Documentary Film Reviews, Making Documentaries, and Nonfiction Storytelling

BALSEROS The Dream. The Journey. The Reality

There have been times when a morning walk, on an east coast Florida beach, would reveal a washed up, battered, homemade raft of Cuban origin. Seeing this may make you wonder where the people on those rafts ended up? Did they drown in the ocean, were they picked-up by the coast guard or did they somehow land on the beach? The documentary Balseros answers some of these questions and gives a great deal of insight into the fate of Cuban rafters known as Balseros.

With the recent thaw in US relations with Cuba this documentary may give insight into the feelings and emotions Cuban Americans feel about establishing diplomatic dialog with Cuba.

Balseros is unique in that it begins with the potential Balseros (rafters) in Cuba as they build rafts and plan their trips to Florida. After the Soviet Union dissolved it stopped supporting Cuba and a great deal of poverty resulted. You get to see the lives of certain Cuban people before they attempt this hazardous journey. The Cubans in this documentary are poor. Their families want them to have a better life and support their ambition to leave. But the people wanting to leave do not seem to have any particular skills that will help them get a job once they get to the US. They just want to escape their desperate situations.

A number of Balseros are interviewed as well as their families as they prepare and ultimately leave Cuba. There’s some limited footage of people in the ocean on rafts accompanied by voice over of rafters who survived either by making it to Florida or being picked up by the Coast Guard; who then take them to Guantanamo for sixteen months. Here they face the possibly of being repatriated to Cuba. There are scenes of the camps and interviews with the detainees held at Guantanamo in the documentary. Seven of the “rafters” who reach the US, are tracked through the process of getting accepted into the US. Afterward they are sent to various destinations in the US to live and find work.

Most immigrants gravitate to communities where there are other members of their ethnic group or country. Miami excluded, it seems like the Cubans are headed to places where there are none of the traditional supports. They have survived the ocean only to find themselves now floating in a culture they don’t understand.

The story covers a seven-year period and follows the lives of the seven Balseros who finally make it to the U.S. It becomes clear quickly that the “American Dream” can be elusive and that the lives of the new immigrants  are very difficult. They are sent to Miami, New York, Kentucky, and Nebraska with little preparation for the culture and problems they will meet.

The Cubans in this film seem to have a basic education, in one case a man is a sculptor, so the jobs they qualify for are minimum wage. There are no “rags-to-riches” scenarios in this documentary. Five of the people find work and establish a working class life style, but two of the “rafters” seem to drift in to dealing drugs and/or living on the edge. Each person has their own story. How typical the Balseros in the documentary are of others who left Cuba in this fashion is not clear. Most Cubans did not come to the United States on rafts.

The filmmakers created a story that lets you get to know the people involved, and then go with them on their journey. At the same time the film goes back to Cuba where the families, and in two cases the children, of the “rafters” still live. In some instances both the rafters and the families back in Cuba are affected by the separation. The documentary explores the world of immigrants coming to the US in a way that lets them tell their own stories for better or worse. The Spanish filmmakers avoid political comment keeping the documentary in a humanist context. The Balseros and their families narrate the film.

The last look at the seven Balseros was in 2001 when the sister of one of the women already in the US, wins a lottery to get a visa to the US. She comes to Albuquerque, New Mexico with her daughter. It’s not a happy reunion since the Balsero sister has not adjusted to life in the US very well. This is one example of the stress and alienation that these immigrants have met, largely without the support of their families being there with them. This is not to say that there wasn’t some support from friends, religious organizations and government. But there is both a language and cultural aspect that appears to be difficult to deal with. Families and friends were close-knit in Cuba, forming a support group for each other.  In their new country they often do not have that available..

Most of the Balseros in the documentary have adjusted to a new life; they have jobs and feel they are happy in their new country. Balseros is interesting from a sociological, historical and humanist perspective.

Review by J R Martin – Author Create Documentary Films, Videos and Multimedia


Trailer Español


May be available on Netflix.



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