40 years later, Cuban Americans reflect on the Mariel Boatlift

In this May 1980 file photo, refugees from Cuba stand on the deck of their boat as they arrive at a rainy Key West, Fla. In the Mariel Boatlift, more than 100,000 Cubans fled the island by sea in the space of just six months. Photo: Associated Press
By Amanda M. Perez

In this May 1980 file photo, refugees from Cuba stand on the deck of their boat as they arrive at a rainy Key West, Fla. In the Mariel Boatlift, more than 100,000 Cubans fled the island by sea in the space of just six months. Photo: Associated Press

40 years later, Cuban Americans reflect on the Mariel Boatlift

By Amanda M. Perez
University of Miami faculty members remember the impact the mass immigration had on South Florida, and they share personal experiences from that time.

On April 20, 1980, the Castro regime made a surprise announcement that would allow all Cubans who wished to leave the communist country to board boats at the port of Mariel in Havana and flee to the United States. For Sonia Chao, a young Cuban American and University of Miami student, the unprecedented decision was met with mixed emotion. 

“I recalled thinking that my father was crazy for being among the first to leave on a boat headed towards Mariel harbor, in an effort to retrieve my family members who were living on the island. I was extremely anxious, but on the other hand, I was excited to be able to meet family members for the first time,” said Chao, who is now a research associate professor and director ofthe School of Architecture’s Center for Urban & Community Design.

The exodus was a result of a decision by Cuban leader Fidel Castro after thousands of asylum seekers took refuge in the Peruvian embassy in Cuba. Within a span of several months, more than 125,000 Cubans packed hundreds of boats and made the journey across the Florida Straits to the U.S., predominantly settling in South Florida. The mass immigration into Miami brought a wide range of responses from those who were already living in the area. 

“We witnessed different reactions. There was initial joy by many Cuban Americans because they were able to reunite with their family members, meanwhile rumors circulated of how some of the jails and insane asylums might have been emptied out by Castro,” Chao said.

While it was later confirmed that Castro forced private vessels from the U.S. to take released inmates on board, Chao explained that the mass immigration played a pivotal role in shaping Miami into what it is today.

“From its earliest days, Miami has been defined by altering waves of corruption and of natural disasters. The boatlift happened during a period of Miami’s history defined by illegal [drug-related] activities that were already happening before the boatlift. As it turns out, some Cubans arriving by way of the flotillas did end up being involved in illegal activities. On the other hand, the great majority of individuals and families were wonderful human beings who’s aim was to be a part of and contribute towards a productive society and they did so despite many hurdles,” she said.

Chao learned about the stories of these immigrants firsthand when she decided to help process the flow of people into Miami while she was a student in the School of Architecture. 

“A group of us at the then department of Architecture learned the news that the processing centers were looking for individuals who were bilingual and who could help in trying to filling out the initial paperwork with the Cubans who were arriving, so we decided to volunteer and help in any way we could,” Chao explained.

Her goal while volunteering was to help make the process more comforting to those who were scared.

“I just thought about my family members arriving in a country where they didn’t speak the language and how that must feel disorienting, so I thought why not help make that process less intimidating and less painful,” she added.

She remembers the different emotions that filled the immigration tents initially located near Krome Avenue in Florida City.

“Often the fear was palpable and the mental and physical exhaustion apparent.  There were families who were happy to be in the United States, but who were also confused and not sure what would happen next. They weren’t guaranteed they would actually get to stay, so trying to help reduce their anxiety and stress levels, by providing them with information and an awareness of the process was part of the roll I felt I had,” she recounts.

Lillian Manzor, who is also Cuban American and an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and founding director of the Cuban Theater Digital Archive, explained that the people who immigrated to Miami during the boatlift came from all walks of life.

“There were people of all ages, from kids to senior citizens to gay and straight, as well as a large percentage of Afro-Cuban descendants and the working class,” Manzor noted. “The impact of having such a large group of Cubans all of a sudden really shifted the demographics of the city.”

She believes that in many ways, they had a strong influence in shaping what Miami is today.

“There were also a large number of artists, writers, painters, directors, filmmakers, and actors who changed the cultural life of Miami for the better,” Manzor added.

“People experienced multiple sides of Miami. Some folks chose to see the negative impact, but the truth is that the majority of changes were positive and contributed to Miami’s economic growth and helped Miami transform into an economic and cultural hub,” Chao pointed out. 

Manzor has introduced a new course at the University of Miami that will teach students more about this important time in history, and she will take advantage of year-long programs organized by the Cuban Heritage Collection to supplement her instruction.

“I am working with Dr. Michael Bustamante, a colleague from FIU, and together we are going to analyze not only the impact of the Mariel Boatlift in the 1980s, but also the antecedents of what was happening in Cuba and Miami before it happened,” she said. 

She hopes to cover a variety of other topics including the complex relationship between Cuba and the U.S. during the midst of the Cold War, along with the changes in immigration policies throughout the years.

“During the course we want to incorporate and invite faculty members and people of the community who lived in Miami or South Florida during the Mariel era and can speak about their experience to students,” she remarked. “We also hope to bring in colleagues from the medical school and public health sector who can speak about the AIDs epidemic and migration,” she added. 

Manzor believes courses like this are necessary to keep important pieces of history alive.

“Historically, the Mariel Boatlift has tended to disappear from many people’s memories,” Manzor said. “Given that South Florida was the epicenter of this mass migration, I think it’s important to approach it from an interdisciplinary perspective and bring a more nuanced understanding of what happened at this time in history.”