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The Farewell Generation: A look into the Cuban youth exodus through love stories

Gabriel Berrio Fabré, 18, looks out the window of his room in Los Pocitos, Havana. He is a visual artist, and like most of his friends, he wants to leave Cuba once he finishes his studies.
Natalia Favre
Gabriel Berrio Fabré, 18, looks out the window of his room in Los Pocitos, Havana. He is a visual artist, and like most of his friends, he wants to leave Cuba once he finishes his studies.

The political and economic crisis exacerbated in recent years by the pandemic, the embargo and government policies has pushed thousands of mainly young Cubans into exile. Record numbers of Cubans fled their country in 2022 and more than 200,000 Cubans have fled to the U.S. already this year, according to government data, making the current exodus even worse than the migration waves of the '80s and '90s, combined. The exodus impacts an entire generation of young people who are suffering on both sides. Those who leave face a dangerous journey and the challenges to start a new life far from home while those who remain in Cuba witness the deterioration of the island and the mass departure of their loved ones.

Through love stories, we show the layered and complex realities of the current youth exodus, providing nuanced insight into migration, the desire for belonging and constructing a new life, while also focusing on the challenges to do so, while separated from their beloved ones. We focus on three couples, of whom one is still in Cuba, and the other managed to get to the U.S. recently.


A U.S. flag hangs on the wall of a house in Tampa, Florida. Yossell Machado Fígueredo, 21, looks out the window of his room. Like most Cubans in recent years, Yossell arrived at the southern border through a journey with his mother and sister by land from Nicaragua.
/ Natalia Favre
/
Natalia Favre
A U.S. flag hangs on the wall of a house in Tampa, Florida. Yossell Machado Fígueredo, 21, looks out the window of his room. Like most Cubans in recent years, Yossell arrived at the southern border through a journey with his mother and sister by land from Nicaragua.

Gabriel and Yossell

Gabriel Berrio Fabré, 18, and Yossell Machado Fígueredo, 21, grew up together in Los Pocitos, a barrio, or neighborhood in Havana. In January 2022, Yossell left with her mother for Suriname, a country that does not require a visa for Cubans. His sister was there, waiting for them to leave all together for the United States. As Yossell felt guilty and hurt about leaving his best friend behind, he did not say goodbye.

Gabriel has his hair cut in barrio Los Pocitos in Havana. He calls Yossell, his best friend, every day. He misses him terribly. For himself he hardly sees a future in Cuba, but without money, he has no possibility to migrate.
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Gabriel has his hair cut in barrio Los Pocitos in Havana. He calls Yossell, his best friend, every day. He misses him terribly. For himself he hardly sees a future in Cuba, but without money, he has no possibility to migrate.
Yossell is being treated for gastritis by a Cuban healer at his home in Tampa, Florida. Since he arrived in the country, he has been suffering from pain and has lost several kilos. The doctor told him it was the result of the stress of the journey and his new immigration status.
/ Natalia Favre
/
Natalia Favre
Yossell is being treated for gastritis by a Cuban healer at his home in Tampa, Florida. Since he arrived in the country, he has been suffering from pain and has lost several kilos. The doctor told him it was the result of the stress of the journey and his new immigration status.
Yossell's Cuban passport is resting on the couch in his home in Tampa, Florida. A teddy bear wearing a shirt that reads "I love you" adorns Yossell's bed in Tampa — migration also means being distant from your loved ones that you left behind.
/ Sanne Derks; Natalia Favre
/
Sanne Derks; Natalia Favre
Yossell's Cuban passport is resting on the couch in his home in Tampa, Florida. A teddy bear wearing a shirt that reads "I love you" adorns Yossell's bed in Tampa — migration also means being distant from your loved ones that you left behind.
Since Gabriel's best friend left Cuba this year without telling him, he spends a lot more time with his sister Gabriella (left) and her boyfriend, Juan Miguel Romero Cabrera.
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Since Gabriel's best friend left Cuba this year without telling him, he spends a lot more time with his sister Gabriella (left) and her boyfriend, Juan Miguel Romero Cabrera.

Gabriel continues to live in Los Pocitos, re-connecting with his sister and her boyfriend, and looking for opportunities as an artist. Yossell reached Tampa, where he is constructing a new life. He works in a restaurant and finally has the money to buy whatever he wants, but says it's hard to make new friends. He misses Gabriel every day.


Lauren Rodriguez Ruiz, 26, sits on the beach in the neighborhood where she lives. In the month and a half that her boyfriend, Jan Perez Suárez, was on the way from Cuba, via Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and via a <em>coyote,</em> or people smuggler, to the U.S., she asked the sea for protection. It was the only place she could rest.
/ Natalia Favre
/
Natalia Favre
Lauren Rodriguez Ruiz, 26, sits on the beach in the neighborhood where she lives. In the month and a half that her boyfriend, Jan Perez Suárez, was on the way from Cuba, via Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and via a coyote, or people smuggler, to the U.S., she asked the sea for protection. It was the only place she could rest.

Lauren and Jan

Lauren Rodriguez Ruiz, 26, and Jan Pérez, 23, have been a couple for almost five years. They used to live together in Guanabo, a beach village northeast of Havana, in a little house near Lauren's grandmother. The couple was saving up to emigrate together by pursuing a master's degree in another country, a tactic often used by young Cuban professionals. However, one day in January 2022, a friend told them that he was leaving for Nicaragua to make the journey to the United States.

