How Cuba's Mariel Boatlift Divided and United One Family
Lisette Poole Oct. 30, 2015
On the 35th anniversary of the boatlift's conclusion, a Cuban-American
In 1980, Juan Cordero slipped into his 9-year-old daughter's room to
kiss her goodbye as he left for America. She pretended to sleep. She and
her mother had been the ones to urge him to go. They would be reunited
soon, she said. She didn't want to make it any harder for him so she
breathed even asleep breaths and kept her eyes closed. She never saw him
Juanito was my mother's cousin who, like thousands of other Cubans,
arrived to the U.S during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. The waters of the
Florida straits have split my family for the last half-century leading
up to the historic normalization of relations between the United States
and Cuba this year.
I'm a Cuban-American photographer, and though I grew up in the U.S.,
lately I spend most of my time in Havana. This year as my grandmother
grew ill with cancer in San Francisco, my family and I reminisced about
her life. As she passed away in May, we shared stories and photos (like
those in the slideshow above), and what surfaced was the depth of my
grandmother's impact on the lives of countless people.
Sira Cordero Mesa de Gonzalez—whom we all called Mima—was the youngest
of nine brothers and sisters. She left Cuba in 1960 and took my mother,
age 12, and her sisters. They left hundreds of relatives behind, many of
whom later crossed the water in 1980, fleeing Cuba. The Mariel Boatlift
began in April of 1980, when a group of Cubans stormed the Peruvian
embassy in Havana, killing a guard. Fidel Castro asked the embassy to
return the attackers, but he was refused. Within a few days 10,000
Cubans had filled the grounds of the Peruvian embassy, claiming asylum.
Soon after, Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave the country
could do so from the Mariel port. Before the Boatlift ended on Oct. 31,
1980—35 years ago this weekend—some 120,000 Cubans came to the United
At that time, my grandparents in California took in anyone who needed a
home, giving both the new arrivals and their children in the U.S. a
semblance of togetherness. Their house on London Street was a welcome
place for anyone passing through. "It was lovely to have these cousins
around, to have family for the first time," my mother told me.
Six Marielitos, as the refugees were called, went to San Francisco to
live with my grandparents Sira and Manuel Gonzalez. There was Pepe
Cordero, a taxi driver in Havana. Chancing upon the riot at the Peruvian
embassy, he stopped his car to join the asylum-seekers and spent 18 days
inside the premises until being released to the U.S. All he knew was
that his aunt lived on London Street in San Francisco. The authorities
were able to locate Sira and reunite them; he was the first Marielito to
arrive in the Bay Area.
After Pepe came Juanito, also Sira's nephew. Like most of the Marielitos
in my family, he left behind a wife and two children, including his
daughter Mileydis. Juanito was the first in the neighborhood to
correspond with Cuba, says his daughter, sending a package to his family
with clothes, letters and photos. On Christmas Eve 1982, he was killed
in a small restaurant he owned in San Francisco's Mission District,
while preparing Noche Buena dinner. Mystery surrounded the death of
Juanito, whose brother and brother-in-law from Cuba had had brushes with
the law. His daughter recalls that he'd written home to Havana shortly
before his death, saying that, "he was going to do something and that
possibly would cost him his life."
Jorge Cordero, Juanito's brother, had been jailed at age 15, until he
was taken out of Cuba at 21 and sent to the U.S. "When we left Cuba we
had to forget that it existed because otherwise one would live their
life suffering here," he recalled during a recent conversation in San
Francisco. "You couldn't communicate with anyone there or anything."
Living in Havana now and working as a photojournalist, my family history
colors every experience I have. As I covered the announcement of renewed
relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the matriarch of our family was
home in California, receiving treatment and hoping to get well enough to
visit Cuba one last time. As I thought about my Mima, missing her and
wanting to be by her side, I worked even harder at the stories I
photographed, feeling the only way I could justify being away was to
make her proud. I was documenting a moment in history she thought she'd
never see, in her homeland, a place she never forgot and talked about
Cuba is a paradoxical place, almost impossible to describe any other
way. My family in Havana constantly says, "Isn't is crazy? All of us
wanting to leave, and you coming to live here!" No one seems to
understand what I'm doing living in Centro Habana when I could be
hanging out in Brooklyn or San Francisco. But I couldn't miss this.
For the Marielitos, life in the U.S. worked out better for some than for
others, but the London Street house was a landing point where they all
found the warm welcome of family. "My cousins did all the work, running
around to doctors to help me [with legalization paperwork]," says Silvio
Cordero, who also found refuge with his aunt Sira. "If I hadn't had
family here I wouldn't have made it."
But, even as Cuba and U.S. move toward a reunion of their own, one piece
of my family is still missing: Juanito's daughter Mileydis says that her
one wish is to find her little bother Omar, who, she's never met. After
her father's death, Omar's mother moved with him to Miami and lost
contact with my family.
Because my grandma's mission was to help those in need and keep family
together, and because now that role has been passed along to me, I hope
is that this story will find Omar, bringing him back into contact with
our family, all these years later.
Source: How Cuba's Mariel Boatlift Divided and United One Family | TIME