Every month of May brings to mind a very special anniversary, with mixed emotions I recall memories, images blurred by the passing of years, maybe post traumatic stress syndrome, but still the end result is a remembrance of the very special moment in which freedom became more than a word in my vocabulary. This anniversary date gave new meaning to the life of a fourteen year old Cuban, stepping off a crowded boat and touching the very soil of a FREE land. 34 years later, these are the thoughts and memories of a Mariel boatlift refugee, still celebrating every May 27 as her own freedom day.
For many Americans, if they remember the event at all, it is a thought back to the chaotic situation created in South Florida during a period of a few months in the year 1980. The event known as the Mariel boatlift lasted from April 15 to September 26 becoming a factor of the Cuban-American relations, creating drastic changes and evolution on social and economic levels and eventually becoming a permanent part of this country’s history. It all started with a politically embarrassing situation created in Havana by a group of freedom searching individuals who decided to take refuge, by force, in the Peruvian embassy. This incident grew out of control as the initial hand full turned to thousands of asylum seekers and the government, in an attempt to “save face” in the eyes of the world press, decided to open a door with a loud statement that “all who wanted to leave the island due to their discontent with the system could do so.” But, the result of this action was even more dramatic and news worthy event, because as soon as it became known to the world, from the coast of South Florida, thousands of vessels headed to Cuba’s Mariel Harbor in the hopes of picking up their family members and loved ones.
This harbor was the government designated “door”, and it became the point of hope and freedom to the many who had been waiting desperately to find a way out of the repression of communism. Nothing could anticipate the numbers involved in this historic freedom movement; the thousands of vessels of all sizes making the 90 mile trip in sometimes adverse weather and returning with overcrowded loads that in many cases required rescues by the US Coast Guard. Reinforcements from the Navy had to intervene due to the fact that many of the vessels were not meant for this type of voyage, and many groups had to be rescued as they were in danger of sinking or had ran out of fuel. Refugees had to be ferried to the mainland via commercial watercraft, many requiring assistance due to medical emergencies, dehydration and the fact that, essentially, some were traveling in less-than-desirable modes of transit, i.e. anything that would float.
If families traveling from the US were risking their lives during their sea voyage, for those of us still on the island and in a situation of total obscurity of news and facts, the waiting game was just as dangerous. The general population of Cuba during this time was agitated by political propaganda against the US and especially against those “traitors” or “earth worms” (their favorite nick-name for those favoring a life of freedom in America); there were frequent riots, protest marches and even physical assault of life and property of those found to be on the list to leave the country via Mariel. We had received news from our family in Miami alerting the presence of an uncle on a ship but there was no tentative date for departure or way for us to contact him once he was at Mariel harbor. Thus we had to be alert and very reserved about our impending departure; we had to be at home the majority of the time since the visit from a government official with the notice could come at any time. But at the same time, our activities and behavior had to look “normal” to the rest of the neighborhood to avoid suspicion that could lead to abuse of any kind. Only our very close family friends knew of our situation. We actually snuck valuables across the back patio wall in the middle of the night, to a trustworthy neighbor who could distribute things once we were out of the country.
The call came on May 21, late in the afternoon and by good fortune, the entire family group was home. The order, we had one hour to report to a government designated location; the house was then sealed with all our possessions inside and my parents, my sister and I walked out with just the clothes we were wearing. The meeting point for all departing was in Havana, about 40 minutes from our home, a place that turned out to be a giant field by the sea, guarded by a tall wall and giant wooden gate. I hold a vivid memory of that gate opening to reveal a grassy large area and a huge crowd of hundreds, maybe thousands, all with the same wondering look in their eyes, some very tired, hungry, sunburned. They had been there for days… we had to survive our stay in this location for five. Food (a small ham sandwich and soda) was sometimes available for sale, but the majority of those waiting had not taken the provision of carrying cash. There was hardly any shade to prevent dehydration and sunburns. We slept on a thin mattress that I, as a fourteen year old, had to physically fight for from the hands of angry and desperate adults as only a few were thrown into the crowd.
