LA CROSSE, Wis. (WLAX/WEUX) – We share a local story that marks the 40th anniversary of the Mariel Boatlift, which brought Cuban refugees to Fort McCoy in 1980. Four decades ago 15 thousand Cuban refugees ended up just 40 miles from La Crosse. As First News at Nine’s Hayley Spitler explains many people are still unaware of the Mariel Boatlift, what some call the most important exodus of Cubans to the United States.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave permission to rescue Cuban refugees.
Omar Granados. UWL Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies said, “Counter to that, Fidel Castro announced on public television that anybody that wanted to go to the United States, could. In a matter of like 72 hours, everybody in Miami that had a boat decided to go rescue the refugees.”
Overall, 17 hundred vessels brought 125 thousand refugees to the u-s between April and September of 1980. UWL says political refugees, homosexuals, intellectuals, individuals who had been in jail for minor instances, were among those to leave.
Some refugees had direct family or expected sponsors to stay with, those that didn’t were sent to different locations.
“Those folks had to be sent into military bases to be screened and processed and one of those bases, there were four in the united states, one of them was Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. That’s how 15,000 Cuban refugees end up 40 miles away from La Crosse,” said Granados.
“The only way to get out of that base was to find a us sponsor whether it was a family or an institution or a religious organization.”
Granados says the refugees were given very little English instruction and as a result lacked job skills. He says they also were not painted well in the community.
Granados said, “Local press and national press about crime, sexual abuse, accusations of disturbance with the police and neighbors of La Crosse, Tomah, Sparta. Today we’re able to think about that as the result of the frame, the militarized and racialized frame through which the migrants were put.”
Professor Granados has researched the topic for the last five years.
“The Mariel Boatlift was perhaps the most traumatic moment throughout the history of Cuban migration in the United States,” said Granados.
As for the Cubans who lived at Fort McCoy, many moved to Florida, Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison.
Some stayed in Sparta and about 30 remain in La Crosse.
Granados created an exhibit working with those refugees called the ‘Lost Voices of Mariel’ to tell their story and collect artifacts. He says there is a strong history of solidarity and connection to celebrate.
“Stories of how a cook that was working at Fort McCoy becomes friends with a Cuban cook that was helping him and decided to sponsor him out of the base and 40 years later you see this friendship still happening,” said Granados.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Mariel Boatlift and Omar says many are still unaware of the story, even Cubans.
Granados said, “I’m from Cuba, I moved to La Crosse and had no idea I had relatives that came in Mariel. I had no idea that these bases had existed.”
While the move happened four decades ago, he says action is still needed now. Many of the refugees are granted a work permit and driver’s license which requires renewal every two years. They use the Lost Voices Exhibit to grab the attention of lawmakers for potential pardons.
“Just because they committed was considered in 1980 or 1983 a federal crime, now they are in a situation where they are in this immigration limbo where they are not allowed to return to Cuba and they’re not allowed to become U.S. citizens,” said Granados.
Lost voices of Mariel is working on an online website to display the history and stories, especially since the exhibit is unable to travel during covid.
For Hispanic Heritage, Hayley Spitler, First News at Nine.