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Sucker Catus

St. John USVI Stories: The Debt

by Gerald Singer ©2006

Ramiro was one of the lucky ones. He had a good steady job and all his papers were in order. On his way to work he would pass by the corner across from the Texaco station where a growing crowd of laborers, mostly from Santo Domingo and Haiti, stood around hoping for a day's work. When they saw Ramiro, faces would light up with smiles and there would be a flurry of warm and sincere greetings in Spanish and Creole. "Ramiro que pasa, como esta, mi amigo and bon jour mon ami."

They all knew Ramiro. He was a man who could be counted on when someone needed advise, moral support or, if possible, a few dollars to get them through the day.

Like most of the others Ramiro was from the Dominican Republic. He had lived in Samaná, a small city on the northeastern coast, where he worked as a bank manager for the equivalent of $125 a month.

Although Ramiro's wife had a fairly good job as a waitress in a restaurant that catered to transient foreign yachtsmen, there was never enough money to properly care for themselves and their three children, who were usually looked after by Ramiro's mother.

Their eldest daughter, Laura, needed frequent medical care and prescription medication to control the asthma that she had developed as a young girl. This, in addition to the basic needs of food and rent, sent the family into a spiraling debt to relatives, friends, hospitals and pharmacies. Political instability and the threat of a devaluation of the Dominican peso, which would result in even higher prices, only added to the family's worries. There seemed to be no way out.

Ramiro had an uncle who had left Santo Domingo some years before and was now earning a decent wage in a place called St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. The uncle had written Ramiro a letter and had intimated that if Ramiro could find his way to the Virgin Islands, the uncle would help him get settled and find a job.

Samaná is a popular jumping off point for Dominicans seeking illegal entry into the United States. Captains of small boats, called yolas, charge the equivalent of a half a half-year's salary for a promised safe delivery to the island of Puerto Rico, a United States Commonwealth that lay just on the other side of the infamous Mona Passage.

Compared to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico is a veritable land of opportunity. Whereas the average annual salary in Santo Domingo at that time was a scant $1,600 the average yearly wage in Puerto Rico was almost $9,000. Moreover, once in Puerto Rico one could travel to the United States mainland or to the Virgin Islands without passing through customs and immigration.

Unfortunately, the crossing was not only expensive, but also extremely dangerous.

The Mona Passage refers to the 80-mile stretch of water separating the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico. On the north is the Atlantic Ocean and on the south is the Caribbean Sea.

Although the Mona is in places 1,500 feet deep, it is not nearly as deep as either the Atlantic or Caribbean basins. Tides resulting from the gravitational pull of the moon bring water back and forth through the passage every six hours. The comparative shallowness of the passage often results in steep breaking waves.

On the Dominican side of the passage an even shallower bank, extending almost a third of the way across the passage averages only about 150 in depth, which further aggravates this condition causing even steeper waves along with strong, swirling and unpredictable tidal rip currents. Add to this, the fact that in order to reach Puerto Rico on the east, the yolas need to travel directly into the teeth of the ever-present trade winds, and that there is an almost constant haze in the air in this region so that you often cannot see land until you are just a few miles away, and you end up with one of the most treacherous ocean passages in the world.

Ramiro was well aware of the danger. His twenty year old cousin, Julieta, had made the trip and had survived only by the grace of God. She told Ramiro how she and 70 other passengers had paid 1,200 pesos each to make the crossing.

They were all crammed into a 38-foot boat powered by an old 65-horsepower outboard engine. There were so many aboard that they had to curl up in a fetal position just to fit in the boat. They remained like this for over 24 hours while the yola slowly crossed the passage, which was uncharacteristically calm that night and the following day. During the afternoon they approached the north coast of Puerto Rico.

Ominously, two large sharks trailed the slow moving craft. Although the sea was calm offshore, there was a ground sea that day, which meant that the smooth rounded swells offshore would become steep and eventually break as they reached the shallow waters near shore.

At one point the captain brought the yola, which being overloaded was riding low in the water, too close to shore. A steep wave caused two women passengers to fall into the sea. The captain brought the yola around to pick them up. Just then the motor stalled and the captain could not start it back up.

An onshore breeze slowly but surely brought the small craft closer and closer to shore and into the path of the breaking waves, until one of those waves capsized the boat.

Marta was one of the twenty seven confirmed survivors. All others were presumed drowned or eaten by the sharks. Julieta's arms still bear scars from the scratches she received as a drowning woman clawed furiously at her in a desperate panic to stay above the surface. Marta, along with the other survivors were arrested and sent back to Santo Domingo on an American Eagle flight. When an INS official asked her jokingly if she'd be coming back to Puerto Rico, Marta, despite the emotional and physical trauma she had so recently endured, smiled and answered, "Seguro que si," I sure will.

Today, Marta is living in the Bronx. She married a Puerto Rican, got her Green Card, went to beauty school and landed a job in a fashionable beauty salon in Manhattan.

Ramiro knew that making the proper choice as to captain and yola was all important. He asked around and came up with the name of one of the best and most respected captains in Samaná. It would cost quite a bit more, but Ramiro decided it was worth it.

The yola was seaworthy and would not be overloaded. The captain and crew were experienced with many successful crossings under their belts. Moreover, the captain took precautions to prevent interception by the US Coast Guard that had stepped up its surveillance of the Mona Passage in part to prevent illegal immigration, but more so for the "war on drugs."

The yola was painted seawater blue and all passengers were given blue T-shirts and blue hats in order to provide camouflage by day.

At night, they ran without lights. If a plane was heard flying overhead, they would soak blankets in seawater and place them over themselves and the outboard engines in order to foil the heat-detecting sensors used by Coast Guard aircraft patrolling the passage.

The trip would cost 1,000 USD. Ramiro and his wife scrimped and saved, borrowed and begged and after about eight months had finally put together enough money to make the trip and still have about $300 left over to get started once he arrived in Puerto Rico.

On a dark moonless night, Ramiro kissed his wife goodbye and he and 25 other Dominicans boarded the 33-foot yola, which quickly disappeared into the blackness of Samaná Bay.

The journey was uneventful. The seas were moderate and there were no incidents or encounters with the Coast Guard. By dawn the next morning they approached a secluded beach a little north of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning. The captain threw out an anchor and backed the boat close to shore. He raised the engines. A crewman got out and brought the stern of the craft into shallow water and then tied up to a nearby palm tree.

With a mixture of euphoric excitement and nervous apprehension, Ramiro grabbed his backpack containing his meager belongings and waded along with the other passengers onto the beach. Their instructions were to separate and to walk nonchalantly into town in groups of no more than three.

Running alongside the beach was a two-lane road. Upon reaching the road, the hopes and dream of the Dominican adventurers, were replaced by the nightmare image of over a dozen armed INS agents and Mayagüez police officers emerging from the bush on the other side of the road.

"Stop! Nobody move!" they shouted, as they began to circle the terrified Dominicans. Time stood still for Ramiro. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. He was not going to be sent back, no matter what the cost. Taking advantage of the confusion, he made a dash down the beach and then across the road.

"You! Halt or I'll shoot!" he heard. He sprinted headlong and barefoot into the tangled thorny brush on the other side of the road. Agave, cactus and thorny cassia awaited him.

His pack got caught in a tangle of vines and was pulled off Ramiro's shoulders. He kept going, his flesh torn and riddled with spines, until he could go no more. He lay on his stomach, held his breath and waited.

One policeman chased after him. He rummaged around in the bush by the side of the road shouting out threats.

"We know you're in there. Come out or else you're one dead dominicano."

Ramiro lay still. He didn't move or make a sound, praying to God that he wouldn't be found.

Fortunately for Ramiro, the policeman was bluffing. He and his fellow officers were satisfied with their haul and none of them of them wanted to deal with the cactus and agave for just one more Dominican. They let Ramiro be.

Ramiro waited for over an hour and heard nothing but the passage of one single vehicle, which drove down the road oblivious to Ramiro bleeding in the bush. After the vehicle passed, he made his move back to the road.

His pack was gone, probably taken by the police. It contained his money, his Dominican passport and other identification, his address book and his shoes and change of clothes. He couldn't go into Mayagüez looking like he did, no shoes, clothes torn, bleeding and covered with protruding cactus spines. Ramiro realized that he was in big trouble.

Just then, a pickup truck came around the bend and the driver, seeing the barefoot and bloody figure standing by the side of the road, brought his vehicle to a stop.

"You over there; what are you doing, es dominicano? Are you Dominican?" he called out from the window.

"No sir," Ramiro gasped, wondering whether to run for it again.

"Don't lie to me," said the driver. "Get in. It's alright, come with me, I'll help you. Don't be afraid"

Ramiro took a chance. He got in the pick up. The driver headed off down the road and introduced himself with what Ramiro thought was the appropriate name of Angel Carmona, because that was just what Ramiro needed now, an angel.

Angel wife, Carmelita was a dominicana. She worked in Mayagüez and through her Angel had made many Dominican friends and acquaintances. He understood their plight and had sympathy for them.

Angel had resisted the temptation to leave his land to find work in the city. He and Carmelita lived in a modest house in the country where Angel continued to operate a small farm, growing coffee and raising animals.

It was about an hour's drive from the coast over some rugged roads. When they got there, Carmelita, spend about three hours picking cactus spines out of Ramiro and washing and disinfecting his wounds. Nevertheless, Ramiro swelled up like a balloon and got a fever, which Carmelita treated with antibiotic pills and painkillers that she had left over from when she had an infected tooth that had to be pulled.

In a few days Ramiro was feeling better. One evening, after finishing Carmelita's lovingly prepared dinner of chicken with peas and rice, served along with a delicious sufrito and a slice of fresh avocado, Angel looked Ramiro in the eye and spoke.

"Ramiro, you're just about better now and if you want to move on, I can lend you enough to get you to St. Thomas, but I warn you that life is not that easy for the illegal alien there. You may or may not find work and if you do, it will probably not be steady. There are lots of fellows like you in the Virgin Islands now and its tough to find a place to live and everything is very expensive there. If you would like I offer you this. You can stay here and help me work the land, I can't pay you very much, but you won't have to worry about food and rent. Meanwhile you can save up your salary and send some money to your family in Samaná. There's no commitment. You can always change your mind and try your luck elsewhere. No problem."

Ramiro thought for just a second and then accepted Angel's offer. He began work that very day.

Ramiro became like part of the family. He was a hard worker and a good man, and he sincerely appreciated all that Angel and Carmelita were doing for him. One evening, after Ramiro had been staying with the Carmonas for about four months, Carmelita burst into the house and announced that she had exciting news.

"Look what it says here in the newspaper," she exclaimed, "Amnesty, I've been hearing about this for months, but I never really believed that they'd do it. But, Ramiro, It's true. Listen to this."

"Under the amnesty provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, illegal aliens who have lived continuously in the United States since before January 1, 1982, can now apply to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for legal resident status."

"Ramiro, do you know what this means? You can get your papers. You can be legal."

"But Carmelita, this does not apply to me. It's for people who have been living here since before 1982. I just got here this year."

"This year," said Carmelita with a smile. "Are you sure? Angel, how long has Ramiro been working for us? He says less than a year. Is that so?"

"Let me think," said Angel. "No, I believe Ramiro has been here in Puerto Rico for at least five years. I remember he arrived here in 1981. Isn't that so Carmelita?"

"Yes, Angel. I remember too it was in 1981." Carmelita turned to Ramiro and asked, isn't that so Ramiro?"

Ramiro's face lit up in a broad happy smile, "Gracias! Muchas gracias. How can I ever repay you?"

Ramiro will never forget Angel's answer.

"Don't worry my friend. You can repay us by helping others and in this small way we create a better world."

The next morning Carmelita called some of her Dominican friends who explained the details of the amnesty. They recommended an attorney, who they called and set up an appointment for the following day. It took somewhat over six months and the filing of more papers than are contained in the combined volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but Ramiro was able to get his green card.

Ramiro later moved to St. Thomas and then to St. John. He worked hard and saved his money and eventually was able to bring over his wife and children. All are prospering in their new home. Ramiro's wife is working at a hotel on the island and often makes more money in a day than she did in two months in Santo Domingo, one of their sons is working as an electrician's apprentice on St. Thomas and the other is a graphic designer working for a magazine in Miami. Ramiro's daughter, Laura, is in her second year of medical school at New York University.

Every day, Ramiro makes it his duty to pay off a portion of his debt to the Carmonas. Sometimes he does this in little ways by really trying to make every interaction with those who he comes in contact with each day a positive and beneficial experience by always being respectful, understanding and kind. He has also been known to help in big ways by finding someone a job, a place to live, or by offering a helping hand or a few dollars when he can afford it.

The strange thing that Ramiro has discovered about this particular debt is that the more he pays, the richer he becomes.

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