“Powerful and gripping reading. It captures vividly the denigrating, dangerous, and harrowing experiences that a human being will endure in the pursuit of freedom.”—Yvonne M. Conde, author of Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children
“The exodus of Cubans after the Castro revolution is one of the largest, and at times, most dramatic epics in human history. Voices from Mariel provides a vivid and accurate record of a major migration episode in the Cuban experience.”—Jaime Suchlicki, author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond
“The accounts of the struggles and accomplishments of this group of migrants in adjusting to American society under difficult political conditions attest to their perseverance and determination.”—Gaston A. Fernandez, author of The Mariel Exodus: Twenty Years Later
Between April and September 1980, more than 125,000 Cuban refugees fled their homeland, seeking freedom from Fidel Castro’s dictatorship. They departed in boats from the Port of Mariel and braved the dangerous 90-mile journey across the Straits of Florida. Told in the words of the immigrants themselves, the stories in Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the 1980 Cuban Boatlift offer an up-close view of this international crisis, the largest oversea mass migration in Latin American history.
Former refugees describe what it was like to gather among thousands of dissidents on the grounds of the Peruvian embassy in Cuba, where the movement first began. They were abused by the masses who protested them as they made their way to the Mariel harbor before they were finally permitted to leave the country by Castro in an attempt to disperse the civil unrest. They waited interminably for boats in oppressive heat, squalor, and desperation at the crowded tent camp known as “El Mosquito.” They embarked on vessels overloaded with too many passengers and battled harrowing storms on their journeys across the open ocean.
Author José Manuel García, who emigrated on the Mariel boatlift as a teenager, describes the events that led to the exodus and explains why so many Cubans wanted to leave the island. The shockingly high numbers of refugees who came through immigration centers in Key West, Miami, and other parts of the United States was a message—loud and clear—to the world of the people’s discontent with Castro’s government and the unfulfilled promises of the Cuban Revolution.
Based on the award-winning documentary of the same name, Voices from Mariel features the experiences of Marielitos from all walks of life. These are stories of disappointed dreams, love for family and country, and hope for a better future. This book illuminates a powerful moment in history that will continue to be felt in Cuba and the United States for generations to come.
José Manuel García is associate professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Florida Southern College. He wrote the script for the international award-winning documentary Voices From Mariel and is the author of La literatura cubanoamericana y su imagen.
In this interview, José Manuel García tells us about his new book and his own experiences in the Mariel boatlift.
What was the driving force behind wanting to document the personal experiences of those involved in the Mariel boatlift?
I wanted to tell my own personal story and the stories of many other Mariel boatlift refugees through their own voices. I also wanted to recover the history of this little-known exodus for present and future generations. Lastly, I wanted to help change the negative stigma that for some time has accompanied the Mariel boatlift refugees.
You were a teenager when you left Cuba during the boatlift. What was that journey like?
My journey from Cuba was very traumatic in many different ways. My family was accompanied by the constant fear that we might be separated when my father was arrested, and we almost lost our lives during our voyage to the United States.
Recent studies have shown that Mariel refugees assimilated more quickly into American culture than the Cuban immigrants who came before them. Why do you think that is?
Most Mariel boatlift refugees being born under the revolution were younger than the Cuban immigrants that arrived in the 1960s and early ’70s. As a result, it was easier for them to learn to speak English and assimilate more quickly. By the same token many of them were blacks or mulatoes, and they suffered some of the discrimination prevalent in American society.
You had the opportunity to talk to other Marielitos as part of your research for your book. Was there a particular story that stood out to you?
All of the people who I interviewed had something unique in their story. However, what I found most consistent was a deep frustration with the revolution and a desire to escape from the Island.
Have you noticed any differences between how the older and younger generations remember Cuba?
I have noticed that most of the older Mariel boatlift refugees still hold onto the idea of one day living in a democratic and open Cuba. The younger generation also appears to be nostalgic, but they don’t share the same desire to live in a future Cuba.
In Scarface, Al Pacino plays the role of a Cuban refugee who left on the Mariel boatlift and became the bloodthirsty leader of a drug cartel. How common was the belief that Cuban immigrants would bring violence to America?
The belief that Marielitos would bring violence to the U. S. was reinforced not only by the movie Scarface but also by some of the boatlift criminals who evaded U.S. authorities and ended up on the streets. For a long time Mariel boatlift refugees were perceived as criminals by Cuban Americans and other U.S. citizens, and they suffered rejection.
Are there any famous people readers might be surprised to learn are Marielitos?
Some famous Marielitos include writers Mirta Ojito and Reinaldo Arenas, opera singer Elizabeth Caballero, rapper Felix Delgado (known as Cuban Link), and actor Rene Lavan.
How have Marielitos contributed to Miami, South Florida, and the nation as we know them today?
Marielitos had a profound impact in Miami and in the U.S. in many different areas. They helped Cuban Americans to become more in touch with their cultural roots, and this sparked a renewed interest in Cuban art, literature, and painting. Other Marielitos have also created some of Miami’s most successful businesses today, and many have become successful professionals in almost every facet of American life.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope that readers at large learn about the Mariel boatlift as an important historical event that affected the U.S. and Cuba in a profound ways. I also hope to help change the negative image associated with the Mariel immigrants and show what they have been able to overcome. Lastly, I hope that my book and my documentary become an important testimony for the descendants of the Mariel boatlift as they learn about what their parents and grandparents had to endure to come to America.
What are you working on next?
For my next project, I would like to focus on writing a book and producing a documentary on Cuba’s Special Period and the subsequent crisis known as the Balsero exodus of 1994.