The Mona Passage, the strait between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, is a dangerous place. It is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea in a swirl of currents that are among the most difficult and treacherous to navigate in the world.
On top of that, the waters are swarming with sharks.
It is certainly no place you would want to find yourself in an open boat, let alone one with 40 or 50 other people in it. Yet it is in this dangerous passage that thousands of Cubans, Dominicans, and other Latino emigrants roll the dice every day in hopes of landing on Mona Island and eventually entering the United States. Some of them pay with their lives.
It is a dangerous trip to be sure. The boats themselves are homemade, really nothing more than big rowboats. Needless to say, these creaky yolas, as they are called, are often not up to the conditions that the treacherous passage routinely dishes out. Hundreds of people have drowned trying to cross the strait.
But the passage is more than just dangerous, it is also expensive. In fact, Dominican smugglers routinely charge those seeking a better life some $2,500 per person. That would be cheap if you’re a Cuban. Smugglers charge them some $4,000 each.
For most of these desperate travelers it is everything they have. But to those who have made it across and miraculously managed to land on Mona Island, it is worth every penny.
Hilda Barbara Iglesias was one such lucky traveler.
Soaked and freezing, she and her family are among the few that made it. On the way they endured a harrowing 12-hour trip, including monstrous 18-foot swells that nearly sank their open boat.
But as dangerous as the trip was, the Iglesias family had their reasons. After all, they are Cubans. They knew exactly what it meant to live under oppression. Upon landing, Mrs. Iglesias had this to say: "I remember when the guard said to us, don’t worry-you are on free land . . . what a relief those words were."
She and her family have since moved on to Miami, courtesy of a Cuban exile group in Puerto Rico.
Their perilous journey was a lot like the one our own ancestors made some 400 years ago. Like the Iglesias family, our forerunners left home with practically nothing. They boarded boats and hunkered down for a long trip into the unknown. Great numbers died along the way, but some of them lived to see land again. And when they landed they found freedom too.
But freedom isn’t their only legacy. They eventually founded a country. A country like no other. A country not based on birth and privilege but on an idea.
That idea, of course, is best summed up by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote these famous words that became part of the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
They were stirring words then and they remain so to this day. It was these words that gave birth to the nation that so many risk their lives to get to every day. And what a nation it is.
That’s because the United States is a nation like no other. Not only do we fight to protect and defend freedom, but we are free in ways that others are not.
Free to think, free to create, free to work, free to learn and free to earn.
It is because of this that we really do live in the land of opportunity, despite what some would have you believe.
And it all started with groups of people who were brave enough to get on boats at the risk of their very lives in search of a dream.
Some landed in Jamestown, some landed in Maryland, and some landed at Plymouth Rock, the site of the first Thanksgiving.
But no matter where they landed, they all found the same thing-freedom.
Just like Mrs. Iglesias.
It is a gift to be thankful for and it is the right of those lucky enough to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
It may occasionally get rough here now and then, but at least nobody in America today is getting into a boat and heading out on to a dangerous sea because of it.