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In this 1994 photo made by William Castellanos, a young girl looks solemnly out of a wooden raft. Thousands of Cubans were building makeshift rafts and throwing them into the sea after then-President Fidel Castro said anyone who wanted to leave could flee. Castellanos grabbed his old F-3 Nikon camera and began taking photos. Castellanos now lives in Miami and is working on an exhibit of his images. (AP Photo/William Castellanos)
Twenty years of wondering what happened to this girl
First Published Aug 18 2014 09:10 am • Last Updated Aug 18 2014 11:58 am

Miami • In the photo, a girl crouches on a wooden raft, surrounded by solemn men. Her large brown eyes stare intently at the camera. A few wisps of her dark hair float in the breeze.

In a moment, she will be pushed out to sea.

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William Castellanos snapped the black and white photo in August 1994 when he was an art student in Havana, capturing the moment when 35,000 Cubans took to the sea in makeshift rafts.

Twenty years after President Fidel Castro encouraged a mass exodus from the island, the images still trouble him.

Did the rafters make it, or did their flimsy vessels break apart in the turbulent, 90-mile Florida Straits?

Do they have busy lives and jobs and families now? Or are his photographs the last testament of their existence?

"For me, this is a very difficult photographic record," Castellanos said. "Maybe I have the only, or maybe the last, picture of that person."

Especially, he wondered about the girl.

———

Cuba’s communist economy was in crisis in August 1994. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and the only way to get supplies was on the black market. He had just two rolls of black and white film left. But when he saw his neighbors carrying a raft to the sea, he rushed home to grab his Nikon F-3.


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"I told myself, ‘I have to make pictures of this,’" he recalled. "I have to make a document."

He captured a group of young men wading into the water on inner tubes covered in tarps. Childhood friends and neighbors building boats with thin slabs of wood and nails. Men and women carrying their boats out to sea on the tops of old Chevrolets, or balanced on outstretched arms above their heads.

And then the girl — staring back unflinchingly from a large raft of wooden planks.

He thought of his daughter, the long hours they would spend staring at each other when she was a baby, how she looked curiously into his eyes and at his camera.

They exchanged no words. He felt like he was intruding.

He took the photo and left.

———

For two months, Castellanos could only see the negatives. Printing paper was too expensive. A friend at a cartography institute later scrounged up some material. He dropped the paper into the developing tray, and the images appeared.

The girl with brown eyes gazed fearlessly at him again.

Castellanos eventually left Cuba and became a photographer in Argentina and the U.S. He lives now in Miami. For years, he was reluctant to show the images.

Then he realized that the only way to learn their fate would be to put them on display.

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