Say the name Mariel and most people will assume you're talking about the massive boatlift 30 years ago that brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States.
For me, Mariel has another meaning. It's my hometown, the setting for the lives of three generations of my Spanish immigrant family. Our lives unfolded there: new beginnings, weddings, births, christenings, funerals and, ultimately, our own exodus from our country.
Much like my mother, Adela Jimenez, and my grandmother, Nena Veiga, I grew up being proud to be a Marieleña, which is why in the spring of 1980, as Cubans arrived in Key West, I cringed at the negative dubbing of the boatlift exiles as Marielitos, simply because they used the port of Mariel as an exit.
By then, it had been 16 years since I, too, had escaped the then-bustling seaside town 25 miles west of Havana known for its crystal-clear bay and deep seaport. It also was home to Cuba's prestigious Naval Academy, my Dad's alma mater, and the Portland Cement Factory, a giant run by Spaniards during the early days of the republic and the post-World War II construction boom, some of them my relatives.
By the time the Marielitos began to arrive in South Florida in 1980, Mariel had already weathered 20 years of the communist regime's neglect, well on its way to becoming the Cuban Pompeii, a once prosperous port city destroyed by a revolution.
I was born in Mariel on July 23, 1958, the year the Cuban Revolution exploded. My most vivid memories as a child are of chasing and capturing cocuyos (fireflies) on warm evenings and keeping them as little pets in a glass jar.
Our Sundays were spent with family and friends at Finca Monte Verde, owned by my great-uncle Antonio and his wife, Margarita Estrada. They converted a portion of it into a seaside restaurant, complete with outdoor bar, beach, pier, a floating deck with private pool and large gazebos for entertaining.
In Mariel, I learned that farm pigs ate anything they were given, and that a machete was a guajiro's best friend. I learned the hard way that our red pepper bushes were hot chili peppers and that our neighbor Josefina's altar to Santa Barbara was never to be tampered with.
I learned that I shouldn't scoop a handful of black beans and drop them in the white bean sacks in Abuela Nena's Bodegon stock room.
And most importantly, that children speak when chickens pee. In other words, never. As I was a chatty child, the latter rule was barked at me daily.
The first English phrases I learned were ``put your head on my shoulder,'' after Paul Anka's 1958 hit single that my cousin Pepe, 13, played repeatedly, and ``I love you,'' two phrases vital to survival en Los Estados Unidos, Pepe assured me.
Then suddenly, as with the lives of many Cuban children my age, political upheaval would soon change everything.
My father, Pablo Lense, a Cuban naval officer under President Fulgencio Batista, would soon clash with Fidel Castro -- a well-known story in my family.
Shortly after Batista was overthrown, during the carnivals of 1959, my father was serving as captain of a 90-foot Cuban Coast Guard vessel moored in front of the naval headquarters in Havana Bay. He safely docked the ship and was granted permission to meet my mother to attend the festivities.
Upon his return to the dock, the cutter was gone. When he asked the sailor on duty what had happened, he nervously responded that Cuba's new comandante, Fidel Castro, and his brother, Raúl, had taken out the ship for a better view of the carnival parade -- just like that.