La paloma y la ley ｜By Lisette Poole ｜Red Hook Editions, 2019 (360 pages)
Review by Isabelle DeSisto
In July 2016, Liset Barrios and Marta Amaro crossed the border from Mexico to the United States. After over 50 days of travel, the two Cuban women had finally made it — at a cost of USD 8,000 each. Although they had begun their journey together in Havana, they arrived in the United States 12 days apart. In La paloma y la ley, Cuban-American journalist and photographer Lisette Poole chronicles their perilous journey, accompanying them at each step of the way.
One read-through feels insufficient; this is the kind of book that you read again and again, making new discoveries and connections each time.
In September 2015, Lisette was living in Havana working as a photographer and covering the historic normalization of relations with Cuba during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Raúl Castro. She describes the time as “the rebirth of Cuba” — Obama would visit in March 2016, new businesses were popping up everywhere, and international media was having a field day. But Lisette was more interested in covering stories that showcased “Cuban reality.” At an illegal drag race she met a woman who introduced her to Marta, a middle-aged Cuban “party girl” who was planning to migrate to the US with a friend, coincidentally also named Liset. Lisette decided to join them.
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Marta and Liset were among the last Cubans to travel to the US under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which Obama repealed in January 2017 just before stepping down as president. In the 1990s, thousands of Cubans left the island for the US on rafts in what became known as the “Cuban Rafter Crisis.” This migration wave prompted President Clinton to institute the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which stated that the US would send migrants caught at sea (wet foot) back to Cuba, while those who made it to land (dry foot) could stay. Successful migrants received privileged status in the asylum-seeking process established by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, and could apply for permanent residency in the US a year later. Anticipating the repeal of “wet foot, dry foot” and rather than risk being returned to Cuba by the US Coast Guard, in recent years many Cubans decided to make the journey over land, through South and Central America, to Mexico, and finally to the US border.
And that is why, although a mere 90 miles of ocean separate Cuba from the United States, in May 2016, Marta and Liset set off to traverse over 8,000 miles to reach American soil.
Anticipating the repeal of ‘wet foot, dry foot’ and rather than risk being returned to Cuba by the US Coast Guard, in recent years many Cubans decided to make the journey over land.
La paloma y la ley is more than a book of photography; it’s a scrapbook, a travel log, and a diary. It features photos ranging from crystal-clear portraits of Marta and Liset to blurry scenes shot through a smudged car window. The photos capture everything from the shocking (Marta and Liset fighting in a bus station) to the mundane (a simple chicken dinner in a styrofoam container); from the over-posed (Liset lounging on a bed, pouting at the camera) to the spontaneous (Marta pausing for a smoke break in the middle of a river). Beyond the photos, the book includes handwritten packing lists, screenshots of Facebook posts, and disjointed notes Lisette wrote to herself, which read like poetry. Longer written sections provide background details, explanations, and gripping descriptions of the journey. Spanish and English texts are presented side by side.
Throughout the book, Lisette is the third protagonist. Often she is a shadow, narrating the journey as if Marta and Liset were the only travelers. Sometimes she is at the forefront of the narrative, fending off a coyote’s advances, or laughing with her two friends over an inside joke.
La paloma y la ley begs to be inspected, dissected, and savored. One read-through feels insufficient; this is the kind of book that you read again and again, making new discoveries and connections each time. Patterns and themes are subtle: brightly-painted fingernails, religious artifacts, and the words “te amo,” scratched into a wall and printed on a balloon in curly letters. Captions seem casual, but they reveal important details that might easily be missed. In one, we learn that food scarcity is one of Marta’s primary reasons for leaving Cuba; in another, that Liset is pregnant and planning to have an abortion.
Perhaps the book’s most striking feature is Lisette’s ability to capture the personalities of Marta and Liset, her subjects and friends. You see them overjoyed, angry, determined, terrified. You find yourself being drawn in by Marta’s magnetic personality and distressed by the trauma she battles after crossing the Darién Gap, a lawless stretch of jungle that connects Colombia and Panama. You admire Liset’s resourcefulness, how she negotiates, argues, and uses her sex appeal to her advantage — in short, her ability to resolver. You’re heartbroken when her American boyfriend is hours late to meet her upon her arrival in Chicago.
Lisette manages to humanize everyone — not just Marta and Liset, but also the 18 coyotes who steer them through a dozen different countries by boat, by bus, on foot, and even on horseback. Some of these smugglers fit the stereotypes: menacing guys we know by their nicknames, who take migrants’ money and run. But most don’t: young men with acne and braces, women who are just trying to make some extra cash, people who shelter migrants in their homes and offer them freshly fried plantains.
Throughout the book, Lisette is the third protagonist. Often she is a shadow, narrating the journey as if Marta and Liset were the only travelers. Sometimes she is at the forefront of the narrative, fending off a coyote’s advances, or laughing with her two friends over an inside joke. But the story is always seen through Lisette’s lens. She’s a journalist traveling with a laptop and an American passport, but she’s like everyone else — that is, until a coyote or policeman learns otherwise.
La paloma y la ley is not the story of all migrants; it’s the story of Marta, Liset, and Lisette. Its strength lies in the intimate, the personal, the particular.
Although most of the story takes place far from Havana, it leaves you with a deeper understanding of Cuba — its language, its culture, the rhythms of daily life. The English text is punctuated with cubanisms that defy translation: chisme, guara, jinetera. Santería, a blend of the religious practices of West African slaves and the Catholic traditions of Cuba’s Spanish and French colonizers, is a source of guidance and protection for Marta and Liset throughout their journey. Marta marvels at a fully stocked Brazilian supermarket, the likes of which she never saw at home. But she also finds life in the US lonely, lacking the vibrancy and community of Marianao.
In many ways, Cubans have been a privileged class of migrants. Some South American governments offered them safe passage. They usually spoke the language of the countries they passed through, whereas migrants from Nepal and Haiti did not. After they got to the United States, they were fast-tracked to obtaining green cards and could visit family in Cuba whenever they liked. But every migrant’s story is different, and La paloma y la ley is not the story of all migrants; it’s the story of Marta, Liset, and Lisette. Its strength lies in the intimate, the personal, the particular. Over the course of 360 pages, you come to know these women, to care for them, and to hope that those 8,000 miles were worth it.
La paloma y la ley is available for purchase at www.lisettepoole.com