In his spare free time, Jan likes to sit at the beach in Tampa, like he used to do when living with Lauren in Guanabo, Havana. Lauren's phone shows a picture of Jan on the day he arrived in Tampa at his friends' place, who'd given him balloons as gifts.
/ Sanne Derks; Natalia Favre
/
Sanne Derks; Natalia Favre
In his spare free time, Jan likes to sit at the beach in Tampa, like he used to do when living with Lauren in Guanabo, Havana. Lauren's phone shows a picture of Jan on the day he arrived in Tampa at his friends' place, who'd given him balloons as gifts.
Lauren chats with Jan in a collective taxi in Havana.
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Lauren chats with Jan in a collective taxi in Havana.
Jan looks at the shelves full of cornflakes in a supermarket in Tampa. The abundance contrasts with his life in Cuba, where "especially in recent years, products have become extremely scarce. It feels so unfair if you see how many types of cornflakes you have here and how easy it is to find food. It is expensive, but it is there."
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Jan looks at the shelves full of cornflakes in a supermarket in Tampa. The abundance contrasts with his life in Cuba, where "especially in recent years, products have become extremely scarce. It feels so unfair if you see how many types of cornflakes you have here and how easy it is to find food. It is expensive, but it is there."
Leftover coffee and cigars smoked by Lauren at her home in Havana. The couple had quit smoking before Jan left Cuba. During Jan's journey, Lauren suffered from many anxiety attacks and returned to smoking.
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Leftover coffee and cigars smoked by Lauren at her home in Havana. The couple had quit smoking before Jan left Cuba. During Jan's journey, Lauren suffered from many anxiety attacks and returned to smoking.
Lauren looks out at the sea in Havana.
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Lauren looks out at the sea in Havana.

Lauren and Jan quickly decided to use the savings they had so that Jan could join their friend. As Lauren's parents are both abroad, she would have more possibilities to leave and meet Jan in the U.S. She is currently waiting for her visa to Chile, where her father lives, to be granted, whereas Jan rents a little studio in Tampa where he works as a freelance graphic designer. The couple hopes to reunite in the near future. In the meantime, they maintain their daily life through video calls.


An old photograph of sisters Maidel and Laura, swimming as children.
/ Natalia Favre
/
Natalia Favre
An old photograph of sisters Maidel and Laura, swimming as children.

Laura and Maidel

Laura Hernández Ortega, 21, and Maidel Alemán, 26, are sisters of the same mother. They were born in Guanabacoa, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. Maidel left Cuba in 2020. Finances were never a problem at home, since their great-aunt Gloria left for Las Vegas when the sisters were kids and has been sending money to the family ever since. All her life, Maidel suffered from the alcoholism of her stepfather, Laura's father, the main reason why she decided to emigrate with her partner.

Maidel films while walking through downtown Las Vegas, where she has been living for the past month after leaving Miami to escape an abusive partner. In Las Vegas, she lives in a retirement home with her great-aunt.
/ Natalia Favre
/
Natalia Favre
Maidel films while walking through downtown Las Vegas, where she has been living for the past month after leaving Miami to escape an abusive partner. In Las Vegas, she lives in a retirement home with her great-aunt.
Laura poses for a portrait on the roof of her house in Havana. She hopes to see her sister again one day: "Here in Cuba, there is no future for young people like me. There is no money to build a dignified life. It does not matter to me. There is more freedom in every country than here."
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Laura poses for a portrait on the roof of her house in Havana. She hopes to see her sister again one day: "Here in Cuba, there is no future for young people like me. There is no money to build a dignified life. It does not matter to me. There is more freedom in every country than here."

With the savings they had after selling all their belongings, they flew to Nicaragua. After a few months of work, she decided to make the journey to the U.S. Her boyfriend did not want to join her and she continued on her own. Maidel arrived in the U.S. in May 2021, where she lived in Miami for more than a year. Recently, she moved to Las Vegas to take care of Gloria, who is about to undergo major surgery.

Laura and Maidel chat via video call.
/ Sanne Derks
/
Sanne Derks
Laura and Maidel chat via video call.
<strong>Left:</strong> A bird in a cage on the roof of the house where Maidel used to live with her sister, Laura, and her family in Guanabacoa, Cuba. <strong>Right:</strong> Laura, Maidel's sister, on the roof of the house.
/ Natalia Favre
/
Natalia Favre
Left: A bird in a cage on the roof of the house where Maidel used to live with her sister, Laura, and her family in Guanabacoa, Cuba. Right: Laura, Maidel's sister, on the roof of the house.

In a small apartment nestled inside a residence for seniors, Maidel has set up a manicure studio, where she mainly attends to the ladies who live on the property. Laura still lives in Guanabacoa with her father and her mother, who is also a manicurist. Every day she wonders if she will ever see Maidel again.

This project was supported by the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists of the International Women's Media Foundation.

Natalia Favre is a documentary photographer based in Cuba and Argentina. You can see more of her work on her website, nataliafavre.com, or on Instagram at @nataliafavre_ . Sanne Derks is a documentary photographer based in Cuba and the Netherlands. You can see more of her work on her website, SanneDerks.com, or on Instagram at@sanne_derks_photojournalism.

Photos edited by: Virginia Lozano

Text edited by: Zach Thompson

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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