For Octavio and Yaima Martin, the new year brings opportunities they never imagined! Ballet dancers and Cuban defectors, the Brandon couple has a story that feels more like a novel!
They defected while on tour in Mexico, slipping away from their handlers at the Cuban National Ballet. The couple survived a 16-hour race to the border. Their stomachs aching with hunger. Their hearts pounding with fear!
“It was the longest bridge of my life,” says Octavio of their walk on the Brownsville and Matamoros Bridge. “When I got to the window, they [U.S. Customs Agents] asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ and I said, ‘We are from Cuba and want to ask for political asylum.’ ”
Seven years later, they are U.S. citizens, proud parents of 6-year-old Arantza and visionaries at the Brandon Ballet.
Octavio, 39, is the new artistic director, his first time at the helm after decades on center stage for El Ballet Nacional de Cuba and The Sarasota Ballet.
Yaima’s training under Cuba’s prima ballerina Alicia Alonzo has served her well. She’s teaching dance and, as often as possible, is a ballerina. Last month’s role in Brandon Ballet’s The Nutcracker made quite the impression on her new neighbors in Brandon! “Everybody was bowing to me, like ‘Wow, you’re the Snow Queen,’ ” laughs Yaima. “Some of them are still calling me the queen.”
Asked their New Year’s Resolution for the Brandon Ballet, Octavio is quick to respond, “How many hours do we have for this interview? We really want to grow the art the love of dance and ballet in the Tampa Bay area. I think we can do it! We’re going to work as hard as we can to make it happen.
The possibilities are endless. Life here has taught them that all things are possible. Yaima and Octavio point to the numerous strangers who’ve helped them along the way.
“There have been so many people! I don’t know how many. Too many to count,” says Yaima. “We became U.S. citizens because of the people who helped us,” interjects Octavio.
Their trail of guardian angels is long, starting with the hotel clerk in Brownsville, Texas, who let them spend their first night in the U.S. in the hotel lobby, instead of the street. In Sarasota, there was the immigrant family who offered them shelter – a storage room – when they had no where else to go.
“The people who trusted us as professionals and gave us a chance to stay in dance. We will always be grateful to them,” adds Yaima.
It’s a gratitude they are passing along to daughter Arantza, their Americanita, named in honor of the Basque region in Spain where the couple fell in love on tour. “We started over from zero! We want her to be a person who appreciates all the possibilities she has in this country. We want her to be a good person and to follow her dreams.”
As for Yaima and Octavio, they are pursuing their American Dream with ballet slippers firmly in hand — hopeful the community will join them on the journey at the Brandon Ballet.
Lissette Campos is director of community affairs for ABC Action News.