By air and sea, the Puerto Rico rescue and relief missions warm the heart. Needed supplies are being shipped out of Florida — then the carriers return with a precious load of souls plucked from life-threatening conditions.
At a time of wholesale devastation, death and loss for the Caribbean island and some of its neighbors also affected by Hurricane Maria, rescues are the feel-good story.
When islanders disembark in our airports and seaports to greet anxious family members, the tears are from joy and emotional release. Every single one of these climate refugees, which is what they are, has a survivor story. Many more will come in the next weeks and months as Puerto Rico tackles rudimentary survival, then fights to rebuild. They will stay here temporarily or resettle in the metropolitan areas of Orlando, Jacksonville and South Florida, where most of the state’s one million Puerto Ricans already live.
“Welcome!” is the only word these American citizens and neighbors should hear. After all, the mainland, too, is their turf.
But as soon as the images of the large-scale arrival at Port Everglades on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas of 1,791 Puerto Rican evacuees — plus 864 from St. Croix and 681 from St. Thomas (and 125 pets) — were posted on social media, an old ghost surfaced: the Mariel exodus.
“The Puerto Rican Mariel,” a Miami man called Royal Caribbean’s efforts to help evacuees on WSVN’s Facebook page. “I see another Scarface movie coming. Puertorican [sic] style.”
Normally, the dribble of verbal diarrhea on social media doesn’t deserve attention, but the “this is another Mariel” thread merits commentary for all that it represents.
The lingering prejudice toward the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought more than 125,000 Cuban refugees to Florida shores in five months, never fails to make an appearance in a negative way despite plenty of evidence that the end result was successful resettlement for the majority of these people.
Thirty-seven years later, you would think that the discontent and discrimination unleashed on the people who came on the boatlift are behind us — and that the remarkable story of how this community rose from the challenges of that influx is the narrative that prevails. But, no, the bad rap returns for another round.
It’s as if the long decaying arm of Fidel Castro, who plucked criminals from jails and put them on boats among the refugees, will never release its grip. That the criminals were a small percentage of the exodus, that good people fled Castro’s Cuba doesn’t matter. That they’re successful business people, judges, award-winning journalists, accomplished artists — you name it, they’re represented — is ignored.
“We’re going to be dead and they’re still going to be talking about Mariel,” sixth-grade teacher Mabel Junco tells me. “It bothers me that they’re thinking again that it is a bad thing. It gives a bad rep to Marielitos and to Miami.”
And now, they’re using the reference to cast the same cloak of suspicion on the people leaving Puerto Rico.
It’s despicable and it opens wounds for people like Junco, who left Cuba on the Mariel boatlift with her parents and sister when she was 11, same age as the children she teaches. And she’s looking forward to having some of the hundreds — maybe even thousands — of Puerto Rican children expected in Florida in her classroom.
Junco feels she can understand the emotional toll of what they’re going through, the loss of home and dislocation, and for those who don’t speak English, the language barrier. That they may feel that sense of not being wanted here, like she did as a Mariel refugee, “just kills me,” she said.
“They left their country just like I did,” Junco said. “No matter their status, they’re leaving their home behind and that’s hard enough.”
So let’s not even go there with the comparisons.
The evacuation of Puerto Ricans isn’t another Mariel. Quit saying that. It’s not funny or clever at all.
The delayed reaction from Washington was despicable, but Floridians have opened their arms. The state is offering in-state tuition at colleges and universities to displaced students and superintendents are preparing for the influx in grade schools. Local organizations are raising funds to help Puerto Ricans and other islanders get back on their feet. And behold all those rescue and relief missions.
Relish the uplifting moment in the aftermath of the storm.