The Miami Herald

Marieleños hold reunion in Miami to honor Mariel - their hometown before the boatlift

A banquet hall in west Miami-Dade on Sunday became a time machine of sorts to the early Twentieth Century Cuba -- and the town of Mariel.

One of the ``travelers'' was Gertrudis Balsindri, who was born in the coastal town 25 miles east of Havanaon Nov. 17, 1900 -- that makes her 109.

Many of those attending the reunion of Marieleños where only a bit younger -- septuagenarians and octogenarians whose lives were derailed by the 1959 Cuban Revolution. But at this annual banquet for all who call Mariel their hometown, they tried to reconnect ties broken by years in exile.

Many of the conversations at the Venetian Banquet Hall on West Flagler Street went something like this: ``I'm married to the daughter of Eugenio Alvarez. Remember him?'' Antonio Castro, 81, asked Balsindri. She did.

Sunday's annual Mariel reunion was significant for two reasons: It marked the 50th anniversary of the creation in exile of the Mariel Municipality Association. And it also came on a year when the name Mariel was uttered often in the news as the 30th anniversary of the boatlift was marked.

But for the 240 Marieleños, not Marielitos -- and their descendant attending the event -- the message is that to them their hometown does not represent an exodus, but the best memory they have of their home.

That's why among those honored at Sunday's luncheon was someone who helped recapture the memory of the old Mariel. In late August, Ana Lense Larrauri, a graphic artist at The Miami Herald, wrote a moving personal account about the Mariel she knew growing up. She told of how Mariel was home to Cuba's only Naval Academy, where her father, Pablo, graduated in the 1950s and how the Portland Cement Co. employed generations of men in her family.

``Thank you for honoring our Mariel and for putting it on the front page again,'' said Isabel Maura, president of el Municipio de Mariel.

Gabriela Mercedes Alvarez, 75, read the article and immediately contacted Lense Larrauri, anxious to reach the artist's mother, Adela Lense, a childhood friend. The two had not seen each other since 1959.

Adela Lense invited Alvarez to the reunion and the two warmly hugged after all these years. ``We were very close once,'' Alvarez said. ``And now we can be in contact again... Now, I get to meet her grandchildren and she gets to meet mine.''

Miami Herald staff writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this story.

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