Mariel Boatlift’s “Little Heroes”

I stood up and briefly shared “something interesting about myself” on my first day of college in 1990, as instructed by our teacher. “My name is Brenda. I was born in Cuba and came to this country via the Mariel boatlift ten years ago when President Carter opened the borders and allowed over 100,000 Cubans to flee the island to Miami. I will never forget that experience as a little girl, and surviving a terrible tropical storm through it all.” Silence. “You came…on a…boat? That sounds so old-fashioned. Why not take a flight, instead?” asked another student. I looked around and noticed my introduction confused the majority of out-of-state and international students who had never heard of such event, and to whom this sounded “made up.” Growing up in Miami during that time meant you were aware of the many stories surrounding the Mariel boatlift. That was one of the first times I realized the Miami and Cuba connection was (and is) truly a world of its own.

Decades later, I reconnected with my first teacher in this country, Ms. Blaya. What a beautiful reunion that was! For years I have been meaning to write about what it was like to learn a new language during such turbulent times, and about all of my United States firsts: apples, cheeseburgers (what the hell are those specks on my bun?), toys, Disney, movies, and cars! I still hope to one day. I was surprised to find that for the 30th anniversary of the Mariel Boatlift, she shared a beautiful letter she wrote about us, her students, to the Miami Herald.* Reading it made me an emotional mess and brought back those innocent and raw feelings. Given our current frustration as mere onlookers to the current Cuba crisis, and while we wait glued to social media for any and all updates, I wanted to share this special moment with you. The tiniest of insights into the life of refugee children who left their life behind in a desperate split decision made by their parents, in their passionate search for FREEDOM.

Dear Mr. Manny Garcia,

My name is Graciela Blaya Law. For the last thirty years, I’ve been following the Mariel anniversaries, decade after decade. In all of the reports, there is always something missing. I have decided that after three decades, it’s time for me to tell it the way it was. I’m referring to my “Little Heroes,” my students at Miramar Elementary School 1980-81.*

In July 1980, I was in New Mexico receiving my Master’s Degree, specializing in Bilingual Education, when I received a desperate call from Miami Dade Public Schools. They needed teachers specializing in Bilingual Education immediately to accommodate the Mariel children as soon as possible. I accepted, and there I was, driving across the Texas hot plains in my car with my two sons, my mother, a dog, and a turtle. Little did I know that this call would impact me for the rest of my life…

Upon arrival, I was informed I had been assigned to Miramar Elementary School, located in Downtown Miami, across the cemetery. This old building was not just a regular elementary school; it was part of American education in the making. This school was the first and only school in the USA educational history ever to open its doors to educate in an immersion bilingual program, a selected group of students originating from the same place and with refugee status- Mariel children. During that school year, our school was constantly visited by local politicians, educators, both local and foreign, and lots of media. Some students were chosen to participate in a 25-year study to see how immersion compared to regular education.

In order to accommodate them, the school opened two shifts. When the first shift arrived, it was still dark, and when the second shift ended, it was already dusk. It was then that I first met my “Little Heroes” in a combination 3/4th class. They were being bused from South Miami and other areas, where they reported first to their assigned school and then sent to us. The rides were very long in extremely hot and crowded buses. When the bus doors opened, a flood of scared little angels emerged. They had no idea as to where they were and what to expect. Their parents’ last words, “Respeta a la profesora, y pórtate bien.”

Some of my students had been seeking refuge at the Peruvian embassy with their families for several weeks. They talked about the awful stench and hunger that were nothing compared to the exasperation and fear of being forced out into the angry mob hovering outside. The children wanted me to know that they were scared, very scared, but as long as mama and papi were there, it was OK. Other students were allowed to leave Cuba via Spain and other countries. I listened to the stories pouring out like dashing waterfalls, one story after another. Somewhere in between, I taught them the ABCs, My name is _______, and July 4th. They taught me about the pain of having to leave abuelita and abuelito at a moment’s notice and saying goodbye forever to all they had ever known. There was a student who wrote about going back into the house to cover her favorite doll and kissing it goodbye in the middle of the night (me!). The one who couldn’t understand why the neighbors lined up outside the house to insult, spit, and kick his father as they walked to the waiting boats, were told that their young teen son had to stay behind. The very second decision of which parent would go and which would stay. And I taught them about red, white, and blue, apple pies, and Miami Dolphins. Some of the children had been sitting at the Orange Bowl stadium for days on end, living in tents and waiting for relatives or anyone who would come and claim them. There was a story of a boy in our school who had arrived alone because his father and mothers were doctors and not allowed to leave. That year he tried suicide once. And I taught them how to read with Mat the Rat. They would stand straight as a pole as they proudly recited by memory verse after verse by Jose Marti, and they would explain to me why Marxism and communism is something every boy and girl had to know if they were in school. When they talked about Fidel, they said they didn’t believe him anymore, after all, the only food around was eggs and more eggs, and more eggs. And I taught them about George Washington, freedom to vote, and pizza parties on special days.

That school year, we learned to survive, holding on to each other for confidence and support. They came looking up to me and for reassurance that all those sacrifices were worth it. We learned, we laughed, and we cried together. They learned a new language, a new culture, and above all, the meaning of freedom of expression. During the school year, I would tell them to never forget and always remember Ms. Blaya’s class. I told them that teachers and classmates there would be many. But our class was special, very special, and they should never forget. We said our goodbyes in ’81, and as they boarded their busses, they kissed me and hugged me and promised not to forget. I whispered my last goodbyes with eyes filled with tears, and as the bus disappeared, I thanked them for all they taught me and because I too had changed along with them and promised never to forget. So here is to you, my Little Heroes, may you never forget and keep the memories alive by telling your children about the class of Miramar 80-81.”

*Letter written to, then Miami Herald editor, Manny Garcia. Reposted with permission by Mrs. Graciela Blaya Law. Unfortunately, the old link to the published letter no longer works, and I haven’t been able to find it in the archives. If and when I do, I will post

*Miramar Elementary is the location of Temple Israel of Greater Miami. I wish I knew how that came to be the chosen space for our school!