Boarding a 24-foot handmade boat Faustina Mercedes and a group of 8 men and 7 women prepared to travel the 100 miles across the shark-infested Mona Passage in hopes of a better life in Puerto Rico.
The group left on January 3, from a quiet beach in the town of Sabana de la Mar. They each paid between $125-$250, which works out to be about 2 months' salary in a minimum wage job.
Shortly after boarding they realized their compass was broken and they were lost at sea.
Food and water didn't last long, and they passengers were stranded without resources in just 3 days. The gasoline also ran out, so with dehydration getting worse, things started to look grim for the travelers.
Sores started to appear on the passengers' bodies, while the weakest laid on the bottom of the boat in a state of delirium.
By the 5th day, after saying her prayers, Faustina came up with an idea.
The 31-year-old mother had a 1-year-old daughter back home who she was nursing.
"That was God who put that idea in my head, and he just worked through me," Faustina said.
That's when Faustina asked her sister, Elena Mercedes, to try her milk. She did, and then she used her mouth to give some of the milk back to Faustina who was very thirsty. The sisters started to feel better immediately, that's when the mother made a very generous offer to all of the travelers.
"At that point, there was nothing more than prayer and my sister's breast," Elena said.
While floating at sea, another passenger Roberto Rodriguez used the edge of a nail clipper to cut an apple they found floating in the ocean into 16 pieces. They also found a half-rotten orange in the choppy waters that was pushed towards them.
Waving to cruise and cargo ships that passed seemed to be pointless.
On the morning of their 12th day, their prayers were answered. They spotted what appeared to be land, in the horizon. Using some wood from the sides of the boat, they began to row. After hitting some rough water and some reefs they were able to get the boat onto the beach.
"We did this because we had to. No one wants to leave their children behind," said Santa Demorizzi, a 24 year-old mother of 2 who worries about how to feed and educate her children in a town where there is no work. "Now we're back here, thankful we're alive, but even more worried because we sold the few things we had so we could pay the fee to leave."
Faustina has been given the name "Little Angel of the Sea", for her quick thinking that helped save the lives of all the passengers on board that little boat.
Their story is not a rare one, however. Many Dominicans end up lost at sea while they're traveling to the hopes of a better life. The same week this group made it back to shore, another handcrafted boat carrying 45 people sank off the coast of of Miches, and their bodies are still missing.
“The Mona is treacherous,” says US Coast Guard Captain Drew Pearson, the man in charge of patrolling the Mona. “It can be nearly calm one minute, and then have 8-10 foot seas the next minute. And that can lead to a boat capsizing or people being ejected into the water.”
Thousands of people from the Dominican Republic attempt to flee to Puerto Rico by sea every year. Some are caught by the United States Coast Guard, while others make landfall undetected.
“Thousands of Dominican migrants try to reach Puerto Rico as illegal immigrants in open boats that are ill-suited to the treacherous journey,” one reporter wrote.