Tuesday, February 28, 2017
February 28, 2017: CubanAmericanStudying: The Mariel Boatlift
[On March 2nd, the great Cuban-American actor and entertainer Desi Arnaz would have celebrated his 100th birthday. So for Arnaz’s centennial, a series on a handful of Cuban-American figures and histories!]
Three ways to contextualize and analyze the 1980 exodus of some 125,000 Cubans (known as Marielitos) from Mariel Harbor to the United States.
1) Refugee policy: Donald Trump’s recent Executive Orders on refugees and immigration have of course brought debates over refugee policy back into the news, but in a particularly oversimplified—and fearful and paranoid and factually challenged—way. The situation and issues facing President Jimmy Carter in 1980, on the other hand, illustrate just how complex and multi-layered national decisions about refugee policy are (even for those of us, like me and I believe Carter, who feel strongly that the U.S. should always try to welcome refugees). There are the perspectives and realities of a sovereign nation like Cuba, and of our own evolving relationship with that nation (Carter and Castro had worked to alleviate some tensions between the two nations over the years leading up to Mariel). There are the humanitarian and practical questions of where and how the refugees will be resettled in the United States, and what that will mean for the communities to which they arrive (Miami was most definitely and profoundly changed by the Marielitos). And there are the thorny but inevitable comparative questions—what do our decisions in response to this particular refugee community mean for the millions of others seeking and waiting for the chance to asylum? All difficult issues, and all raised with clarity by the Mariel boatlift.
2) The boatlift in art: Refugee and immigration histories aren’t just about governments and policies, though—they’re also and most importantly about communities and stories, about identities and lives. Artistic and cultural texts are particularly good at portraying those latter sides to histories, and I would highlight three very distinct such texts about the Mariel boatlift. The Brian De Palma film Scarface (1983) uses the story of one fictional Marielito, Tony Montana (Al Pacino in one of his most famous performances), to consider some of our most overarching national narratives, from the ideals of the American Dream to the most sordid nightmares of violence and crime. Christine Bell’s novel The Pérez Family (1991; adapted into a 1995 film) focuses more fully on themes of community, both among the Marielitos (the protagonists are characters who share the same last name and decide to pass as a family) and in relationship to the Cuban-American community (Juan Pérez is looking for his wife, who has already been in the United States for decades by the time he arrives). And Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography Before Night Falls (1992; adapted into a 2000 film) tells the harrowing story of one individual writer before, during, and after the boatlift. Each text is different in medium and genre as well as story and theme, but taken together they offer a powerful artistic portrayal of the boatlift.
3) Pedro Zamora: For better or for worse, the fictional gangster Tony Montana is probably the most famous individual Marielito. But I believe a close second would be Pedro Zamora, who came to the United States with his family in the boatlift when he was only 8 years old, and came to prominence 14 years later as the breakout star of The Real World: San Francisco, the 1994 third season of MTV’s ground-breaking reality TV show. Zamora broke multiple cultural barriers during his time on television: he was one of the first openly gay stars of a TV show, and his commitment ceremony with boyfriend Sean Sasser the first such same-sex ceremony in TV history; and he was also living with HIV/AIDS throughout the show, bringing a profoundly intimate and human face to a disease that was, at the time, still deeply controversial and feared. Zamora’s tragic death later that year, and his widely broadcast memorial service, offered one more level to that prominence and its effects. None of those events or effects are limited to Marielitos or Cuban Americans, of course; but we can’t understand and analyze Zamora’s identity, nor perhaps appreciate his commitment to public advocacy and activism, without remembering the foundational role of the Mariel boatlift in his life.
Next CubanAmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban American stories or histories you’d highlight?