United States

Violinist Who Fled From Oppression Is Now South Florida Teacher

Lizbet Martinez was the face of the Cuban rafter crisis of 1994.

It's surprising that Hollywood hasn't made a movie about the life story of Lizbet Martinez. These days she's a third-grade teacher at Milam K8 Center in Hialeah, extremely attached to her violin.

"I started so young that it's part of me, I had to come from Cuba with it, there was no way I was leaving it behind, it was like another sibling," Martinez said.

Twenty-five years ago, Martinez was the only child on a raft crowded with 13 people fleeing oppression.

"It was scary and exciting at the same time because we were leaving Cuba but once we lost sight of all the buildings and land, you see yourself in the middle of nowhere," Martinez said, describing the frightening journey across the Florida Straits.

Fortune smiled on Martinez. The Coast Guard rescued her group, told everyone to leave their things on the raft, but Martinez refused to part with her violin. So she played her best card, which turned out to be "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"So we didn't speak English, they didn't speak Spanish, I played it for them and they were amazed that this 12-year-old at four in the morning was playing the national anthem," Martinez said.

The refugees were taken to Guantanamo where word got around quickly that this 12-year-old could play, and the next thing she knew, Lizbet was playing for Bill Clinton.

"It was surreal, I had been here for about a month and a half and I'm playing for the president of the United States," Martinez said.

So you had a 12-year-old girl playing the national anthem in front of the president, it was seen by millions of people, and Martinez thinks that in itself changed the public's perception of the Cuban migration of 1994.

"That little girl with that violin brought the light," Martinez said. "We were anxious and thankful to be in this country and they saw that."

For Martinez, the violin was her passport to success once she got here. She started as a music teacher after graduating from FIU, she's married with two kids who attend her school, and she makes sure her students know what this country provides.

"I tell them stories all the time, you know, I didn't have this, I didn't have that, we couldn't say this, so don't take it for granted that you live in a country where that's possible," Martinez said.

She plays her violin and we hear string music. Martinez hears the sounds of liberty.

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