- The Mariel Boatlift: A Cuban-American Journey by Victor Andres Triay
Between April and October 1980, nearly 130,000 Cuban migrants left Cuba from the port of Mariel aboard a ramshackle flotilla of boats. These migrants—the Marielitos— were the latest wave of Cubans to flee their country for the United States following the 1959 revolution. Victor Andres Triay has provided a fascinating portrait of the Marielitos, of their journey to the United States, and of their efforts to forge a new life in exile.
A history professor at Middlesex Community College, Triay’s previous publications include Bay of Pigs: An Oral History of Brigade 2506 (2001). Like this earlier book, the present one is grounded in oral history. Although Triay offers an introduction laying out important historical context and provides some other exposition, most of the book consists of passages drawn from his interviews with 41 Marielitos. This approach is welcome, as it gives his subjects’ voices ample space. Readers might well be reminded of another recent book, José Manuel García’s Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the Boatlift (2018), based on the 2011 documentary. The lengthy passages are interesting in themselves, and Triay’s approach is to be commended for this interesting method, one that centers the humans within this story of struggle. [End Page 508]
Perhaps the book’s most important intervention is the corrective it offers to the widely held view that, in contrast to earlier waves of Cuban exiles who adapted well to life in the United States, the Marielitos were degenerates, lawbreakers, and other dregs of Cuban society. This view was popularized by the Hollywood film Scarface (1983), and although there were indeed some criminals among the Marielitos—released on purpose by the Cuban government—the overwhelming majority of the migrants were seeking a better life in the United States. Indeed, most of Triay’s subjects were seeking to join family members on the other side of the Florida Straits, and, like most Marielitos, they integrated into US society, and prospered. Correcting the negative stereotypes about the Mariel boatlift comes at an important juncture, where the Marielitos have been cited by members of Donald Trump’s administration as evidence of the dangers of immigration. What emerges instead is a reminder that the United States has provided a haven for migrants.
Beyond migration, other issues highlighted through the oral histories, either directly or obliquely, include the dire economic and political situation in Cuba in the 1970s and the transformation of Miami into a bustling metropolis, so readers will find much of interest. What is so fascinating about the Marielitos as a group is that they had spent two decades under Ccommunist rule and chose to vote with their feet. Perhaps the only shortcoming is that only one of the interview subjects was an Afro-Cuban. Triay explains his difficulty in finding Afro-Cubans to interview (xvii), but the issue is unfortunate given that the Marielitos included sizeable numbers of black migrants— including hundreds of Haitians—in contrast to the earlier waves of post-1959 migrants. No doubt, much of the anti-Mariel animus in the United States had a racial tinge. Still, Triay has produced a valuable study and a fascinating read. [End Page 509]