New Book by Prof. Garcia Recounts Personal Stories of Mariel Boatlift

Apr 5, 2018

by Cary McMullen
Publications Editor

The 1980 Mariel Boatlift was one of the most dramatic and historic events of the 20th century, but for Dr. José M. Garcia, associate professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, it was a personal experience. As a teenager, Dr. Garcia was part of that mass migration from Cuba to the United States, surviving the trip across the Florida Strait in a leaky boat with his family.

Now he has published a book about that event, telling not only his own story but those of other marielitos, Cubans who made the journey and made new lives for themselves. The book, Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the 1980 Cuban Boatlift, has just been released by the University Press of Florida. In it, Dr. Garcia recounts how he and his family and many others came to join the 125,000 Cubans who fled the island over a six-month period.

He stressed that the book does not try to make a political point but to tell a human story.

“A lot has been written about the economic impact and the immigration policy issues of Mariel, but very little has been written in terms of hearing the testimonies of the people involved,” he commented. “This was Latin America’s biggest seaborne emigration in history. I had a need to share that.”

The boatlift was the Cuban government’s response to rising unrest. President Fidel Castro made the decision to allow people who wanted to leave to do so. People fled in overwhelming numbers, using whatever boats and vessels they could find. A relative who lived in the U.S. came for Dr. Garcia’s family in a boat from Key West, but the exit from the island was harrowing.

“My father was arrested just before we were supposed to leave. Then the government told us we would have to take others along on the boat as well. The boat almost sank on the trip over,” he said.

The book follows the award-winning 2011 documentary film of the same name, produced by NFocus Features, and based on Dr. Garcia’s work collecting the stories of his fellow refugees and his return trip to his homeland. He said that although the documentary was released first, he began working on the book during a sabbatical in 2009.

“I told a student at the time, Jesse Larson, that I would like to go back to Cuba to get the story from that side, and he said that if I was willing, he knew someone who would like to go with me to produce a documentary,” he said.

Larson, who is now the president of NFocus, pitched the idea to the company and became one of the producers of the documentary, which won the Best of the Festival Award at the Alexandria (Va.) Film Festival. The film generated quite a bit of attention, and it was screened across the U.S. and in several foreign countries, but it was always Dr. Garcia’s intention to complete the book he started.

He marked the book’s release with a reception and book signing at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College on April 5. It has already been the subject of an article in the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History, and Dr. Garcia has received invitations to speak about the book in such locations as Spain, England and Australia, where he will teach a course on Cuban immigration at the National University of Australia.

Dr. Garcia has stayed in touch with some of his fellow marielitos, as well as his best friend in Cuba, who remained behind. They met for the first time in 30 years when Dr. Garcia returned to Cuba and now talk frequently.

“In the documentary, he tells me that after I left, he took my name and buried it under a tree. It was almost like he buried me,” he said.