Jose Carricarte had to survive his own country before he landed in another.
The 52-year-old North Las Vegas resident weathered gale force winds and “mountain”-sized waves on his 20-hour voyage to the United States more than 30 years ago.
Just a few months earlier, the Cuban emigre was living on tea leaves in a Havana concentration camp for political dissidents.
He and his family’s harrowing 200-mile boat trip between Mariel Harbor and Miami — one Carricarte survived only by strapping himself to a boat mast with a length of sailor’s rope — was Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s idea of clemency, an offer taken up by 125,000 Cuban-Americans who organized the Mariel boatlift between April and October 1980.
Carricarte, then 19, watched his as his parents were tortured, beaten and nearly starved for three months in exchange for his family’s treacherous passage to the United States.
He remembers it too well to talk about it much.
“When we went into the camp, I wasn’t sure we would make it,” Carricarte said. “There was no food. My father took wood from the camp windows to make fire and leaves from the trees to make a kind of tea.
“I try not to remember it, but that’s what we went through to leave (Cuba).”
Carricarte wasn’t broken by the experience.
Adrift in a new country, without a word of English or a single memento from home, he turned to one of the few things he was able to carry from Havana: jiujitsu.
Carricarte first took up martial arts as an 8-year-old, training for almost a decade under Sensei Segitoshi Morita, then the sole living practitioner of a style of jiujitsu, Shin Kansen Ryu, that dates to Japan’s samurai families.
Carricarte was already an Olympic-caliber athlete by the time he landed on U.S. shores, more than good enough to pay the bills through jiujitsu competitions and university judo instruction.
It’s been more than four decades since Morita first took Carricarte under his wing, but the self-discipline and control he inspired in his pupil has stuck with him for a lifetime.
“(Jiujitsu) gets in your blood,” Carricarte said. “(Morita) used to say it’s not a fighting philosophy; it’s a life philosophy. He taught me a lot, gave me a lot of confidence to know that I could survive a lot of things in life.”
Today, Carricarte and Liber Aguiar, another Cuban refugee, are the only two carrying on Morita’s martial arts tradition in the United States.
The pair happened upon the same dojo in Sunrise resident Jimmy Lockett’s garage late last month, there to take part in some light sparring and a belt award ceremony for some of the city’s younger jiujitsu pupils.
Carricarte is big but not intimidating. He’s soft-spoken, almost shy. He goes to work as a security guard at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and comes home to Nancy, his wife of 26 years. By this time next year, he hopes have opened his own martial arts school in North Las Vegas.
But to Lockett and others, Carricarte is a star, easily one of the top martial artists in the country.
Flashbulbs popped across Lockett’s living room as Carricarte grunted and threw people around the mat in his garage.
“I’ve practiced martial arts for 48 years, and I can tell you Sensei Carricarte is one of the premier practitioners of jiujitsu in the world,” Lockett said. “He’s one of the few people who knows the traditional, ancient Japanese art of jiujitsu and the last person to study directly under (Morita).
“Once we found that out, I started videotaping every class he taught because what he does is extremely rare, and I don’t think there’s anybody doing it at his level.”
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839.