With the 30th Anniversary of the Mariel Boat Lift on the horizon, my memory once again relives our family’s ordeal leaving Cuba. As a then nine year old, my recollections are fragmentary, impressionistic, and out of sync with the chronology of those events; however, they are central to my sense of identity and they are likely to awaken similar memories in those of my readers who also were Mariel refugee children.
One of the most traumatic memories is about the “acto de repudio” to which our family was subjected days before our departure. It was during the night when a mob of about a hundred surrounded our house and came into our garden. Almost all of them had been brought from neighboring communities. These people wondered through our town harassing/assaulting families who had acknowledged leaving the country. There was a rumor that our family was leaving too, even though we had not confirmed it with the local authorities. The mob not only shouted insults at us and current slogans such as “afuera la gusanera” and “escoria,” but they also threw eggs and rocks at our home’s façade. I remember that my parents kept the lights inside and outside turned off. Inside the dark house the four of us could hear with horror the threatening noises of the frenzied mob. At a certain moment we thought that the front door was about to give in, since they were pushing it from the outside. I remember that a rock came through a window blind and almost hit my six year old brother in the head. I can’t recall where my little brother and I were hiding, but I know we were together. I also recall that my father was angry and my mother was pleading with him not to open the door. I don’t remember when the mob left nor when I went to sleep, but I know that night my life and my feelings for my town changed. My parents did not let me go back to school anymore, nor play with my friends ever again, and for the first time I felt real fear walking the streets of Manguito.
I am also drawn to a haunting vision; that is, the night when we surreptitiously sneaked out of town, the earlier painful separation from my grandparents, the many difficulties at a processing site, and the arrival days later to the port of Mariel, where a bay full of small crafts, waiting to pick up relatives, so crowded the harbor that one could hardly see the water.
The process for leaving Cuba was difficult enough for most people, but for my father it represented running a most formidable gauntlet. Because of his position as mechanical engineer at the Central España sugar mill, he knew that he would not be permitted to leave the country. Thus, in order to enter the processing site, he relied on an old ID card that listed him as an assistant at Central España. This ruse allowed us to enter the seaside camp called “El mosquito,” where for several days we endured all kinds of difficulties: limited food and water, no sanitary facilities, and sleeping on the sand, surrounded by many families in a similar predicament. One particularly terrifying memory relates to this one time when my mother and I had to use the bathroom, but since there was no such facility, we went behind a sand dune that, despite having some kind of vegetation cover, did not prevent two armed milicianos from approaching and watching us. My mother was in her early thirties and I was only nine years old. My mother told me not to tell my father.
As days went by, my father worried that officials at the sugar mill would figure out that his absence from work was related to the Boat Lift, and that his identity card trick would be discovered. Nevertheless, after what seemed an eternity, we were bused to the actual port of Mariel, and were taken to the boat where my father’s sister had endured 36 days of hardships waiting for us. When my aunt left Miami to pick us up, she had not anticipated that the processing of so many people would be so time consuming. Two weeks after her arrival to Mariel, she had run out of her epilepsy medication. Despite her recurring seizures and Captain Rubén Legrá's urging for her return on another boat to Miami, she refused to leave, risking her health making sure that her brother and family got out. Therefore, because of my aunt’s health and the risky conditions of my father’s departure, it was decided to leave without waiting for final clearance.
We left Cuba on an overloaded craft, the Nettie May, on May 27, 1980, taking advantage of the dark and under the cover of a brewing storm. The children were sent below deck and the adults had to face the storm on deck. Down below, there was a great deal of crying. I remember kids asking for their parents, while I busied myself in attending to my little brother. The boat had engine problems on several occasions. Many got seasick, and as we were approaching US waters, a Coast Guard helicopter lifted my mother and other very ill passengers to a medical facility in Key West. Thus, I arrived to Key West in the company of my father, brother and aunt, but not knowing the whereabouts of my mother.
Although thirty years have gone by, I have to admit that those bitter memories sometimes well up from my subconscious, reminding me of their existence. I don’t suppress them; I turn them into motivating tools. I want the best in life for me, my loved ones, and all of the Mariel refugees; especially, the ones who were children at the time. And the fact that we have done well gives me satisfaction. I don’t hate those who tormented us as we were leaving the island, they are the ones who have suffered and will continue to do so until there is real change in Cuba.