, now a teacher at
a preschool in Hialeah. “And that was my plea to Clinton.
“In Guantánamo, we received an identification band that looked like a
watch, and I told him I would not take it off until the last person was
out,” Martínez said. “And I kept my promise. When the last lady got off
the plane, she cut it off, a year later.”
What she remembers most from her departure by sea was “the uncertainty
of not knowing if we were going to be rescued. We were so eager to leave
Cuba behind, but once you find yourself alone at sea, that’s when you
begin to really pray to God. Thank God, we were rescued at 4 in the
Before the family left Cuba, Martínez was studying violin at the
Alejandro García Caturla conservatory in Havana. She learned how to play
The Star-Spangled Banner, thinking it was a religious hymn, until her
uncle, who is Major League Baseball fan, warned her about the song’s
“When we were rescued, they wanted to throw all the contents from the
raft and they wanted to throw out my violin,” Martínez said. “They did
not know Spanish, and we did not speak English, but I figured they would
know the American national anthem. So that’s when I got my violin and
began to play it. They were super-impressed.”
“The captain was so moved that he transmitted what she was playing over
the radio to all the other cutters in the area,” Martínez’s father,
Jorge Martinez, said in 2003, when the violinist graduated with a music
degree from Florida International University.
Upon her arrival to the United States, Martínez recalls the many Cuban
exile activities she took part in and a community that treated her with
“great affection.” Among the many people who reached out was
Cuban-American singer Willy Chirino, who gave her a $3,000 scholarship
to help pay for college.
Now settled into her new life in America, Martínez hesitates when asked
whether she would put her two children on a raft to an uncertain future.
“Back then, we were told that the U.S. Coast Guard was 12 miles off the
Cuban coast,” Martínez said. “They were well past the 12 miles, but
luckily nothing happened to us. Thank God, I am not in the position of
having to make that decision, because it is a very difficult one. But I
am very grateful to my parents, who left their own parents behind, so
that I could live in freedom.”
While the little Cuban violist received much acclaim and made headlines
all over the world, her story is not known in Cuba. The
government-controlled media never published a word.
Over the past two decades, she has returned several times to visit
family members still on the island.
“One yearns to return because it your homeland, because you miss your
family so much,” Martínez said. “And then, when you arrive, when the
plane lands and you get off and say to yourself, ‘I’m standing in Cuba
again,’ that, for me, is a miracle. Even though it has the problems it
has, it is the country where you were born, it’s your culture. I know
there are many people who think one should not go, but I still have my
At FIU, Martínez earned a degree as a violin soloist, but no longer
performs for large audiences. She also has stopped teaching music due to
cuts in school programs. But she continues to play at her church and at
small events such as weddings, adding that in today’s economic climate
there is more demand for DJs than for a string quartet.
“I can play in front of thousands of people, but during auditions in
front of a panel of judges, my nerves betray me,” Martínez said with a
chuckle, adding that beyond nerves the opportunities for those who play
classical music are limited.
Among her favorites is the music of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and
although she rarely plays such complex pieces she enjoys the music in
her preschool classes. “I like the reaction people have to the music,”
Martínez keeps the violin she brought from Cuba preserved at home as
part of her history.
“In fact, it started to come apart because of the salt during the trip
on the raft. But a priest in Guantánamo gave us glue and we were able to
fix it,” she said as she picked up another violin. “I have never been
ashamed to say that I came on a raft and I am proud to be a balsera, truly.”
With that, she began to play a popular Cuban melody: the danzonete.
Source: Young Cuban rafter who played Star-Spangled Banner on boat is
now a mom and teacher in Hialeah – Miami-Dade – MiamiHerald.com –