Luna Astengo and her husband Roy Cisneros were expecting their first child, a boy, when they escaped Cuba by boat in 2011 and made their way to Ecuador. It was there that Roy Jr. was born.
They saved money to get to the United States. Pregnant, this time with a girl, the couple traveled to Columbia by bus in a group of 20 Cubans.
“We spent a week in the jungle with the animals and crocodiles,” Luna said, brushing away tears. They slept on the ground and were robbed by thieves, who took their food, money, and clothing.
“They even took the water I had for the baby, so I had to mix river water with formula,” Luna said. “The baby got sick and we went three days without eating.” Eventually, they were able to kill a turtle for food.
The family journeyed on toward Panama and through the jungles of Central America. In Guatemala, armed men wanted to kidnap the baby, hoping to sell him on the black market. On the bus, knife-wielding assailants threatened them.
They crossed the river into Mexico, carrying Roy Jr. “Some women miscarry when they sneeze,” Luna said. “There I was with my pregnant belly. This baby must be so special to have endured.”
In Mexico, they landed in jail for 17 days where Luna said they were also mistreated. Once released, a group of Cubans vacationing in Mexico took pity on the family and put them on a plane to Miami.
“They saw us and asked if we needed help,” Luna said.
Once in Miami, the family turned to Catholic Charities. The caseworker called Joanne Morales, senior program manager for Catholic Charities’ refugee program in Phoenix.
“Cuban entrants, once they are presented and released and their identification is secured, are granted what’s called humanitarian parole which means they are released from immigration detention and are paroled to the U.S. and they get humanitarian benefits,” Morales explained.
“We have the Cuban Humanitarian Act that allows for Cubans to come in,” she said. “It’s recognized that they cannot return home because they are facing persecution.”
Since Roy Jr. was born in Ecuador, Morales said, he didn’t qualify for services under the act. His sister, born in Arizona in November, didn’t qualify either.
“We had to use our own separate emergency agency funds to make sure that we got them a crib and all the baby supplies [Roy Jr.] needed,” Morales said. “Just because the child didn’t qualify for the grant funds doesn’t mean you let the child go without help.”
Morales contacted Debbie DiCarlo, director of parish and community engagement for Catholic Charities, to see if a local parish might help throw a virtual shower for Luna. DiCarlo reached out to St. Patrick Parish, and within a week, the women’s group was able to gather all items Morales had requested for the family.
“They did above and beyond what we anticipated and we were able to supply pretty much everything the family needed,” Morales said. “It was amazing.”
Group meets family
On Nov. 28, several of the women from St. Patrick’s Journey group visited Luna and her family at her apartment in order to meet the family they had helped. They took turns holding three-week old Rose-Angela while Terace Cobián of St. Patrick’s translated Luna’s account of their ordeal.
“It was very inspiring to hear about their journey and the difficulties. I have so much respect and admiration for them,” Cobián said. “To be here and to help was a gift to all of us. They think it’s a gift to them, but in reality it’s a gift to us.”
Roy Jr. was busy playing on the floor with some of the new toys the group brought for him. His father, a trained electrician who hasn’t been able to find full-time work, stood nearby.
“He’s willing to do any work,” Luna said. “A friend loaned him a car.”
Athena Rosendo, a St. Patrick parishioner who visited the family, was moved by the experience.
“To live the Mass is one of our missions,” she said. “We can feel God working through us in something like this.”
“What a wonderful group,” Luna said. “All the clothes, all the diapers — we didn’t have anything.”
In Cuba, she said, “they tell us that the Americans are bad, but that’s a lie. All we had to do was to come here and we saw that you are very good people.”
“We’re hoping that the Catholic faithful and Catholic communities would see in the Luna family an opportunity to support and do the same thing the St. Patrick’s family has done by surrounding this family with love and friendship and the things needed to start a new life here in America,” DiCarlo said. “Catholic Charities has many refugees and we’re looking for Catholic communities to help us settle them.” ✴