As fall began to feel like winter, Yulie and Javier Carrazana squeezed into a small apartment kitchen with their families and couldn't stop talking about the tropical island they left behind.
They remembered the neighbors congregating in the streets late into the night, eating too many plantains as small children and the merciless sun that burned even the darkest of skins.
The relationship the teenaged cousins have with Cuba is like a tangled adolescent love affair: "Even with all the poverty it has and all the systems it has that I don't like, for me, Cuba is the max," Javier said. "I will never find a place like it."
More than 2½ years after the cousins joined their fathers in the U.S. and began life anew, their teachers said they are excelling.
Javier is collecting accolades for playing the trumpet and was one of about 900 students chosen from a pool of 7,000 throughout the state to perform in the New York State School Music Association's all-state symphonic band this month.
Yulie dreams of becoming an oncologist and has been recognized as a leader at school.
John Parker, who teaches English as a second language, said the cousins are the first and only Cubans he has taught in almost 26 years at Ravena. They are two of only 20 ESL students in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk School District. Most are Hispanic, but others are Albanian, Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese.
In Ravena, the number of Hispanics nearly doubled in the last 10 years, according to the Census, from 140 in 2000 to 246 in 2010. At the same time, the village's population decreased by 347.
Javier had played the trumpet in Cuba, practicing for up to six hours a day in hopes of getting into a music program in college. When the RCS music teacher assessed his ability, Javier was assigned to the band's lead trumpet role.
He sat next to a classmate who knew some Spanish so Javier wouldn't get left behind.
Javier keeps busy with after-school and weekend rehearsals and performances.
Beth Rice, a special education teacher at RCS Middle School, said Yulie serves as a cultural bridge for her family. Rice teaches Yulie's younger brother, and often sends notes home through her.
"She's just a good sister to him," Rice said. "I can tell her what I want her to get across without worry."
Yulie said she debated between studying journalism or medicine, but decided on oncology after her grandmother died of cancer of the spine about a year ago.
The cousins' journey to Ravena began in 1994 when Yulie's father, Reynaldo Carrazana, and a brother constructed a raft out of aluminum tubes and set sail with the brother's wife and son.
They spent 23 hours at sea until the U.S. Coast Guard spotted them and sent them back to Guantanamo. Nine months later, the family was resettled in Albany.
Reynaldo found a job at a commercial aviation company in Coxsackie where he helps make parts for helicopters. His brother lives in Miami.
Reynaldo eventually became a U.S. citizen and began the process of bringing his children to the country.
In 2000, Ricardo Carrazana, Javier's father and Reynaldo's brother, left Cuba on a boat in hopes of reaching Miami.
"I didn't want him to leave," his wife, Maritza Paz Carrazana said. "He would say, 'My kids are growing and my salary is not enough to have our own house, to buy them the things they need,' so he would say, 'Before I die, I have to find another way to live.'"
Ricardo arrived safely in Miami and, due to a U.S. policy that allows Cubans to qualify for permanent residency status when they reach the shore, he was allowed to stay. He joined his brother Reynaldo in Ravena and found a job at the same commercial aviation factory. He began paperwork to bring his family to the U.S.
Javier was the last to arrive, in May 2009, and Yulie said she would like to bring her mom. For now, she lives with her father, sister, stepmother and a half-brother.
Yulie's teachers describe her as shy, until she gets a pen in hand.
Thomas O'Connor, her English teacher, marveled at a myth she wrote explaining rainstorms and describing how the moon filled a crater with water melted from a frozen asteroid to wash her children's clothes. The asteroid family became angry, and hatched a plan to raid the moon for their defrosted relative. When they struck, they made sparks and tilted the moon.
"Suddenly, Mother Luna lost her balance and all the water from the crater spilled out," the myth reads. "It followed the sparks and the booming sound all the way to the Earth."
Javier said he still has trouble speaking English. He can understand, but putting his thoughts into words can be frustrating.
"In Cuba, you take English classes, but when you take English classes and you don't speak English all the time, it's not the same," he said. "I would get to class and the professor would speak and to me it would be gibberish. I passed miraculously."
He said Parker helped him with assignments and he started learning by typing words he didn't understand into Facebook.
But the teens still miss the country they love, even though they felt it forced them to leave by restricting their futures.
Yulie's father said she would not have been allowed to study medicine in Cuba simply because he escaped the country illegally. Javier said getting a spot in music school in Cuba was extremely competitive, no matter how much he practiced.
The family spoke of a system where economic and social gains depended solely on political allegiance. Students who didn't show up to political rallies in support of the government weren't allowed to continue school. At workplaces, the government sometimes sent what were luxury items like pressure cookers, to be distributed to those who had attended every political rally or had close political ties.
Javier and an older brother played guitar and the lyre in a folk music group in Cuba that traveled throughout the island. His older brother was due to travel to Venezuela as part of a tour, but on the eve of the trip he was banned from after word spread that their father was moving the family to the U.S.
In Cuba, food shortages often leave mothers wondering what they'll make for their families for dinner. Transportation within the country is difficult, and residents are not allowed to own businesses.
As Javier sat in the family's apartment kitchen and listed the orchestras and performances he's been a part of, his mother's eyes welled with tears.
"What comforts me here is my children," she said. "They will have a better future."
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