Mary Burks’ fourth grade Guy Benjamin School class found something they weren’t expecting during their Coastweeks cleanup of Brown Bay — a Cuban immigrant coming ashore to freedom.
The class was at Brown Bay with V.I. National Park Education Specialist Laurel Brannick during V.I. Coastweeks in September when a man wearing flip flops, a bathing suit and a baseball hat suddenly appeared on the beach.
“Mary had told the kids ahead of time that there might be a lot of clothes on the beach from immigrants who don’t have a good life in their country and want to be American,” said Brannick. “Sure enough, we see jackets, jeans and shoes, when all of a sudden this guy walks up the beach from nowhere. We didn’t see a boat or plane — he just showed up.”
The man was carrying an oar without its paddle when he approached the group of students.
“In broken English, he asked us where he was and if this was St. John,” said Brannick. “When we told him it was, he almost started to cry. He was saying, ‘I’m free!’ and giving us the thumbs up.”
The group found out the man’s name was Ryan Lopez, and that he had come to the U.S. Virgin Islands all the way from Cuba.
“He was telling us, ‘You don’t know what life is like in Cuba with Fidel Castro,’” said Brannick. “We asked him how he got here and he said, ‘My own power.’ My jaw could have hit the floor.”
Lopez was able to relay his story to a Spanish-speaking student in the class. The Cuban immigrant traveled to St. Maarten, then Tortola via a boat. He then blew up an inflatable kayak he brought with him from Cuba and paddled toward St. John.
“It got a couple holes in it, so he ditched it when he got close to St. John and just swam in,” said Brannick. “He told us he’s a pharmacist, but he had no future in Cuba. He said we were his guardian angels.”
The class managed to relate to Lopez how to make his way to the Immigration and Naturalization Service district office at Nisky Center on St. Thomas, where he was processed. Brannick later called a Cuban friend who lives on St. Thomas to tell her the story, only to discover her friend had taken Lopez in and helped him contact his father, who escaped from Cuba to Miami 20 years ago. Lopez has since traveled to Miami to be with his father, according to Brannick.
Thanks to the U.S.’s “wet foot, dry foot” rule, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to remain in the country. Those who are caught at sea must return to Cuba.