Nation of Immigrants

English 2, Spring 2016



Notes on the Mariel Boatlift, Refugee Unit (April); Scarface

We’ll be beginning our final major unit as a primarily non-fiction investigation of a particular moment in America’s immigration history: the mass influx of Cuban refugees into the United States in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that led to the creation of a large Cuban population in Florida in particular. This will lead to your final paper, a research paper that will be due April 26, and will be 10 pages long.

As I’ve mentioned, you do have the option to take up a research question that is related to an immigration-oriented topic of your choosing. (It could be connected to something we’ve already talked about, though my preference would be for you to pick up something new.) Some of you have interesting immigration histories in your family; you may want to do research related to immigrants of a particular group. I do ask two things: 1) even if you are working on something other than the Mariel Boatlift, I’ll ask you to do the readings we’ll be looking at (they won’t be very extensive), and participate in class discussions over these weeks; and 2) please approve the topic with me by April 14. If you don’t approach me about an alternative topic by April14, I will assume that you are working on something related to the Mariel Boatlift.

The particular moment in time we’ll be talking about for the next couple of weeks is the Mariel Boatlift, which ran between April and October of 1980. As a result of the Mariel boatlift, 125,000 Cubans entered the United States without papers over the course of just a few months. Because of the refugee policies that were in place at the time, the overwhelming majority of those refugees soon received parole and then eventually were given green cards (resident alien status).  The logic behind this policy (specifically directed towards immigrants from Cuba) was that being open to Cuban political prisoners would weaken Castro’s hold on power. This turned out to be a mistaken assumption; Castro would remain in power for another 30 years, and his brother remains in charge of the Cuban government today. We also learned quite quickly that the vast majority of the Cuban refugees were not in fact political prisoners; they were a mix of ordinary people seeking economic opportunity in the U.S. and people released from Castro’s jails.

The Mariel Boatlift was controversial for many reasons. One reason was that it was simply not very well controlled or managed by U.S. authorities; Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who had earlier strictly restricted his citizens from leaving the country after the Revolution, seemed to be setting the rules, and the U.S. was effectively just following along. Another major factor was the rumor that many of the individuals Castro sent to the U.S. through this process were criminals and/or seriously mentally ill people. The exact ratio of the criminal / insane to “normal” refugees has been debated quite a bit. Films like Scarface suggest that many of the refugees were criminals. (The Perez Family has a different interpretation – there the focus is more on political prisoners, people who had been imprisoned because they disagreed with the Communist regime.)

People known by U.S. authorities upon entry to be serious or violent criminals were held in American prisons and a certain number were denied visas. Some men in this category continued to be in American immigration prisons as late in 1987, when an agreement was reached with Castro for their repatriation to Cuba.

Some of the features of the boatlift that are shown at the beginning of Scarface as well as in The Perez Family (which we’ll talk about on Thursday) are based on actual events. One important scene in Scarface takes place in a holding area called “Freedom Town.” The large number of refugees entering the country overwhelmed immigration officials, so thousands of Cuban refugees were housed in makeshift and temporary housing (including in the Orange Bowl).

The Mariel Boatlift represented a significant crisis for President Jimmy Carter’s administration (though it has, in the history books, been overshadowed somewhat by another crisis occurring in parallel during those very same months – the Iranian hostage crisis). One of Mariel’s lasting impacts was a change in American attitudes towards Latino immigrants. Many observers date the rise of a significant anti-Latino attitude to this event in particular. While there would be a major Amnesty bill signed in 1986, it was widely unpopular amongst conservatives. Through the 1990s and 2000s the idea of granting immigration status to large numbers of immigrants (i.e., 125,000 people at a time!) has been unpopular with the American public.

As a side note, one group that is rarely mentioned in mainstream discussions about the Mariel Boatlift is gay Cuban men. