By Zoe Davis, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Lídice [left] and me in Miami in Sept. 2016 when we reconnected after she’d been in the US for 10 months.

I’m anxiously waiting for Lídice to walk through the restaurant door. It’s been less than a year since I first met her in Cuba. Yet since then, she has left Cuba for good to move to the U.S.

My dad and I are on a stopover in Miami with others from his company before heading to Cuba the next morning. This is my first time in Miami and I’m struck by its “Cuban-nes,” as Spanish is spoken all around me. The food and vibe of the Cuban restaurant feels authentic. As we listen to the live band and snack on croquetas, I adjust my camera settings, intent on capturing the moment.

I met Lídice in Havana when I was a high school senior. My dad is a musician and was doing a cultural exchange project with college and university music students.

In November of my freshman year of college, Lídice and 36 other Cuban cultural exchange students came to Chicago to perform. Because of my crazy schedule at Northwestern, I didn’t get a chance to spend much of the week with my Cuban friends, but I got to enjoy a hectic tour of Chicago with them. I remember Lídice’s excitement seeing the Bean in Millennium Park. She told me that she had seen it in a movie but was enchanted to see it in real life. We zipped through a shopping trip to Walmart where the Cubans got to experience American capitalism first hand and then capped the day at a Cuban restaurant where we laughed and talked and danced. The goodbyes that night were emotional and tearful. They headed to the airport the next day to fly back to Havana and I headed back to school, where I got a phone call from my dad.

He told me some of the group didn’t return to Cuba. Six students defected in Miami.

Lídice was one of them. My dad was fearful of the legal implications, which he said he didn’t really understand. He was concerned for the safety and well-being of the students, particularly Lídice who was only 18. They had left everything they knew behind to come to a country with hopes of a better life. They didn’t know English well. They were staying in a country that was unfamiliar to them with family that they had never met.

As we wait for Lídice in the Miami restaurant, my dad tells me what’s on his mind. He wants to ask her more about the group’s decision to defect and how their lives are now. Lídice and Manuel, another friend, walk in, we hug, tear up, and pick up the conversation in Spanglish. We pass food around but we’re talking too much to eat.

Lídice tells us how she likes the US, but misses her parents. Manuel tells us that he’s already made enough in his job a few days a week at a car garage to send money back home and support himself in Miami. They both are staying with family members whom they had never met before. They tell us the decision to leave was tough, but they don’t regret it. They plan to apply for green cards as soon as they can and they both have dreams of continuing school and playing music professionally.

I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life and I’ve grown up knowing many immigrants. Many of my high school friends were immigrants or children of immigrants. Most of them came to the US when they were very young, connected to the countries where they were born mostly through their parents, their own faint memories, or holiday travels. Most didn’t choose to come to the US. They immigrated because of decisions their parents made.

To me, the immigrant experience had come through the lens and perspective of adults; the parents of my friends who had come to give themselves and their children a better life. Lídice and her friends made these tough decisions themselves.

I could finally see being an immigrant myself.