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The real people of the Mariel boatlift

Three weeks after I reported for my college internship at the Miami Herald on March 31, 1980, the first boatload of Cuban refugees in what would become the tumultuous Mariel boatlift arrived in Key West.

Under internal and international pressure to do something about the 10,000 Cubans who had stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana in a desperate bid to leave the island, Fidel Castro had announced the opening of the port of Mariel to all the disaffected who wanted to leave.

He sent the message to exiles in Miami that they could sail to Cuba to pick up relatives.

Cuban Miami was abuzz.

Exiles secured every seaworthy vessel available in coastal areas, some as far away as Louisiana, and rushed to fetch their families. In Hialeah, the sight of yachts making their way along southbound Palm Avenue was unforgettable.

No one trusted this intern enough to put her on a major story, but although the Herald had better reporters and writers than me, I noticed that most of the boatlift stories attributed the information about the refugees to “government officials said.”

Why not talk to the people?

I asked the city editor if I could check out a tip (from my mother, who was glued to Cuban radio) about a group of parentless teenagers who had left a party in Havana and sought refuge in the embassy — and now were in the home of a Miami woman who had taken them in. “27 Refugees Share Mom in Miami” became my first front-page story and I would write Mariel boatlift stories for decades to come.

From that spring and all through summer, some 125,000 Cubans — among them criminals and mental health patients that the Cuban government forced on the boats — arrived in South Florida in five months.

The unruly exodus came at a time of tremendous social unrest in Miami-Dade, forever changing the demographics of the area. The Mariel boatlift solidified the Cubanization of Miami and began a process of diversification of the exile community in terms of age, race, and economic and political perspectives still felt today.