All four of us made it through the discomfort, the heat and most importantly the investigation process which all families had to face just before being transferred to the second holding post. This necessary process worried us due to the fact the it there were many rumors that the government was purposely splitting families, and that anyone with a position of professional link or importance to the national economy was not going to be allowed to leave, even if they were on the claiming list. My father, with a PhD in Biology and with extensive knowledge in Agronomy and Zootechnics, had been laid off just prior to the Mariel event, due to lack of political involvement, and his identification read “unemployed.” As we moved from table to table of the investigation process, the possibility of my father’s profession becoming an obstacle was on all of our minds. But we were blessed by the labeling on the ID and the fact that when my father was questioned about his profession and he replied Zootechnics, the person asked “what is this?” and my father’s reply saved us all… “I am a cow hand and I clean stables”… the hand came down and a stamp cleared our family for departure.
We were moved to the next “concentration camp” was a place called “Mosquito” (not a very comforting name.) But this was a better organized location as it was very close to the harbor and therefore had better access to global media. Thus the changes in presentation including large army tents, bedding and meals provided for those waiting for the final boarding call. To our surprise, we did not even settle in Mosquito, because our boat name “Sun Lioness” was called through the loud speakers less than one hour from our arrival and we quickly headed to the port. It was late afternoon on May 26 as we boarded the large shrimp boat at Mariel harbor, along with other families and a large group which boarded last and was kept in a separate area of the boat. We all knew that these were what the government was labeling “undesirables”, and were being forced out of the country, released from jails and mental health facilities. It was the regime’s attempt to slap the face of the freedom movement and at the same time, a way to clean their own house without effort or moral concern.
Anchors lifted… but at this time of the journey, as the island became smaller in the distance and the sun began to set, my memories fail me, and thoughts become blurred. I am not sure if this is a selective way of not dealing with the loss of a of life left behind, the traumatic experiences of the days we had just lived, or anticipation of the great unknown ahead. I don’t recall the eight hours it took for us to cross the sea; the weather must have been kind to us. The morning found us on the shores of Key West, along with many other vessels of all sizes, all overcrowded like ours. After many hours that turned unbearable as the ship rocked back and forth and the sun rose hot and steamy over our heads, we were allowed to step off… our first steps in the land of the free… and a drink in a small paper cup of cold Coca Cola. This I remember well!
These are the memories that after 34 years still bring back loads of emotions, the hugs from grandparents, uncles, cousins that I had never met and the joy of family reuniting after so many years of cruel separation. These are memories that are vivid with colors, smells and tastes. The firsts of many things that I had never experienced and that for many would seem simply insignificant because they are taken for granted. But most importantly of all is the fact that our long awaited dream of being totally free had become a reality. We were also thankful for the fast processing of our entry immigration paperwork, as our family had all required forms previously filed. For the great majority arriving, the initial stages in this country was a bit more chaotic and harsh. Many were placed in refugee camps, but crowded conditions in South Florida immigration processing centers forced U.S. federal agencies to move many of the “Marielitos” to other centers in other states. Approximately 125,000 Cubans arrived at the United States’ shores in about 1,700 boats, creating large waves of people that overwhelmed not only the immigration services, but also had great impact on the economic situation of South Florida counties.
The chaos and overload of population was scary for many locals, there were social divisions and unstable conditions for months and even years. But in this, a country who’s history is made up of many layers of immigrants, this wave was just one more obstacle to cross and one way to show the world that difficult circumstances can lead to progress. Miami is proof of this, emerging through the years after Mariel, a stronger city and a leading example to many other regions of the country.
For us, the newly arrived, we took the first steps into a way of life where anything was possible. We learned a new language, integrated ourselves to schools, jobs, eventually created new businesses, and some have even become economic and political leaders of solid reputation. As for my own experience… I always look back, remember where I came from, remember the road travelled, the obstacles overcome, and Mariel will always be an important turning point, that point where the door opened one clear May day, and I stepped through to freedom.