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.
Never miss a local story.
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.
In my dad's mind, the boat was taken for a joy ride -- a total disregard of naval rules.
When the ship returned, Raúl half-apologized to my father for taking it to sea without his consent, while Fidel made small talk about Dad's private cabin and his spear gun collection.
Dad knew then his career was in trouble. Any leader with such gall was sure to engage in much worse. My family's campaign to leave their beloved Mariel would soon be in full swing.
By 1961, my dad had left for the United States with a special 20-day travel permit to visit his gravely ill mother. In reality, he was abandoning the naval career he adored.
In the chaos that had now enveloped the Havana airport, a sort of Casablanca as desperate Cubans tried to get out, no one noticed it was not an exit visa my father carried. Security only noticed the signature on the permit -- S. Del Valle, Raúl Castro's assistant.
And just like that, Dad was gone.
When he arrived in the United States, he sought political asylum -- unaware of the consequences it could have for his family back in Mariel. It would take him three years to see my mother, my brother Pablo and me again.
After my Dad's escape, my carefree firefly chases gave way to more mysterious activities as we tried to survive the new regime. My mother's life was hard, and she tried to keep it from us, but she was now a woman alone with two children in a radically changing world.
Our home, from which we could see the naval academy up on the hillside, was ``inventoried.'' Armed officers confiscated the family car, the first of many belongings ``donated to the revolutionary cause'' in their now-frequent visits to my home.
When she saw them coming, my grandmother would quickly whisk me away, while my mother confronted the milicianos and their accusations of my father's betrayal of the revolution.
These were hard times for my green-eyed mother, a far cry from the days when she was named Mariel's Miss Congeniality. I remember my mother's anguish over the milicianos' insults and threats. I would hold onto her skirt as though I could protect her from these angry men with big guns. I once broke out in a song about being proud to be an anti-revolutionary in front of them. My grandmother covered my mouth, fearing I'd land the family in prison.
Finally, in November 1964, my mother, my 3-year-old brother, my cousin Pepe and I were granted exit visas to Mexico.
My Aunt Rosa, desperate to save her only son from communist indoctrination and the obligatory ``cane cutting'' camp, had entrusted my mother with his exodus. Pepe would become our guardian angel.
I would never again see my grandfather Emilio; he died in Mariel. It would be another seven years before I would reunite with my beloved proverb-speaking Abuela Nena, in the United States.
WAITING IN MEXICO
If there was anything more difficult than leaving Mariel, it was waiting in Mexico City for entry visas to the United States. Mom's anguish didn't diminish much. Being an attractive woman traveling alone with two small children and a teenager posed its own set of problems.
She grew more desperate and finally agreed to pay a ``coyote'' to get us from Mexico City to Matamoros in order to cross the Rio Grande.
And so on Dec. 15, much to my father's apprehension, that's what we did. Inappropriately wearing our best clothes, and in daylight, we were placed in wet rubber rafts and guided across the river. I recall my excitement at seeing my first American flag blowing on the Brownsville, Texas, side of the border, even though I would arrive there with my pants soaked from the river crossing.
The odyssey ended the next day when we flew from Brownsville to Chicago to be reunited with my father, after three years of separation. We couldn't have been farther from Mariel. It was beyond cold, freezing, is what I remember now. And that my father scooped up a handful of fresh snow, created a big snowball and handed it to me, as if introducing me to our new life.
I held my first snowball in my bare hands. I didn't want to seem ungrateful to my father, who was so happy to see us, but the coldness burned my hand.
Too scared to let go, I let out a wail that startled everyone.
Later that evening, it would be my brother Pablo's turn to cry when my mother, whom he had shared a bed with the three years of my Dad's absence, would choose to sleep with a complete stranger.
Today, I have come to fully understand the nostalgia that still overcomes my parents. They have experienced so much loss. They still miss Mariel. And so do I.