Argelio del Valle had no plan. All his best ideas had failed him. A 29-year-old mechanic, he had dreamed up several elaborate
plots to leave Cuba. But something always went wrong. In the worst instance, he and his friends were caught and put under
house arrest. So when he took a 40-minute bus ride from his town of El Cotorro to Havana in the spring of 1980, he had no
plan. He was only curious.
He had heard there was a ruckus at the Peruvian Embassy in the upscale Miramar neighborhood. Days earlier, a bus loaded
with 12 asylum-seeking Cubans crashed a bus through the embassy gates, setting off a frenzy that left one guard dead. That
morning, in retaliation, Fidel Castro withdrew police protection. Cubans from all over were heading inside. Del Valle wanted
to scope out the scene.
But when his bus got to Havana, del Valle realized he had reached a point of no return. He saw swarms of Cubans in the
streets. When the driver stopped the bus two blocks from the embassy, everybody bolted - even the bus driver.
For del Valle, it was the chance he dreamed of. He had felt marginalized for too many years in his homeland because he
refused to be a Communist true believer. He says the government blocked his educational opportunities and his aspirations
of becoming an engineer and routinely harassed him.
So that day, del Valle and his best friend, Antonio, joined the throngs rushing toward the embassy gates.
"I realized that if I didn't go in at that very minute, I would lose the chance to escape Cuba," recalls del Valle, now
58, a West Palm Beach auto mechanic. "I knew we were risking getting shot or arrested. But in times like that, when you see
people marching so heroically, courage is contagious."
It was a day like today, 27 years ago this month. Little did he imagine that he would come to take part in a massive, chaotic
exodus that would bring 125,000 Cuban refugees from Port Mariel to South Florida shores. And he could not imagine all the
dramatic ways his life would change. But he was a chess player, and he knew he had to make his move.
On a recent night, del Valle sat in his West Palm Beach home and recounted the grueling span of days he spent in the Peruvian
Embassy, his voyage to Key West aboard a crammed boat and his first taste of American freedom.
The first roadblock of his journey came in the form of government-sponsored mobs who beat and harassed those trying to
enter the embassy.
"I wasn't overly valiant, but I decided I would go through whatever I had to," he says. "The human avalanche was such that
I just put my hands on the fence, and it was like I was lifted from the ground and carried over the fence. Behind me, there
were people for as far as I could see. It was like an ant hill."
10,800 Cubans at embassy
It was April 4, 1980. Within 48 hours, there would be 10,800 Cubans packed inside the Peruvian Embassy.
Days later, a Time magazine article described the scene this way:
"Some of the fortunate found relief from the tropical sun under the spreading leaves of mango trees in the embassy gardens.
But others were overcome by sunstroke and dehydration. Dozens of children lay sprawled on the cool terrazzo floor of the two-story
mansion. ... 'There are people in the branches of the trees, on top of the mangled iron gate and even on the roof of the embassy,'
wailed one beleaguered Peruvian official. 'There's not enough room for one more person.'"
Del Valle says he had only enough room to stand or crouch in one spot.
"We couldn't walk or do anything else," he says.
The following days were spent with no food or water. Instead of relief, the Cuban government gave them nonstop propaganda.
"They put these blaring loud speakers outside the embassy and terrorized us day and night, saying no country would take
us in," he recalls. "Many people started to lose faith. A week into the ordeal, some people left."
Del Valle says there was no water for about eight days. Then, when the water came, there was no food. And when the food
came, there wasn't nearly enough.
"They brought in these little boxes of rice and beans. But they only brought 500 of them. They would put one out in front
of hundreds of people and start a frenzy," he says.
Because he could never get a grip on one of those little meal boxes, del Valle would spend 19 days without food. He learned
some creative ways to stave off hunger.
"We stripped the bark from the trees to make fire. We took some discarded cans from the trash and made little cooking pots,"
The refugees took the leaves of the mango and orange trees and boiled them in water.
"The leaves made this green liquid that tasted horrible, but it was something warm in your stomach," he says.
When the Cuban government started to offer "safe conduct" passes for those wishing to leave the embassy, the Peruvian ambassador
issued a warning: If you leave here, you do so at your own risk. On the other hand, he could not offer the refugees food or
"So it was either die of hunger or accept the safe conduct pass. It was an enormous risk and we were very fearful. But
after 14 days of not eating, my friend Antonio could no longer get up. So he said he would take the safe conduct pass. He
didn't want to die of hunger," del Valle says. "I tried to hold on a little longer."
But on April 23, when his hunger-induced hallucinations became too severe, he decided it was time to leave the embassy.
Two days earlier, he had turned 30 years old.
After getting processed and told he would be allowed to leave the country by Cuban officials, del Valle went home for a
few days to say goodbye to his aging father. It would be the last time they embraced.
"I was already on a blacklist in Cuba. If I had stayed there, what would have become of my life?" says del Valle, who has
never returned to the island.
Days later, at Port Mariel, del Valle was placed aboard a severely overloaded 70-foot yacht. He arrived in Key West on
the morning of May 4.
Because he was a single man traveling alone and had no family in the United States, he was sent to Eglin Air Force Base
in Pensacola to wait for a sponsor. It didn't take too long for one to arrive. He was sponsored by a Cuban-American couple
in Miami. They had met through mutual friends. Within two weeks of arriving at their home, del Valle had a job and a new life.
But as he took in the widespread Cuban influences in Miami, he also had a revelation:
"I thought to myself, 'If I stay here, I'm going to be 80 years old and still not know English,'" he recalls.
So he called his friend Antonio, who had gone to live with an uncle in Georgia, and asked if he could join him. Days later,
he was in Atlanta, sharing a job and an empty apartment with Antonio. They worked as maintenance men for an apartment complex,
where they rented an inexpensive place. Gradually, they furnished the apartment with discards left behind by former tenants.
On nights and weekends, del Valle took a gig singing in a trio at a local Mexican restaurant. And this is where his American
adventure got even more interesting.
As he sang one night, he caught sight of a young, attractive woman in the restaurant. Her name was Socorro, and he was
smitten. He had all kinds of love songs for her.
"Mira que eres linda, que preciosa eres ..."
How beautiful and precious you are.
Peru factors in again
As fate would have it, she was Peruvian. So once again, del Valle, alone in a new world, took refuge in Peru. They were
married a year later.
By that time, he was immersed in learning English. He carried around a phrase book everywhere and started taking classes
at Georgia State University. Eventually, he would earn a degree in data processing from Oglethorpe University, a private liberal
arts college in Atlanta.
He made a living as a mechanic specializing in luxury foreign cars. But after several years of living in the United States,
he felt a need to write the story of his final days in Cuba. So he began to write a book he called Days of the Embassy.
He wrote it under the name Alejandrin, his childhood nickname. Next month, on the 27th anniversary of his arrival in America,
the book will be released by a local, independent publisher.
"I wrote the book because every time I talked to American friends about all the things we went through, they would say,
'That's incredible. I've never heard that before.' That's why I wrote it in English," says del Valle, who moved to Palm Beach
County in the 1990s because he and Socorro wanted to be closer to family. Del Valle now has a sister, two brothers, nephews
and nieces living in South Florida.
When he talks about the events of spring 1980, del Valle is clearly moved. There are so many memories to process, so many
details to relive.
But, as he concludes in his book, he would do it all over again.
"If I had to go through another ordeal like the one I went through to continue living as I do, I would not hesitate. I
would do it with even more determination, because now I know what freedom is."
courtesy of Palm Beach Post