Leaving one’s homeland is never an easy choice – especially for Cubans who frequently are forced to leave behind friends and family in order to embark on a difficult and dangerous journey with, until recently, no realistic expectation of ever being able to return.
But many have felt the risk is worth taking when it comes to the promise of being able to live the American dream.
Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu is a prime example.
In 2013, Abreu made a perilous sea journey, escaping Cuba and establishing residency in the Dominican Republic in order to become a big league free agent.
That October, the White Sox signed Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract. And while it took the 29-year-old some time to get used to his new surroundings, he has been holding his own in acclimating himself to life in the U.S.
“First of all I want to thank everybody who helped me get [out of Cuba],” Abreu told Fox News Latino through a translator. He added, “Second, I’m very grateful to the U.S. government … agencies that helped me get this opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity that he has made the most of.
In just two seasons, he established himself as one of MLB’s premiere players, reaching 30 home runs and 100 RBIs each year.
In 2014, he was named to the American League All-Star team, awarded the Rookie of the Year and won a Silver Slugger Award, given to the best offensive player at every position.
Because of that success, Abreu’s already being compared to great Latino sluggers like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. He is humbled by those comparisons.
“Every time someone names me among [those guys], that makes me feel very happy. I admire them, I grew up watching them, and they represent the Latino culture at a very high level,” he told FNL.
Abreu was born in 1987 in the Cienfuegos province south of Havana, and he began his baseball career playing for the Cienfuegos Elephants of the Cuban Serie Nacional, and later the country’s national squad.
Despite being a slugger with nearly a .300 career average and starring for Cuba at the 2013 World Baseball Classic (during which he hit .383 with 3 home runs), his salary amounted to just a few dollars a week on the communist island.
Adjusting to big league baseball may not have taken long for Abreu, but adjusting to American life is a different matter.
The biggest part of that ongoing process has been learning English. This offseason the slugger began taking lessons in the hopes of one day being able to speak directly to American fans and media.
“Right now, it’s a process,” said Abreu through White Sox team translator Billy Russo. “During the season, all of my focus is on winning games. So sometimes it is hard to focus on things outside of baseball. Next offseason I will continue the lessons, but right now all of my focus is on trying to help this team win games and get to the postseason.”
Abreu’s big-league career comes during a historic time in U.S.-Cuban relations. The countries have begun to mend fences after decades of isolation and distrust that brought them to the brink of war.
Abreu is hopeful the change will help revive the economy of his impoverished homeland and make it easier for Cuban players to reach the majors.
“[The changes] are very important for the people of Cuba,” Abreu told FNL. “They need the help – there are so many people in need there. And with all of these things that are happening now, the people can benefit. This could also be a big step forward for Cuban players.”
Politics aside, Abreu is enjoying his time in Chicago. “I’m thankful to God that I have this opportunity to play in the big leagues. [The fans] are very nice – they make me happy – and I’m living the dream.”