From Cuba to Capitol Hill: One RNC staffer’s journey to the US

For more than 10 years, Yali Nunez has kept the backpack. It’s small and black, with three pockets, so it doesn’t take up much room.

She keeps it because that little Mike Mike backpack is a constant reminder of a monumental change in her life.

Nunez bought the backpack in Honduras when she and her family arrived there in 2003, and it has traveled from there to Guatemala, across the country’s northern border into Mexico, and, finally, to the United States.

And, like its owner, the backpack has made the majority of that journey twice.

Nunez wore the black leather backpack when she, along with her father and mother, made the journey after fleeing Cuba in 2003. It was one of only two bags the family could carry with them during the second leg of their trip from Guatemala, through Mexico, and, finally, to the United States.

Several years later, when working as a reporter for Univision, Nunez retraced her journey for a story and wore the backpack again.

For 13 years, Nunez has kept the backpack as a symbol of the nearly year-long trip she and her parents made to pursue a better life in the United States, to leave behind the Castro regime, a system where food and basic necessities are rationed, and a place where the government controls the flow of information to its people.

And now, after settling in Florida, pursuing an education and a career in journalism, and making her way to a job steps from the U.S. Capitol, Nunez keeps the backpack as a symbol of the sacrifices her family made, and what she left behind.

“It symbolizes with how much I came here with,” Nunez tells the Washington Examiner. “I had so little when I came here, and it reminds me where I came from, so I won’t forget where I’m going.”

Fleeing Cuba

Today, Nunez, 29, works as the director of hispanic media for the Republican National Committee, having joined the organization in June.

In her role at the RNC, Nunez works to communicate to Hispanic voters why the values of the Republican Party are the same as the values they hold dear.

The committee has ramped up its outreach efforts for Hispanic Heritage Month, which spans from mid-September to mid-October, and is working to speak directly to each corner of the Hispanic community, demonstrating why the Republican Party is the party that aligns with most with their values and beliefs, and how President Trump’s policies will improve their lives.

“We’re working everything not by state, but by turf, so it’s more like micromanaging everything we’re doing as far as reaching out to the communities,” Nunez says of the RNC. “The Hispanics are very diverse. We’re a vibrant and diverse community. The issues the Venezuelan community have are not the same issues the Cuban community have or that the Colombian community have, or Honduras or Salvador.”

But more than a decade before moving to Washington, D.C., to work for the RNC, before working for Univision, and before settling in Tampa, Fla., Nunez’s parents were plotting how to make their escape from Cuba.

Nunez was involved early on in her parents’ discussions about how and why they would leave their family, including Nunez’s grandmother, and friends, and they decided to make their move to travel through Central America when she was 16 years old.

The Nunez family first considered building a boat with another family to travel from Cuba to south Florida. Nunez’s father managed to save up enough money to buy the engine to power it, but the other family stole money from them, leaving her parents with an engine and no boat to attach it to, she says.

But, opportunity would soon knock again when her father received a letter of invitation to go to Honduras for work.

Nunez and her mother were permitted to travel with him, so the family packed up a few belongings, mostly clothes, before leaving.

The Cuban government took an inventory of their belongings, and the Nunezes left for Central America. They would never return to their home on the island nation.

Nunez and her family settled in Honduras for several months, where the young Cuban attended three different schools, but found it difficult to adapt.

“At that age, you’re an adolescent, you have a hard time already socializing and doing regular things in high school, so to adapt to a new lifestyle, new friends, was really hard,” she says.

After six months, Nunez and her family continued to Guatemala, where they learned of other Cubans crossing the border to Mexico and coming to the United States.

Nunez’s parents decided they would cross from Guatemala to Mexico with the assistance of coyotes, who smuggle migrants to other countries.

It was a calculated risk: The family knew because of the political situation in Cuba, they would be able to seek asylum if they were stopped by the authorities. But had they been threatened with deportation back to Cuba, the regime may torture them as punishment for defecting.

The border crossing from Guatemala into Mexico was dangerous and would mean hours of traversing a wooded landscape.

The coyotes who led them across the border into Mexico, young men in their 20s, were driven by money, Nunez says. Her mother, Caridad, was particularly worried about her, she recalls, especially because she was so young.

“They can kill you. They can kidnap you,” Nunez says. “They did not care about doing what they need to do for money. They can assault you and steal everything you have with you. They can kidnap you and try to ask for random money in the U.S.”

Nunez’s father, Ivan, kept a kitchen knife secured to his ankle, the only form of protection for his family, as they made the trip from Guatamala to Mexico.

The family used rubber rafts crafted out of truck tires to cross the Suchiate River, as many do. From there it was a full day’s walk through the woods to a road, where they split ways with the coyotes. After that came even more walking, to a hotel where they planned to stay.

But when they arrived, Nunez’s father had doubts about their lodging.

It was a place where many immigrants stayed, and he worried they’d draw the attention of Mexican immigration authorities. That meant more traveling to another hotel, where they could rest and prepare to travel to Mexico City. There, they’d connect with an immigration lawyer to help them continue to the U.S.

