A Boat Trip That Changed Many Lives

Oct 19, 2021

by FSC Staff

A boat trip that should have taken no more than eight hours has given Dr. Jose Garcia an opportunity to teach a moment in time that changed his life.

Dr. Garcia, who is an associate professor of Hispanic literature and Latin American studies at Florida Southern College, was a participant in the 1980’s Mariel Boat Lift, which ushered in the immigration of thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States and changed their lives as well as the culture of many parts of the United States.

At just 13, Garcia and his father, mother and sister were loaded onto an overburdened boat while waiting to leave Mariel Harbor with thousands of others fleeing Fidel Castro’s oppressive regime. Once on the boat, things deteriorated so badly they had to transfer to another overloaded boat after the first one began to sink.

It was a harrowing trip that Dr. Garcia says took 19 hours, 10-11 more than it should have taken.

“Three hours into the Gulf of Mexico we started sinking,” Dr. Garcia recalled. “We were lucky enough that the captain had suspected something would happen, and he had told another boat to remain close by to come rescue us (if we needed it).”

That was just one part of Dr. Garcia’s journey, which he turned into a lifelong pursuit of education. Dr. Garcia has three degrees, first earning a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Montclair State (N.J.) University before then earning a Master’s in Latin American and Peninsular Literature, and a doctorate in Latin American Literature from the University of Arizona.

Through his education and experiences, Garcia was instrumental in the 2011 documentary “Voices from Mariel,” which he later turned into a book Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the 1980 Cuban Boatlift. That book was first published in Spanish in 2012 and then in English in 2018.

Garcia feels that it is his mission to write and teach so that people are not only educated about, but also don’t forget, one of the seminal moments of Latin American history.

“That’s one of the reasons why I decided to do this project, due to fact I realized how little information was out there considering the magnitude of what happened,” Dr. Garcia said. “It was 125,000 people, the biggest exodus in Latin American history. Considering how big an event it was for Cuba and the United States, the amount of information was extremely small. You could say it was a vaguely remembered event, especially outside of the Cuban-American community.

“I felt it was my responsibility to get information out there. If I can do that, I think I would’ve accomplished a lot. I think I’ve been relatively successful doing this, and it’s definitely been something I cherish.”

Dr. Garcia has been all over the world to tell his story.

Trips to Australia and Europe have been the highlights of more than 30 speaking engagements he has done about The Mariel Boatlift.

It’s the personal experiences that Dr. Garcia has with his students that he most cherishes.

“I feel I can be a role model for students, the many Hispanic students that are the first to go to college in their family,” Dr. Garcia said. “They can see my book and see some of the things that I’ve been able to do as an immigrant. They can do those things too. This is a great country that offers opportunities that you won’t find anywhere else.”