The Miami Herald

Teacher who taught Mariel children recalls her little heroes from Miramar Elementary class of 1980-81

My name is Graciela Blaya Law. For the last thirty years I've been following the Mariel anniversaries, decade after decade. In all the reports there is always something missing. I have decided that after three decades, it's time for me tell it the way it was. I'm referring to my ``Little Heroes,'' my students at Miramar Elementary School 1980-81.

In July 1980, I was in New Mexico receiving my Master's degree, specializing in Bilingual Education, when I received a desperate call from Miami Dade Public Schools.

They needed teachers specializing in Bilingual Education immediately to accommodate the Mariel children as soon as possible.

I accepted and there I was, driving across the Texas hot plains in my car with my two sons, my mother, a dog and a turtle.

Little did I know that this call would impact me for the rest of my life.

Upon arrival, I was informed I had been assigned to Miramar Elementary School, located in downtown Miami, across from the cemetery.

This old building was not just a regular elementary school, it was part of American education in the making. This school was the first and only school in the U.S. educational history ever to open it's doors to educate in an immersion bilingual program a selected group of students originating from the same place and with refugee status -- the Marielitos.

During that school year, our school was constantly visited by local politicians, educators, both local and foreign media.

Some students were chosen to participate in a 25 year-study to see how immersion compared to regular education.

In order to accommodate them, the school operated with two shifts. When the first shift arrived it was still dark and when the second shift ended it was already dusk.

It was then that I first met my ``Little Heroes'' in a combination 3rd and 4th grade class.

They were being bused from South Miami and other areas where they reported first to their assigned school and then sent to us. The rides were very long in extremely hot and crowded buses.

When the bus doors opened, a flood of scared little angels emerged.

They had no idea as to where they were or what to expect. Their parents last words: ``Respeta a la profesora y portate bien,'' Do what the teacher says and behave.''

Some of my students had been seeking refuge at the Peruvian embassy with their families for several weeks. They talked about the awful stench and hunger that were nothing compared to the exasperation and fear of being forced out into the angry mob hovering outside.

The children wanted me to know that they were scared, very scared, but as long as Mami and Papi were there, it was OK. Other students were allowed to leave Cuba via Spain and other countries.

I listened to the stories pouring out like dashing waterfalls, one story after another. Somewhere in between, I taught them about the ABC's , My name is______ and July 4th.

They taught me about the pain of having to leave Abuelita and Abuelito at a moments notice and saying goodbye forever to all they had ever known.

There was the student who wrote about going back into the house they had been taken out by Cuban militia to cover her favorite doll and kissing it goodbye in the middle of the night.

One boy couldn't understand why the neighbors lined up outside his house to insult, spit and kick his father as they left their home and headed for Mariel.

Heartbreaking details of the family who at the last minute, as they were boarding the boats, were told that their young teen son had to stay behind. The very second decision of which parent would go and which one would stay... And I taught them about red, white and blue, apple pies and Miami Dolphins.

Some of the children had been sitting at the Orange Bowl for days on end living in tents and waiting for relatives or anyone who would come and claim them. There was the story of a boy in our school who had arrived alone because his father and mother were doctors and not allowed to leave. That year he tried suicide once.

And I taught them how to read with Mat the Rat. They would stand straight as a pole as they proudly recited by memory verse after verse by Jose Martí and they would explain to me why Marxism and Communism is something every boy and girl had to know if they were in school.

When they talked about Fidel Castro they said they didn't believe him anymore, after all, the only food around was eggs and more eggs and more eggs. And I taught them about George Washington, freedom to vote and pizza parties on special days.

That school year we learned to survive holding on to each other for confidence and support. They came looking up to me and for reassurance that all those sacrifices were worth it.

We learned, we laughed and we cried together. They learned a new language, a new culture and above all the meaning of freedom of expression. During the school year I would tell them never to forget and always remember Ms. Blaya's class.

I told them that teachers and classmates there would be many. But our class was special, very special and they should never forget.

We said our good byes in 1981 and as they boarded their buses they kissed me and hugged me and promised not to forget.

I whispered my last goodbyes with eyes filled with tears and as the bus disappeared I thanked them for all they taught me and because I too had changed along with them and promised never to forget.

So here it is to you, my ``Little Heroes,'' may you never forget and keep the memories alive by telling your children about the class of Miramar 80-81.


Mrs. Blaya

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