It was a trip that required them to go through multiple security checkpoints, and the family feared getting held up at any of the points would delay their trip or land them in a migrant detention center, which the Mexican government calls a “migration station.”

On the day they left for Mexico City, Nunez and her family went to a nearby park to hail a taxi. They were joined by a woman who, despite their protestations, wouldn’t leave and ended up getting in the taxi with them while chatting on a cellphone.

She was an informant. And, the police soon knew the Nunezes were coming.

The first security checkpoint passed with no issues. But, at the second, Mexican authorities pulled them from the vehicle and demanded their papers.

Though Nunez and her family had been worried about attracting the attention of immigration authorities, she says making contact with them brought a sense of relief.

“We were in a situation where we were going to make clear our situation in Mexico,” she says. “We wanted to find a way to make everything OK and demonstrate we weren’t there illegally.”

Nunez and her family were taken to a detention center and held in what Nunez said was a room similar to a jail cell, where they waited to be transported to a migrant detention center in Tapachula, Mexico, Latin America’s largest, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, an organization that advocates human rights in the Americas.

It was when they arrived in Tapachula that Nunez says she recognized the full weight of their trip.

The Mexican government treated immigrants like animals, she says, a contrast to the U.S., where she says immigrants, even those faced with deportation, are treated “in a human way. ” But in Mexico, Nunez recalls seeing fellow migrants anxiously waiting to learn if they were going to be deported or able to continue on.

“That stood out to me,” she says. “I became a little more conscious of the ideas that people have about the U.S.”

The family stayed in Tapachula for one night — a stroke of good luck, Nunez recalls. Others were forced to stay in Tapachula for upwards of 15 days, with no beds or proper bathrooms. But, Nunez and her family boarded a bus the day after their arrival bound for Iztapalapa, in Mexico City.

In Iztapalapa, Nunez and her family were placed in a migrant detention center called Las Agujas Centre for Migrants.

“That place is worse than hell,” she says.

Migrants staying at the center are locked up at night, and the men are separated from the women, Nunez recalls.

During the day, those in the detention center take their bed sheets and place them on the floor in the hallway as a respite from being behind bars at night.

It was there that Nunez and her family connected with the immigration lawyer in Mexico City, in part because of the conditions at the detention center in Iztapalapa, where she says she was locked up most of the time against her will.

But the family was lucky compared to others — they remained at Las Agujas Centre for Migrants for 14 days, while others are there for a month, in some cases.

Then, with their paperwork in order, Nunez and her family finally prepared to cross the border to the U.S.

Before leaving Mexico for the U.S., Nunez recalls telling her immigration lawyer in Mexico City she would be back to interview him when she became a journalist — a promise she ultimately followed through on when she retraced her journey for Univision in 2015.

Then, the family boarded a bus bound for the United States, traveling from Mexico City to Matamoros, and across the border to Brownsville, Texas.

The moment her family finally crossed the border was a tearful one.

“We were crying our eyes out because it’s such a symbolic line for us,” she says. “It was leaving behind the repression. It was leaving behind the necessities, the frustration of not being able to accomplish dreams. Once we crossed that line, it was literally, we are in a country that offers freedom, that reveres human rights, that is going to give us the opportunity of being who we want to be in life, the country of opportunities.”

Settling in the U.S.

Nunez and her family crossed the border into the U.S. while the “wet foot, dry foot” policy was still in effect.

Since 1995, the policy allowed Cubans fleeing the country without a visa to remain in the U.S. Former President Barack Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy earlier this year as part of his efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba.

Nunez says the promise her family would be able to stay in the country upon touching U.S. soil was a major motivator for them to leave Cuba, and one that shaped her views on illegal immigration.

“We knew that we were going to have legality once we arrived in the U.S.,” she says. “I think it’s only with the law that you can accomplish dreams and that you can move forward with a better future. Nobody wants to be in the shadows. We have to understand that it’s complicated for these families, but that there is a law in the United States, and we need to abide by the laws that make this great nation what it is.”

Nunez and her family took a bus from Texas to Florida, where some of her aunts lived, and ultimately settled in Tampa.

As a student at Braulio Alonso High School, Nunez says she kept her head down and focused on her studies, intent on proving to her parents she recognized the gravity of their decision to leave Cuba and go through that harrowing journey to the United States.

“That was something I had very clear in my head, and it was all the sacrifices that we experienced throughout the journey,” she says. “I wanted to reciprocate to my mom and my dad, because I knew the effort they had gone through to bring me here.

“The only thing I had clear in my head was I wanted to study, and I wanted to go to college, and I wanted to give back to them the opportunity that they gave to me by bringing me here.”

After graduating from Alonso High School, Nunez attended the University of South Florida and worked through college.

“We were immigrants,” she says of her decision to attend college close to home. “We didn’t have the foundation that other families had, so we wanted to remain together until we built a stronger base.”

Upon graduating from the University of South Florida, Nunez and her family decided to leave Tampa for Los Angeles after the death of her grandmother, who raised Nunez as a young girl in Cuba and also fled the country for the U.S.

