Turning Struggles into Adventure – the early life of Jessi Calzado-Esponda

By LSSNCA volunteer blogger, Sarah Vlazny

Part 1 of a 2 part story of Jessi Calzado-Esponda’s life.

A refugee, an entrepreneur, a car crash victim, a former congressional staffer, a CEO, a mentor, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor, and a Cuba expert. All of these could be used to describe Jessi Calzado-Esponda, but none of them define her.

International Women’s day is about celebrating women’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements, of which Jessi has plenty. It is also about recognizing women who #ChoosetoChallenge, and Jessi is never known to have backed down from a fight. From leaving Cuba to travel by raft to the US at the age of 7 to suffering a TBI at the age of 24, Jessi’s story is rife with challenges. Her achievements are also proof that she has always risen to them. As Jessi puts it, “We’re not just defined by the highlights in our life, we’re defined by our worst moments and how we choose to react to them.”

More than a story about Jessi alone, hers is also a story about mentorship and the amazing things that can happen when women help each other succeed.

Life in Cuba and Jessi’s journey to the US

Having left when she was only 7, Jessi remembers Cuba as a happy place. She wasn’t aware of the politics or the social unrest that was happening at the time. To her, those all seemed like issues for grown-ups. What she remembers about Cuba was playing with her brothers and cousins, and how her family turned their struggles into adventures.

Jessi (middle) as a child in Cuba with family members.

Jessi remembers that one night when the lights went out, instead of sitting at home and lighting candles, her family went down to Havana’s waterfront. By the Malecón, her family danced and played music into the dark night. “When we were struggling, I didn’t realize we were struggling,” she said. “Here’s this bad thing that happened and it’s one of my favorite childhood memories.”

From a young age, this taught Jessi that what mattered was not the situation she was in, but how she perceived it. Looking back, she now recognizes how bad the situation was in Cuba in the years before she left. By this point, the Cuban people felt the shortages cause by the embargo established by former President Kennedy, which would cause over $1 trillion in economic loses over five decades. “There was no food to eat,” she said. “People were desperate. They decided, well we’re going to die anyway, we’ll try anything.” In this case, “anything” included boarding a raft destined for the United States.

Jessi remembers that when she first climbed onto the raft, she thought she was going for a boat ride. “I was so excited, I didn’t even notice that the boat didn’t have an engine or propellers.” Jessi soon found herself in the middle of the ocean with 16 people and a dog on a raft powered only by oars.

She describes her memories of the raft as similar to the experience portrayed by Tom Hanks when he leaves the island in the movie Cast Away. “When I watched that movie for the first time, I thought oh my gosh, they’re inside my head!” Jessi said. “That’s exactly how it looked. The big waves, the loneliness.” While she largely viewed the trip as an adventure, what she remembers most was the hunger—the hunger was the hardest part for her. The food they had brought got spoiled or was lost at sea, so the group survived by catching tiny little fish. Without any means to cook them, they ate them when they were still alive. “For a while I couldn’t eat fish,” Jessi says. “I couldn’t get the memory of those little fishes wriggling down my throat out of my mind… I got over it though,” she says with a laugh. She loves sushi now.

Remembering her time on the raft, Jessi doesn’t think she realized how dangerous the situation was as it was happening. “We kept feeling sharks tapping at the side of our boat,” she says. She knows now how easily their raft could have tipped over, how close they came to swimming with the sharks. “It’s a good thing the dog hadn’t decided to go for a swim,” she joked. And sharks weren’t their only worry. Their raft was slowly deflating. Someone had a sharp object in their pocket, a cross or some other item, that had poked a hole in the rubber of the raft. Just as Jessi and the 16 others were starting to think all hope was lost, they were rescued by the Coast Guard and brought to Guantanamo Bay.

Life at Guantanamo Bay

Jessi and her grandmother, who accompanied her on the raft, were briefly separated when they arrived at Guantanamo Bay. During that time, Jessi remembers feeling lost in a sea of people. “I felt like an ant,” she says. “I was overwhelmed, there were people everywhere.”

Jessi (black dress) with family in Cuba.

When she found her grandmother again, Jessi was able to enjoy the novelty of it all. Coming from long-embargoed Cuba, she was seeing American household items for the first time. “I remember being so excited about Pampers,” she said. “I had never seen them before, I couldn’t believe they meant that you could go to the bathroom without sitting down!”

Another thing that stands out in her memory is her interactions with the American soldiers. Her first English phrase was, “Mister, Mister, give me candy!” The soldiers carried colored boxes filled with candy, and she knew which colored boxes held candy that she liked, and which she didn’t. She remembers taking a green box from one soldier and trying to trade it for an orange. “I guess that’s the first time I ever made a sale,” she laughed.

After sharing her experience with other refugees, she thinks that some things about refugee camps are universal. “No matter where the refugee camp is—Europe, the Middle East, or Guantanamo Bay,” she says, “there are certain things most refugees have experienced.” One of those things is music. “Music just has the power to bring everyone together, to connect people and to bring them hope.” Jessi remembers playing a tambourine in the refugee camp, and how excited she was to see it for the first time. “In the middle of what could be considered such a tragedy, as a child I mostly remember music. Music and candy.”

Thank you for reading Part 1 of 2 of Jessi’s story. We will post Part 2 on Monday, March 15. We are so thankful to Jessi for sharing her story with us and allow us to share it with you and in her own words. This blog in is commemoration of International Women’s Day! We believe Jessi is an incredible example of women overcoming challenges and empowering others to be successful. Jessi is the Washington DC delegate of the Refugee Congress. You can contact RC’s delegates by visiting their website.

You can help support LSSNCA female refugees through volunteer and donation opportunities. Some of these opportunities include: becoming a volunteer with our TEA Club for refugee women in Northern Virginia, becoming a volunteer mentor or tutor, donating supplies for expectant mothers, and other donation needs for refugee and immigrant women in the DMV. To learn more visit LSSNCA.org.

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