Osvaldo Alonso thinks about the question for a moment, looks down at his feet, and in a soft voice, barely above a whisper, recalls what he misses most about his hometown of San Cristobal, Cuba.
The meaning is universal. Alonso, a 22-year-old soccer player for the Charleston Battery, says he thinks about his family every day since defecting from Cuba last summer.
While people across America commemorate freedom with barbecues and fireworks, Alonso celebrates his new-found freedom and independence every time he steps onto a soccer field in the United States.
Although it's been more than a year since Alonso slipped out the front door of a Wal-Mart in Houston, the memories of that day are still fresh in the mind of the former Cuban national soccer team captain.
"I think about it every day," Alonso said through an interpreter. "It was one of the happiest days of my life."
Alonso shies away from any political discussions of long-time communist dictator Fidel Castro and doesn't share specific details about his life in Cuba, but he can't stop talking about his freedom.
"I'm free to do whatever I want, whenever I want, that's freedom," Alonso said. "That's what is great about America. I can travel anywhere I want, whenever I want. The choices are mine. What I do is up to me and no one else. Unless you've lived in Cuba you wouldn't understand why that's an amazing feeling."
Alonso and Battery teammate Lester More, 29, were the latest Cuban athletes to defect from the Caribbean island. The two defected last summer while the Cuban national soccer team was in the United States playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
For years, Alonso and More had dreamed about leaving Cuba and pursuing professional soccer careers abroad. But it wasn't until early in 2007 that Alonso actually started to put a plan in motion. As soon as it was announced that the Cuban team would play in the United States, Alonso began to plot a serious exit strategy.
"I had been thinking about it for a while, but the opportunity was never there for me to leave," Alonso said.
The Great Escape
When the Cuban national team arrived in New Jersey last June for an exhibition match, it was More who made the first move. After a training session, More got back to the team hotel, told a teammate he was going to a nearby convenience store and strolled out the front door. He contacted a friend in New Jersey, and was on a bus headed to Miami by afternoon. The decision to leave Cuba was much easier for More, who as a member of the Cuban national team had already been in the U.S. five times since 1999.
"There was nowhere else for me to go in soccer in Cuba," More said. "I was playing in the highest division against the best competition already and I wanted to play soccer at the highest level. Yes, I miss my family, but it was something I had been thinking about since the first time I came to the United States in 1999."
Alonso and More had no idea that the other was going to defect during their trip.
"It's not something you talk about in Cuba," Alonso said.
Three days later, Cuba was to face Honduras in the Gold Cup in Houston. Out with teammates on a shopping spree at a Wal-Mart, Alonso browsed the merchandise and slowly separated from his teammates. When he thought no one was looking, he simply walked out of the front door and never looked back.
"My heart was beating so fast as I was walking out the door," Alonso said. "I don't think I'd ever been that nervous or scared in my whole life. I was thinking about my mother and father and all my family. It was overwhelming."
Alonso walked several blocks until he found a man who spoke Spanish. He borrowed a cell phone to call a friend in Miami.
"I didn't know anyone in Houston," Alonso said. "I knew I had to get to Miami as quickly as possible."
Alonso said he was never worried about the Cuban government exacting revenge against his family back in San Cristobal, a small town about an hour's drive from Havana.
"Once you get to America, they usually don't come after you," Alonso said. "So, as soon as I knew I was free, I didn't have to worry anymore."
A new life
Under the United States' so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cuban defectors are generally allowed to stay as soon as they set foot on American soil. More and Alonso are currently in the country under working visas, but both hope to have their green cards by fall. They ended up on the same team again.
"I don't know that I could have done what Osvaldo and Lester did," said Battery President Andrew Bell. "I'm not sure I could have walked away from my family, my friends, and the only way of life I'd ever known and come to a place where I didn't speak the language or know very many people, especially at his age."
The hardest part of leaving Cuba, Alonso admits, is not seeing his mother. He calls his mother at least once a week.
"She was very sad at first," Alonso said. "But I think as time has gone on, she has gotten better about it. She understands why I left."
The adjustment to life in America has been an ongoing process for both men. "There are so many things to do here, places to see, places to eat, things to pick from, that it's hard to decide what to do and where to go," Alonso said. "It's fantastic, but it also makes me sad to think about Cuba, where they don't have all of these things to pick from."
Said More: "Everyone is in a hurry in the United States. That's been a surprise to me. In Cuba, everyone is more laid-back, not in a hurry."
Getting to the MLS
Since 1991, dozens of Cuban athletes have defected from the Caribbean island, including more than 20 baseball players. Alonso and More were not the first soccer players to defect. In 2005, Maykel Galindo left the Cuban national team during a CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament in Seattle. Galindo is playing for Chivas USA of Major League Soccer, the highest level of professional soccer in the United States.
"(Galindo) kind of inspired me to leave Cuba," Alonso said.
Alonso and More were invited to train with Chivas USA last winter. They worked out with the team while waiting for their immigration paperwork. Finally, in early March, Chivas offered Alonso a developmental contract for $12,900, but the young midfielder figured he'd get more playing time with a United Soccer Leagues' First Division team, so that's how he ended up in Charleston.
"I don't really care what level I play at right now," Alonso said. "I wanted to play in the MLS, but it didn't work out. The competition level even in the USL First Division is still higher than it is in Cuba."
Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser jumped at the chance to sign both More and Alonso.
"I think Osvaldo realized pretty early that Chivas was not going to use him right away," Anhaeuser said. "He wasn't comfortable with the situation and once he got here, I knew by his second practice that he was going to be a fixture in our lineup. No question he has the potential to play in the MLS or even over in Europe."
As much as he likes the United States, Alonso still longs to see his family. Most Cubans are allowed to return once every five years, but because Alonso defected, he's not sure when he'll be able to go back.
"Hopefully one day I can go back," Alonso said. "I know right now it's impossible."
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