Anniversary of the Mariel boatlift

It’s the anniversary of the Mariel boatlift. On a day like today, 20 May 1980, my family arrived in the United States.

Between April and September 1980, 125,000 Cubans arrived in Florida from the port of El Mariel, in a dramatic boatlift that had long-standing repercussions for the United States and for Castro’s image. It all began when a bus crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. Two guards were wounded as they shot each other, and Fidel Castro, in a fit of anger, removed the security post from the embassy entrance. ‘Bad mistake,’ recalled the chief of the newly opened U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Wayne Smith, ‘because within hours there were 10,000 Cubans inside the embassy and thousands more on the way.’ Embarrassed, the Cuban government called the refugees escoria: ‘trash.’ Castro decided to open the port of El Mariel to anyone who wanted to leave Cuba. – From PBS’s “The American Experience: Cuban Exiles in America.”

I was two-and-a-half years old when I came to the U.S. with my father, mother, and sister. She was 12 and remembers the journey. We were chatting about it some years ago over AIM and I kept that conversation. I share it with you today.

Lissette: On May 17, we left the house in Cuba.

Cosette: Really?

Lissette: Yes, but we didn’t get here until the 20th.

Cosette: Right.

Cosette: Where did we go after we left the house? Straight to the port?

Lissette: No, a place called el Mosquito. I guess an area close to el Mariel. Just a town, I guess.

Cosette: The mosquito? How nice. What for?

Lissette: We spent the 17th, 18th and half of the 19th there.

Cosette: In that town?

Lissette: The first day, we spent the whole day in some sort of line where they searched us. We were not supposed to have any jewelry or anything actually. At night they took us to these tents that had beds. Not even beds; it was like plywood. And we were there the following day and then on the 19th we took a bus that took us to Mariel. That was around noon. It took a long time to get here, about 12 hours. We got here after midnight.

Cosette: So the actual traveling part, on water by boat, took about 12 hours?

Lissette: Yep. I remember that on our way here we found two boats that had broken down and we pulled them. That’s why it took so long. They were traveling slowly. If you call my cell and I don’t answer right away it’s because I want to hear the whole Star Wars theme. So I may take long to answer.

Cosette: LOL. Ok. So you remember a lot? I don’t remember anything and my parents hardly talk about it.

Lissette: I was 12. Of course I remember. I remember I threw up. I remember my dad sitting on the boat’s edge with a leg hanging over. My mom threw up too. I remember when we were inside the boat and they turned on the engine how everybody screamed and the guards told us to shut up because we were still in Cuba. I am sure I fell asleep because I don’t remember that much about the trip, but I remember when we were en el Mosquito and also when we got here to the Keys.

Cosette: What about before? Did you know what was happening? Where we were going? Did you say goodbye to the family?

Lissette: You know what I remember? When I had my first Pepsi. It was when we were in the Orange Bowl. I asked my dad for change; I wanted to go to the fence because there was an ice cream truck on the other side, but we had no idea how much it was. My dad gave me some coins and I went and, through the gate, I gave all the coins to a man who was outside so that he could buy it for me. He gave me my money back and went and bought it for me. I always remember that.

Cosette: My dad makes a joke about it.

Lissette: About what?

Cosette: That you didn’t know what to do with the straw. He says you blew into it instead of sucking.

Lissette: LOL. You know I don’t exactly know how we got out. I knew that Danilo (our father’s uncle) and Maruja (his wife) and Oliva (her father) were trying to help my dad and had claimed him through Venezuela, but that didn’t work out. Then that thing with the Peruvian Embassy happened. My dad knew we were leaving cause he asked our grandfather to come from Oriente. They came to get us after midnight. Both grandparents were there and our cousins and Aunt Migdalia, but we couldn’t say goodbye to Aunt Yvone. She lived downstairs. She lived in an apartment that was rented by rooms. My dad knocked on the door, but apparently no one heard him.

Cosette: So I guess everyone knew. Did you know what was going on? That we were leaving and where we were going?

Lissette: No, not really. I mean, not before that. I remember Momwaking me up and telling me we’re leaving. Also we did pass by the house of Grandma Marta. I’m not sure if we saw everybody there; I don’t remember.

Cosette: So what did you think on the boat?

Lissette: I wasn’t scared or anything. I guess since I was there with my parents, I was never afraid. When you are a kid you don’t think about those things.

Cosette: So then what? We come here. Key West right?

Lissette: Yes, the Keys; I remember that. The way they helped us out of the boat. When they – the Army or the National Guard, I’m not sure (it turned out to be Alpha 1/6 United State Marine Corps) – when they saw my mom with you, they gave her diapers and baby food. They took us to like an office where we gave our names. My dad must remember that. I don’t know what else they asked. Then to a cafeteria. I don’t remember what I ate, but my dad got cigarettes. Then a bus took us to a place to spend the night. It was like a big warehouse full of those little beds. The next morning we had breakfast. It wasn’t my kind of breakfast though. I wasn’t used to cold milk and fruits, doughnuts. Then we left the Keys. I think we stopped once for people who needed to use the bathroom. I remember the ride. I remember looking at the cars.

Cosette: What struck you about the cars?

Lissette: I guess there were so many and so different, so colorful. I don’t know.

Cosette: So how long were we in the Keys? One day?

