The Cuban people have a long history of battling the hardships of their home country. Many lacking proper housing, enduring a food shortage leaving many families unfed, and an economy stagnated by the irresponsibility of the Castro dictatorship.
However, none of this compared to the lack of freedom. Religions of all kinds are banned completely, leaving people to practice their faith in secrecy, or not at all. Freedom of speech continues to be outlawed, making speaking ill about the government a federal crime.
In 1980, dictator Fidel Castro declared that anyone who wanted to leave the island was free to do so through the Mariel Boatlift. President Jimmy Carter ordered that the government help with the intake of the exiles, proclaiming that the United States would "provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination.”
This mass exodus of hopeful immigrants brought a total of 125,000 Cubans who sought to escape the Castro regime for a life in search of the American Dream. This group of immigrants became known as The Marielitos.
Today about 2 million people of Cuban descent are living in the United States, 60% of these residing in Florida. With them, these immigrants brought a rich culture that has evolved with American influence throughout several generations.
To better understand what this life-altering immigration experience was like for Cuban-Americans, we connected with two who were willing to share their stories.
What Was Life Like in Cuba?
Marina Garcia immigrated to this country at the age of 31 and brought with her nothing but the clothes on her back and two young daughters.
She describes life in Cuba as a difficult one, where freedoms that we, as Americans, take for granted, are concepts they could only dream of obtaining.
“If a student wants to further their education, they don’t get to choose what career to go into, they are only permitted to study what the government assigns them.” She explained that it was commonplace for university students to be pulled out of school to spend their days working without pay in agricultural camps.
To accomplish this free labor, they would be forced to put their studies on hold. When students graduate high school, many are legally obligated to join the military.
Millie Milone, the daughter of Marina Garcia, immigrated on the Mariel Boatlift at the young age of 12. Because of her age, her perspective of life in Cuba is different from that of her adult counterparts.
“Once a year children were permitted to obtain a new toy.” she told us, remembering her childhood “I still remember the date - July 26th - a day that nationally celebrated the revolution that brought Castro to power”.
Communist indoctrination and brainwashing began young “Every morning we’d line up in front of the school and we’d recite a chant: ‘Pioneers for Communism, We Will Be Like Che’” for reference, Che Guevara was an Argentinian who helped Castro rise to his dictatorship power.
What Was It Like to Leave Your Home Country?
Castro announced to Cuban citizens that people choosing to leave were traitors to their country and encouraged their tormenting.
“We had to perfectly time getting to a car to take us to the dock because rioters took to the streets throwing eggs and tomatoes. We had to wait until rioters destroyed our house before we could leave” recalled Millie in a melancholy tone.
“Because of the chaos, there were a lot of family members I never got to say goodbye to. People I loved that I would never see again. That's when it hit me that there was no going back to the life I knew.”
What Was It Like To Immigrate on the Mariel Boatlift?
Before boarding the boatlift itself, families were moved through various waiting camps sited at military barracks on the Cuban coast. Thousands of people were crammed into space only made for a few hundred.
“The scene practically looked like a concentration camp from a WWII movie” added Marina’s husband, Gilberto Garcia.
Bathrooms were designated holes in the ground, and food was a scarce commodity at these camps. Marina recalled that at one point, the Cuban government brought sugar to the starving exiles, but spilled it in the sand.
People were so desperate for food that many were eating sand mixed with sugar by the handful. “Nights were very cold and our family of four shared only one blanket.”
The boats were extremely overcrowded, with triple the passengers than the boat was intended for. People had even less access to food and water. Millie recalls one of the most traumatic moments of the commute when her sister grew extremely pale, weak, and dehydrated:
“My father found a counter where watermelon had been cut. He scooped the remaining liquid from the counter into his hands to give to my dying sister. To this day we believe that those few drops of water are what saved her life.”
Castro claimed that this mass exodus was Cuba’s way of “flushing the toilet”. On a boatlift with thousands of children and families, he included prostitutes, criminals, and mentally ill people. The trip was about 12 hours long despite being only a short distance of 90 miles.