A 1973 National Geographic magazine article explaining the refugee phenomenon put it this way: ``There are so many Cubans living in Miami that at times it feels like another country had sprouted up within the city limits . . . exiles have left their indelible mark on Miami. By any indicator, their impact has been, to say the least, profound.''
If the burst of refugees from the Freedom Flights left a lasting mark on South Florida, the heartbreak of leaving their homeland left deep scars on those who boarded the flights to a new life. Many recount heartbreaking tales of their last day in Cuba: of how surly Cuban soldiers came to their homes to announce the family's departure -- the next day; how they checked a government inventory sheet to guarantee nothing had been taken out of the home; how they placed giant seals on front doors to bar entry.
The freedom fliers also remember being called ''gusanos'' (worms) by Castro supporters. They recall the humiliation of having their Cuban passports stamped ''nulo'' or void, meaning they would not be able to return home.
Alicia Villate, 73, of Hialeah, who arrived on one of the final regularly scheduled Freedom Flights in 1972, said her last day in Cuba was hellish, except for a great kindness.
When her departure was delayed by a day, she and her 2-tear-old son had no place to sleep. Since refugees were told they would be stripped of all cash at the airport, she had come penniless.
''Then it began to rain,'' she said. ``I just sat on a bench with my son and cried.''
A fellow passenger lent her 10 pesos so she could rent a bed and buy food. In Miami, after a tearful reunion with her husband, Raul, she quickly repaid the debt.
''It was a kindness on a very difficult day that I'll always remember,'' Villate said.
LIFE BEGINS ANEW
Hollywood resident José Anorga, now 70, was among those who left on the first Freedom Flight on Dec. 1, 1965. He still cherishes the newspaper photos of him and his pregnant wife, Rebeca, carrying their oldest daughter and walking on the tarmac at Miami International Airport looking dazed. ''I still remember the day I arrived as if it was yesterday,'' Anorga said. ``In minutes, my life in Cuba ended and our life here began.''
Olga Carballo, who left on a flight in the summer of 1967, mostly recalls sadness.
''The day I left Cuba I said goodbye to my dear grandmother -- and never saw her again. That has always stayed with me,'' said Carballo, 53, district supervisor for bilingual education at Miami-Dade schools. Carballo also left behind her father and brother, 15 at the time, old enough for compulsory military training. The family was not reunited in the United States until 1979.
''My father told me he would come to the airport to say goodbye from the fence outside,'' she said. ``As I went up the stairs to get on the plane, I saw him. He was standing on the roof of his car, waving at me along with a bunch of my cousins.''
Rolando Llanes, 47, a Miami architect, considers his exodus from the island a successful ''rescue attempt'' by his parents, Arturo, now 70, and Maria Luisa, now 69, who knew he would undergo communist indoctrination.
''They were brave,'' he said of his parents, who were at first resettled in New York. Both were in their late 20s at the time. ``I can't imagine what it would be like to go from one day living in a small town in Cuba to living in Washington Heights in New York -- in 1968.''
Father Arturo Llanes, said he left Cuba and will never return until both Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl are gone. But he does value something issued to him by the Cuban government that forced him into exile: His exit number: 100,470.
''Before I die, I would like to have it tattooed on my chest,'' he said, choking back tears.
As five decades have passed, the children of the Freedom Flights -- many of whose parents have since died -- are feeling the pangs of being ''plucked out'' of their homeland and of the need to preserve what became of them in exile.
''Having a website where Cubans like me, who came over as children, can find ourselves is very significant,'' he said. ``We need to preserve the history of those of us who left during that special time.''
Miami Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.