Lissette: Not even. Hours. I am assuming we must have slept from 1 or 2 in the morning till maybe noon. I don’t think they were rushing us. At whatever time we were ready then we would leave. Not sure about that though. I know we left the Keys around noon because we got to the Orange Bowl in the afternoon.

Cosette: And then what?

Lissette: I can’t tell you about the procedures, but I know that we were there, at the Orange Bowl, two or three days. I remember they gave us food and there were a lot of people inside and also outside in the street, families looking for relatives.

Cosette: Did someone come for us or did we just leave?

Lissette: Danilo (our father’s uncle) came to visit and also Oliva (Danilo’s father-in-law) but they were not allowed inside though, I don’t think. We left there by bus to the Opa-Locka place where they took our pictures, fingerprints. It was a whole day thing. I guess my dad got interviewed. It must have been immigration procedures. Rolando (a family friend) drove us home at the end of the day with Danilo and we spent that first night in Lilita’s (Rolando’s wife) old apartment.

Cosette: Where did we go after that? Is that when we split up?

Lissette: Yes. The next day, I think, we split up. That was pretty tough. I’m sure for my mom also. We had never been apart like that.

Cosette: How was that? Me and my mom somewhere, with Nena (a close relative) right? You with Aunt Carlina? And my dad?

Lissette: My dad with Danilo (his uncle). Before going with Carlina, I went to live with Maruja (Danilo’s wife) for like three months. They enrolled me in a school, I don’t even remember the name, just to help me with the English. While I was living with Maruja, they got the apartment in Hallandale, but it was a black school. So I went to Hialeah to live with Carlina. I did 7th grade in Palm Springs Jr. High. (For those unfamiliar with South Florida, Hallandale and Hialeah are cities just north of Miami, about an hour apart.) Of course there was also the crazy man’s apartment on US-1 where we stayed for one whole day.

Cosette: Right, my father tells that story. He laughs…now. So I was in Hallandale with my parents and you were with Carlina for about a year? I think I vaguely remember that.

Lissette: Hallandale was less than a year. My father was able to rent en el rancho, (an apartment complex we affectionately called “the ranch” located in Miami), but I guess they decided I should finish the 7th grade over there instead of switching me.

Cosette: So even at el rancho, you were living somewhere else? I don’t remember that.

Lissette: Yes, but not for that long, maybe 3-4 months.

Cosette: So I guess, that’s when things got “normal” for us. More settled?

Lissette: Yes, I would say that. I know my mom had a real hard time, especially when she was in Hallandale with you all alone. My dad used to leave very early and come back very late (for work). I was there on weekends only. I remember some Sundays when my dad had to work in the gas station and we would all come, but just stay around there, walk in Calle Ocho for a while or sit in the car. I remember one Friday night when Dad picked me from Carlina’s house to go to Hallandale. He was driving this car that he had bought for $20 and right on the ramp to get in the highway, it died. We both had to push it to the side. It eventually started again. He later sold that car for $200.

Cosette: He was pumping gas. He hadn’t even removed the for sale sign yet.

Lissette: LOL. Yeah, he didn’t have it for long. That was sort of his first business here. He did that a few times, since he knew about mechanics and there was such a demand. There were so many Cubans here at the same time.

Cosette: Crazy. So when did things get more settled, more comfortable? At the duplex?

Lissette: I guess once we were together things got better, but that apartment only had one bed. The duplex had one also, but it had that little room in the back.

Cosette: Which apartment?

Lissette: En el rancho, only one bedroom.

Cosette: Yeah? We all slept in one room?

Lissette: Yes, on two queen beds in the room.

Cosette: I don’t remember that at all.

Lissette: I’m not sure how long we were there. Let’s see, maybe two years? Danilo died in October 1982. We were still there. We have to look at the pictures.

Cosette: I have a few scattered memories of Hallandale and el rancho. I remember more about the duplex.

Lissette: Of course. When we went to the duplex, you were starting kinder; you were older.

Cosette: Right. I remember Riverside (Elementary School) a little, that’s from the el rancho days, but I was already like four or five at that point.

Lissette: True. So did you go to a whole kinder year in Riverside?

Cosette: No. I don’t know how long I went there, but it wasn’t the whole year. I did kinder in Coral Way, in that same building where Ingrid (my niece) was, but on the other side.

Lissette: So I wonder why did you go to Riverside? Pre-k? Or a couple of months of kinder?

Cosette: I think a few months of kinder.

Cosette: I remember this girl, Karina, in Coral Way, she used to dress like Madonna.

Lissette: Oh God. Everybody dressed like Madonna.

About the image: A U.S. Marine helps a child off one of the refugee boats. By Fenando Yovera / AP.



  • Wow… this is an amazing post… great story thanks for sharing… My grandfather (my mom’s dad) was born in Russia. They left during the communist revolt when he was just a few weeks old. Long story short. It was a dangerous departure. My dad’s family has been here since before the U.S. was a country… so our roots run deep in the USA. Thanks again… Ivan

    • Cosette

      Thank you, Ivan. I bet your grandfather had some amazing stories to tell.

      • Yes, they do. It was a frightening time and we are greatful for their efforts… After all I would not exist at all when you think about it… We are learning more about that time as the family researches the family history… And we are so thankful as I’m sure your family must be too.

        • Cosette

          Indeed. And what a great reminder of the resiliency of human beings and the diverse history of America.

  • Michael C. Owens

    Thanks for sharing that, Cosette. It’s powerful stuff!

    • Cosette Paneque

      Thanks, Mic!