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The Pride of the Marielitos

Three stories from the boatlift that left Cuba 35 years ago

En español | At Maria Elena Rodriguez's three-bedroom home in southern Miami-Dade County, a miniature basketball hoop hangs on the living room doorknob, boxes of stuffed animals fill a closet, plastic dinosaurs litter the lawn. They're part of the happy mess surrounding a grandmother whose family has thrived in the 35 years since they arrived penniless from Cuba during the chaos of the Mariel boatlift.

Rodriguez was five months pregnant with a 3-year-old in tow when she and her husband, plus his mother and grandmother, boarded a boat headed for Florida. In the chaos of their sudden flight, Rodriguez left behind her shoes and the one bag she had packed with a few toys for her son.

Cuban Mariel Boatlift, Maria Rodriguez, Marielitos, 35th anniversary

David Yellen

Maria Rodriguez

Rewriting their story

When the family arrived, she and her husband, Guillermo, struggled to find work to provide for their growing family, competing with tens of thousands of other Mariel refugees for scarce jobs in an overwhelmed city.

"The Christmas of 1980 was the hardest," she recalled. "That Christmas, my son only had one toy." It would be years before the Rodriguezes could afford their comfortable, toy-strewn home where their grandchildren come to play.

More than 125,000 Cubans arrived in South Florida over a period of a few months in 1980. Tens of thousands, like the Rodriguezes, settled in Miami, where they faced discrimination because Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had declared he would empty his prisons and mental health hospitals into the boats that were headed for the U.S. The term "Marielito" became an insult, even though later studies determined that only a few thousand of those who arrived in the boatlift had been jailed in Cuba, and many of them had been political prisoners.

Thirty-five years later, the Marielitos have reclaimed that term — and rewritten the narrative. They started businesses, got college and graduate degrees, became lawyers, teachers, doctors and judges. After years of working two and three jobs, Rodriguez and her husband started a small clothing store that continues to sustain the family, and they bought a home.

Many Marielitos have stories of almost not making it off the island.

Maria Cabrera's father-in-law chartered a boat from South Florida to transport her and her husband, but Cuban authorities filled the boat with other people, and her father-in-law had to depart without his family.


Cuban Mariel Boatlift, 1980, Marielitos arrive in Miami, 35th anniversary

AP Photo

Marielitos arrive in Miami in 1980.

"We waited for another week and a half," recalled Cabrera. "Our papers got lost. We didn't think they'd let us go." Her husband had lost his job with the government because his boss had seen his father wearing clothing from the United States. Cabrera, who was 16 and training to be a teacher, worried she'd be forced to teach communist propaganda. Finally they were allowed to board another boat.

Cuban Mariel Boatlift, Maria Cabrera, Marielitos, 35th anniversary

Photo by David Yellen

Maria Cabrera was 16 years old when her family fled Cuba 35 years ago. Upon arrival in the U.S., she remembers being handed an apple and soda.

"I remember when I stepped out of the boat, they gave us sodas and apples," said Cabrera. Now 51, she is a curriculum support specialist with bachelor's and master's degrees she earned in Miami.

But she still remembers her first impressions of a new land. "The breeze was different," she said. "I could breathe at last."

An apple and a Coke

Apples and Coca-Cola became symbols of freedom among the Marielitos. Miami-Dade County Judge Ivonne Cuesta keeps a glass apple and a can of Coke in a display case in her chambers.

Cuesta, who was 7 at the time, had never seen either of these treats before arriving in Florida. "She asked, 'Mommy, what is this?' " said Cuesta's mother, Emma Breijo. "I told her, 'Ay child, we're free now.' "

Cuesta's memories of the crossing are the episodic impressions of a second grader. The boat she and her mother boarded in Cuba was overloaded and in danger of sinking. The passengers were taken aboard a Coast Guard cutter. She still remembers dropping her doll when she climbed a ladder to a Coast Guard helicopter waiting to ferry them to Key West.

Cuban Mariel Boatlift, Judge Ivonne Cuesta, Marielitos, 35th anniversary

David Yellen

Miami-Dade County Judge Ivonne Cuesta was 7 years old when she arrived in the United States with her single mother.

In Miami, Cuesta hid from her friends the fact that she was a Marielito, to avoid schoolyard taunts.

"It was the era of Scarface," said Cuesta, referring to the 1983 movie about a Cuban immigrant who becomes a mob boss. "Being called a Marielito was certainly very negative. It carried implications of something shameful. It wasn't until I matured that I realized it was a badge of honor."

While Cuesta went to school, Breijo, now 71, cleaned hotel rooms, worked as a driver and trained to be a hairdresser.

"She came at 35 to clean toilets for a living, a single mother with a little girl," Cuesta said of her mother. "The last thing you imagine, 30 years later, is that you're going to be at your daughter's [judicial] robing ceremony and people are going to call her 'Your Honor.' "

Breijo tears up when asked about the day her daughter became a judge. She likens it to the emotions she felt the day her daughter was born.

"Look at what she has been able to do here."

Susannah Nesmith is a freelance writer based in Miami.