The Miami Herald

Mariel photos evoke pivotal stories

OK, we give up.

The Miami Herald's efforts to find a baby in an iconic 1980 Mariel boatlift photograph as part of the 30th anniversary of the famed exodus has officially . . . failed.

The photo in question, by Tim Chapman, is an eye-catcher and a heart-tugger: It shows a baby in diapers -- believed to be a boy less than a year old -- being held up in the air by a sea of humanity, mostly men sent to a giant hangar as part of their processing during the boatlift. There were various leads, but in the end, no confirmation.

So, we may never know how his life turned out, whether that baby, who would now be in his early 30s, became one of the countless Mariel refugees who arrived with the shirt on their back and went on to lead productive, distinctive lives, enriching South Florida.

But a funny thing happened during our search: Other Mariel refugees featured in other powerful Mariel photographs showcased by the newspaper came forward to identify themselves during Cuba Nostalgia in May and Hispanic Heritage Business Expo in August, two events celebrating Florida's diversity where the newspaper showcased its Mariel Database.

For some, the discovery was a surprise. ``That's me!'' screamed Noel Diaz, attracting a crowd at Cuba Nostalgia around the enlarged photograph of the Ocean Queen arriving in Key West, laden with refugees.

Here are some others who found themselves in photographs:


Pedro Camacho, 63, of North Miami-Dade smiles when he looks at the Mariel boatlift photograph showing him among scores of refugees on the stern of the Dr. Daniels as it arrives in Key West in late April. The photo appears to be taken from another boat alongside the Georgetown-registered Dr. Daniels. Camacho makes the photo. As he looks at the camera, Camacho's left leg is hanging over the side of the vessel, as if he were straddling a horse.

``When I look at myself in that pose, it signifies to me how ready I was to get off and start a new life,'' Camacho said while visiting The Miami Herald booth at Hispanic Expo in August, where he came to look for his name in The Miami Herald's Mariel Database. Camacho came wearing an antique T-shirt that read: Mariel-Key West 1980 -- his first purchase in the United States three decades ago.

After he jumped off the Dr. Daniels, Camacho was sent to Fort Chaffee, Ark., then relocated to Miami. He went to work at the old Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami's Civic Center, where he climbed from kitchen helper to emergency room worker. He proudly says he made a success of his life. ``Things went well for me,'' he said.

Today, he keeps a copy of the photograph of his arrival in the United States tucked away.

``I bring it out every once in a while and look at myself,'' he said.


Jesus Valdes, 67, of Miami points to the photo of himself as a newly arrived Mariel refugee and marvels at how young he looked.

``That was a lifetime ago, but it's me,'' Valdes said recently at Hispanic Heritage Expo, where a blown-up version of the photo was on display at The Herald booth.

The photo shows Valdes standing on the bow of the Big Baby, which has just docked in Key West on April 23, 1980. It was 5 a.m., just before dawn, giving the photo an eerie quality. Some of the refugees have stepped off onto the dock. Valdes, wearing a light-blue shirt and a gray jacket, and sporting a bushy mustache, is still onboard, waiting for permission. For Valdes, the photo captures the day everything changed for him.

Soon after arriving, he went to work for the Marriott Corp., helping prepare airline food. Eventually, the company paid for his training as a chef and he retired two years ago after working in the kitchen of many local Marriott hotels.

``My life in the United States has been very happy. I managed to escape Castro and I'm very grateful to this country, which game me a new life full of opportunity,'' he said.


Noel Diaz, 60, of Miami was emotionally overcome when he saw himself in the Mariel photograph -- a poster of the Ocean Queen on display at Cuba Nostalgia in May. It shows the shrimp boat arriving in Key West on May 30, 1980.

Diaz is the curly-haired man on the bow. He said the photo was taken around 3 p.m., after an entire day and night at sea. The Ocean Queen, he said, was piloted by an American couple. ``I'm sorry today I don't remember their name.''

He said when he got on the boat he found that spot up front and stayed there the entire trip. ``All I had with me was a towel. I used it to put my head down and sleep,'' he said.

Diaz said he was picked up by Miami relatives -- and quickly went to work as a gas station attendant at a Shell station on West Flagler Street and Seventh Avenue. From the night shift, he eventually rose to manager. Today, he's a scheduler, arranging transportation for the county's disabled. ``I took to life here right away,'' he said. ``It's as if I had been born here.''

He married, divorced, remarried and has two daughters, 22 and 27. They took the photo of Diaz's arrival in the United States and embossed it on a T-shirt and on Diaz's mouse pad. ``I also have the photo framed in my living room,'' he said. ``I'm very proud of it.''

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