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Cuban Raft

Color photo of moldy, worn raft covered in white cloth; two wooden oars wrapped to top with rope
Raft used by Cuban balseros. Around 1992. Dimensions: 24 × 36 × 79 in. (61 × 91.4 × 200.7 cm); Object ID: 1996.0008.0001; Medium: styrofoam (polystyrene foam), tar, cloth, rope, wood, plastic

Courtesy of Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Humberto Sanchez


In July 1992, two young men illegally used this handmade raft to flee Cuba for the United States. They set out on their journey two years before the 1994 Cuban Rafter Crisis. During the 1994 Crisis, tens of thousands of Cubans fled the island by boat and raft for Florida. People who immigrate this way are often called balseros, or rafters. Why might people risk their lives by undertaking this dangerous journey? Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, over a million Cubans have immigrated to the United States. Many escaped political repression and economic hardships, among other challenges, on the island. One balsero explained in 1995, “I had to leave the only way I could—in my boat—it was all I had left. I had no one in the United States. I didn’t want to leave.”

Photo of blue ocean carrying six men on yellow raft, reading, “Norwegian Cruise Line” and “SEAWARD” beneath image

Cuban rafters in the Florida Straits trying to reach the United States, 1990s. Norwegian Cruise Line. The raft in this photograph appears to use practical, available objects–like rope or cloth–much like the raft you can learn more about in this digital 3D tour.
Courtesy of Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries, Coral Gables, Florida

Photo of three men, arms across each other’s shoulders, standing on patch of land in vast blue ocean

Rescued Cuban rafter. 1993–1994. A note on the back of this photograph reads, "Hermano acabado de rescatar por nosotros; Legión de Rescate (Brother recently rescued by us; Rafters Rescue Legion).” Rafters Rescue Legion, like Brothers to the Rescue, used planes to search the Florida Straits for rafters needing rescue. 
Courtesy of Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries, Coral Gables, Florida

Birds-eye blurry photo of small raft carrying perhaps five people on vast blue ocean

Aerial view of Cuban rafters in open ocean. 1993–1994. A note on the back of this photograph reads, “Seis hombres estuvieron siete dias en el mar sin agua ni comida (‘Six men were at sea for seven days without food nor water’).
Courtesy of Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries, Coral Gables, Florida

Photo of screen-printed image showing man in small boat riding sharp waves; three small white circles surround him

"Fragile Crossing" - Luis Cruz Azaceta, 1992. Cuban American artist Luis Cruz Azaceta’s screenprint depicts a man navigating a rolling sea at night. The blue, jagged waves and the man’s downcast expression evoke feelings that might accompany his journey–uncertainty, fatigue, and fear.
Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Smithsonian Associates

The men who used this raft made it amid Cuba’s restrictive and changing policies on immigration and travel to the United States. Materials like styrofoam and wood make up the raft’s body—tar and cloth coat the exterior, likely in hopes of protection from sharks and water flooding. A blue, plastic sheeting—perhaps a shower curtain—covers interior parts. These materials reveal the resourcefulness of balseros.

By way of Humberto Sanchez, who worked with Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), this raft arrived at the Anacostia Community Museum in 1996. Brothers to the Rescue, a non-profit organization founded in 1991 by Cuban exiles in the United States, rescued balseros by searching for them via plane and leading the U.S. Coast Guard to them. Pilots working with Brothers to the Rescue found the two men who used this raft. The U.S. Coast Guard then rescued them and recovered the vessel. The raft later came into Sanchez’s possession, which he donated to the museum. Over 20 years later, Anacostia Community Museum partnered with the Smithsonian Latino Center in the summer of 2019 to stabilize this historical object and “preserve the human story of its use.”

Learn more about Latino immigration history by going on a 3D tour of this migratory vehicle.

Raft used by Cuban balseros. Around 1992. 
Courtesy of Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Humberto Sanchez 

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