MARIO JOSE PENTON
Cienfuegos, Cuba | 14ymedio.com
Host: El Nuevo Herald (Miami)
— By Amal Khan
When Mario Penton finally made it to American soil after a 1,600-mile odyssey, he was left with only two personal possessions: his university degree and the Cuban flag.
On the north shore of the Rio Grande, in Laredo, Texas, what Penton felt inside was incalculable: “the thrill of feeling free.”
While many other Cuban émigrés left out of desperation or fear, Penton is clear on why he came to the United States. “It was the possibility that I could help Cuba,” he said. “It was the possibility of spending my life chasing big ideas.”
As a young history teacher in Cienfuegos, a city in central Cuba, Penton felt frustrated by the censored education curriculums pushed by the regime. He began to seek fulfilment elsewhere. At age 20, he became a religious brother with the Marist Brothers Congregation in Cuba. Soon thereafter, in 2014, Penton left Cuba for the first time and moved to Guatemala to work with young students from the indigenous population, teaching them history and theology.
The bitter poverty around him drove him to write about Guatemalan children working to feed their families, barefoot and forgotten. He photographed them, listened to their stories and therein began to form the ideals of a freedom he would come to pursue for himself years later as a journalist writing for his country.
“How can I forget that I had to come to Guatemala to hear the music of Celia Cruz for the first time, or to learn of the valiant struggle of the opponents of the Cuban regime?” he said. And it was here, in the poor fisherman’s villages of Guatemala, that he saw there was a world outside of Cuba, tantalising in its infinite possibility.
In 2015, the Marist brothers told Penton that he was not well-suited to be part of the congregation and should return to Cuba. It was the moment of truth. Penton could not bear to return to what he calls “a life of slavery.” He decided instead, that he would try to cross into the United States through Mexico. The cost of the American dream was a whopping amount for him, $2,500.
Funded by a generous friend in Spain, the migration was a dangerous and difficult option, but it was the only one he had. He went to the border in Guatemala and paid for his coyote, knowing that there was no turning back. His mother and the rest of his family in Cuba would not know until the ordeal was over that he had risked his life for one shot at freedom.
Mario speaks with Global Journalist at the University of Missouri School of Journalism to talk about the press censorship in Cuba and the role of 14yMedio as an independent media outlet.
Deep inside Mexico, at the mercy of “coyotes” and drug cartel minions, Penton had thought to himself, “These people are going to kill me.” The Cuban’s disarming smile and bright hazel eyes belie the dangers he encountered during his dark adventure to the unknown — the jungle, swamps, alligators, flooded creeks, police, hunger. Surviving on just one meal a day, he sometimes traveled by night on foot, or was crammed into trailers. These were worthwhile costs for his eventual escape from Cuba, he said.
Penton finally arrived at Laredo and saw before him “the bridge that marked the end of a life without rights.”
Penton joined the staff of 14ymedio in November, and while recounting the trip for his publication, he quoted Cuban independence hero Jose Marti: “Freedom is expensive and you have to decide to pay its price or resign yourself to living without it.”
Each time Penton speaks an unfamiliar word in English, he laughs as though he is sharing a private joke with himself. He is prone to sudden bouts of singing. He compliments others generously, and is a gifted photographer. He is a gentle man with a sudden, disarming laugh, a quiet humility. He mourns for the fellow migrants that didn’t make it to “the land of freedom.”
One of the “big ideas” he is chasing, renewed civil rights in Cuba, were articulated by Barack Obama during the first visit by a sitting U.S. president in nearly a century.
Penton, using his network of social media contacts in Latin America, wrote reaction stories during Obama’s visit that were published by 14ymedio.
“Cuban people in Cuba and outside of Cuba cried when Obama spoke to the Cuban people,” Penton recalled while being interviewed on the Global Journalist program. Obama is a symbol for those hoping for change inside Cuba, he said. “Obama is the future. Castro is the past.”
The government strictly controls the media in Cuba, but “little by little” there could be change, he said, driven by people “on the two sides of the Strait of Florida.” For now, 14ymedia is one of the only sources for independent news inside Cuba, and is accessed via wifi hotspots and smuggled USB flash drives.
“Now many people have internet access in public spaces in Cuba,” Penton said. “The Cuban people need information and are hungry for information.”
For more on the fellows’ interaction with journalism students at the University of Missouri click here.