Sunday, April 18, 2010

Success stories: Mariel refugees 30 years later

Posted on Sunday, 04.18.10
Success stories: Mariel refugees 30 years later

Ivonne Cuesta knows the sting of a single word: Marielita.

As a 7-year-old, she was among the 125,000 Cubans who voyaged across the
Florida Straits 30 years ago in an unprecented and tumultuous exodus
that changed the face of South Florida. It was a personal story she
preferred not to share -- her family's rescue from a sinking boat, her
cries as she left behind her only doll.

``Today I'm proud to say I'm a Marielita,'' said Cuesta, 37, an
assistant public defender who is under consideration for a county
judgeship by Gov. Charlie Crist. ``In fact, I consider it a badge of

So she has come full circle: a child of an exodus tainted by the
hundreds of criminals that Fidel Castro's government shipped to the
United States may become ``the first Marielita judge'' in Miami-Dade county.

``The tide is changing for people who came through Mariel,'' said Miami
Herald reporter Luisa Yanez, who interviewed Cuesta. ``They assimilated,
they are successful.''

Today, in collaboration with El Nuevo Herald, we launch a series that
explores the many facets of Mariel, with the perspective that comes from
hindsight. On the front page, El Nuevo Herald reporter Juan Tamayo
delves into the political genesis of Mariel. In the pages of this
section, Miami Herald designer Ana Lense Larrauri, with historic images
from photographer Tim Chapman, details the key events and players of
those turbulent summer months.

In the coming months, our storytelling will go beyond these pages, with
a radio series on WLRN-Miami Herald Radio, comprehensive photo
galleries, videos and audio recordings online, and an ambitious project
to list in a searchable database all 125,000 Cubans who came during Mariel.

Next month, we'll unveil that project, the work of Yanez and editor
Nancy San Martin. The goal is to create a passenger list for each of the
vessels that took part in the boatlift. The database will be at, a special online page created by Assistant
Presentation Editor Chris Melchiondo and freelancer Roque Ruiz-Gonzalez.

``For Mariel refugees, the emotional hook is the boat,'' said Yanez, who
gathered the names for the digital database. ``It's their vehicle to
freedom. Ask any Mariel today and they can still recall the name of
their boat.''

For this, we need your help. We invite anyone who arrived during Mariel
to go online and enter the name of the boat that ferried them to the
United States. This database, the work of Yanez and San Martin, will
complete a trilogy of the Cuban exile experience that includes the
Freedom Flights that brought the first wave of Cuban exiles and
Operation Pedro Pan, which lists the unaccompanied children who left the
island nation. Those databases have attracted more than one million

``There is something very powerful about a list,'' Yanez said. ``People
see their names and they burst into tears.''

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