It was time, Nunez says, to put some of those memories behind them.

She freelanced first for a local California television station, and then received an offer to work at Fox Deportes, working as a production assistant, and then as an on-air reporter covering baseball.

“Journalism was always in my bloodstream because I always wanted to communicate what was happening, but never could in Cuba, even when I was a kid,” Nunez says.

“Seeing how much repression they have toward information, and how much control they wanted to have over what people knew, instilled in me the desire of wanting to communicate the truth to the people of what was happening. I think one of the main reasons that I went into journalism was in defiance of the regime.”

Nunez moved to Univision roughly a year later to begin working as a sports anchor in Fresno, a move she made with her parents.

Eight months later, the trio — the “Three Musketeers,” as she calls them — journeyed back to the East Coast when Univision asked her to cover news and politics in Miami.

Nunez says she became well-known within the community, and in 2015 she retraced her steps back through Central America to show viewers how she arrived in the U.S. for the channel’s morning show, “Despierta America.”

Nunez jokes that when she arrived to leave for the trip, carrying only the same backpack she traveled with nearly a decade earlier, she shocked a colleague, who came armed with a large duffel bag.

The young reporter’s visibility within the Hispanic community led to a job with Sen. Marco Rubio’s, R-Fla., Senate re-election campaign in 2016.

“I said ‘Listen, I think it’s time for change,'” she says of her decision to move from journalism to the campaign. “I’ve never thought that a comfort zone is something that’s going to take you to the next place. It’s not conducive to growth, so I took the opportunity.”

Rubio’s background as a Cuban-American drew Nunez to him, as did his political stances on issues related to her home country, and Nunez said she was pleased her introduction to the political world was with a “Cuban-American that has represented the Cubans for so long in the highest spheres of the country.”

After the campaign ended, the RNC called.

“I ran with it,” she says.

Reaching the Hispanic Community

In recent years, the RNC has tried to revamp its efforts to reach the Hispanic community.

In 2015, the committee launched the Republican Leadership Initiative, which aims to boost its staff and volunteer capabilities.

Nunez is focused on communicating the GOP’s values and principles, which she says are “many of the values and principles that the Hispanic community takes to heart.”

“[We take] a pro-life stance and believe in limited government. We are people that love to be entrepreneurial, and we have that driving force of coming through and finding new opportunities and opening our own businesses. We’re pushing for things such as tax reform,” she says.

The RNC is also committed to drilling down deeper into the overall Hispanic community, focusing on “turfs” to explain what Republicans and the Trump administration are doing to help specific aspects of the broader Hispanic community.

The party, for example, has worked to educate Venezuelans in the U.S. about sanctions the Trump administration imposed on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as well as Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Latin America in August, during which he met with Venezuelan families seeking refuge in Colombia.

“We’re targeting each aspect of every community because we want to collaborate with those communities,” Nunez says. “We want to show them that the administration and the Republican Party is with them.”

Now in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, the RNC is ramping up its outreach efforts with op-eds and letters to the editor in different publications.

Last week, the RNC unveiled a new video for Hispanic Heritage Month featuring members of its staff celebrating their backgrounds, and the committee remains in contact with the White House in an effort to push Trump’s agenda forward.

But, President Trump’s derogatory comments about Latinos have complicated the RNC’s quest to connect with that community.

When announcing his candidacy for president in 2015, Trump said Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. are not the country’s “best,” and compared Mexican immigrants to “rapists” and “killers.”

Then, in June 2016, Trump accused U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of having an “absolute conflict” in presiding over a lawsuits filed against Trump University because “of Mexican heritage.”

“I’m building a wall,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”

But Nunez says the president’s comments haven’t hurt the party’s efforts to reach Hispanic voters, and she pointed to the support he garnered during the election as proof.

Indeed, Trump outperformed 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters, but didn’t fare as well as 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, according to exit poll data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.

“That’s an accomplishment worth mentioning,” she says. “I think now that he is in the position he is, he will make more informed comments and decisions when it comes to the Hispanic community. … I think the Hispanic community trusts him now more than ever.”

Despite the success Nunez has achieved since arriving in the U.S. — from Cuba to a migrant detention center in Mexico and now to the RNC’s headquarters on Capitol Hill — she feels there is more work to be done, both for herself and the country.

“I think back, and I think of all the struggle that we went through, and I think of all the challenges that we had to face, and the only thing that comes to my mind is, you need to do better in what you’re doing,” she says. “This is a great nation. What you don’t accomplish here, you don’t accomplish anywhere in the world.

“We’re so privileged to have what we have here, and we need to preserve this system that we have because there’s nothing more precious than democracy and liberty and freedom. We have it so good. It doesn’t get better than this. We always can aim for more in the United States.”

Nunez returned to Cuba only once, to visit her grandmother when she was sick, and has no intention of going back until the end of the Castro regime.

But should she ever need a reminder of what she left behind, and the sacrifices her family made to make a life for themselves in the United States, all she needs to do is pull out that backpack.

This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner

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