January 1, 2021 at 3:12 am PST | by Michael K. Lavers and Yariel Valdés González
2021 is the year to dream big
Yariel Valdés González and Michael K. Lavers outside of Café Lafitte in Exile in New Orleans on July 26, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

It goes without saying that most of us are more than happy to see 2020 come to an end, but even this dumpster fire of a year could not extinguish the will to fight for a better life. The effort to secure Washington Blade contributor Yariel Valdés González’s release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody is no better example of what is possible.

Valdés and International News Editor Michael K. Lavers share their thoughts about the past year.

By YARIEL VALDÉS GONZÁLEZ, from Wilton Manors, Florida

Today I am thinking of the first day of the year and what I asked Santa for Christmas. I was at an immigrant jail in Louisiana, imprisoned for seeking political asylum. Judge Timothy Cole on Sept. 18, 2019, granted me asylum, but a government appeal kept me behind bars, and diminished my hopes of being truly free at every turn.  

Resorting to Santa, a childish character in whom adults should not believe, shows how desperate I was. I simply wanted the freedom that I had earned and for which I had suffered so much in Cuba and, incredibly, in the United States. Santa three months later finally granted my wish. I guess immigrants are a low priority for such an honorable and busy character.  

My true Santa was really Michael K. Lavers, my brother, my colleague and this publication’s international news editor. It would have been impossible to emerge victorious in this battle without his constant support. I can now dream of a future without persecution because of my profession or ideas thanks to him, my family, and many other people.  

Instead, my Santa in 2020 came from the hand of love, which does not need desperate pleas, but tenderness and devotion. Receiving gifts on this date does not exactly fit into the traditions of my native country, whose Communist regime has crushed the Christmas spirit for decades. 
I can proudly look back on 2020 without forgetting from where I come. While the whole world tries to erase it from memory, it has been my “Year Zero” when I began to build my new life in every way.  

This year has put many challenges and new experiences in front of me: The first and most difficult one was to be released from ICE custody, which kept me in their jails for 11 months. Then came learning how to drive (it wasn’t that difficult); perfecting my rustic English (a task that has not yet been completed); working in a restaurant (I had never done anything outside of media before); be independent (I moved to Wilton Manors with my boyfriend); support the new president as an activist; collaborate with this newspaper that gives me the opportunity to support my community; stay healthy in the middle of this pandemic and endure the sadness that I feel each day for the family and friends I left behind, among other things.  

The year that we begin today is going to be better. And I say this as an imposition because it is our positive spirit that will help us overcome all the bumps in the road and will allow us to look to the new year with hope.  

Welcoming 2021 in the magical place of Walt Disney World has definitely contributed to that, but above all I am confident that I will not be alone on this journey of growth that has opened up in front of me. Conquering 2021 may seem like an overly pretentious plan, especially for an immigrant who is just beginning to take his own steps in this great country. But if I have learned anything in life, it is to dream big, and 2021 will not be the exception.
  
By MICHAEL K. LAVERS, from Washington D.C.

Tears were welling up in my eyes on Aug. 8, 2019, when I promised Yariel’s mother in Cuba during a phone call from his aunt and uncle’s home in suburban Miami that I would do everything in my power to secure her beloved son’s release from ICE custody. It took far too long for that day to come, but on March 4 he was sitting in the passenger seat of my rental car as we drove away from the privately run River Correctional Center in rural Louisiana.  

More than nine months later, I could choose to focus on the fact that Yariel spent nearly a year in the custody of an out-of-control agency that forces those who seek refuge in this country to endure abuse and dehumanization. I could choose to focus on politicians who use cheap rhetoric to advance a xenophobic agenda. I could choose to focus on the fact that I fractured my left arm hours before Yariel’s release and it took six months to heal. I will, however, avoid the chance to wallow in self-pity because that’s not what this op-ed is about.

Yariel is proof that immigrants truly make America great. He is now living with his boyfriend in Wilton Manors, and has become an active and productive member of the community. Yariel’s reporting continues to highlight the human rights abuses in Cuba that forced him to flee. His advocacy on behalf of other immigrants and ICE detainees continues to inspire me more than he will ever know.  

This year has been horrible for so many reasons, but I am immensely thankful that Yariel in 2020 was finally able to begin living his best life in freedom without fear of persecution. He remains an inspiration to me and to countless others. ¡Te quiero mucho mi querido hermano!

Yariel Valdés González is a Blade contributor; Michael K. Lavers is the Blade’s international news editor.

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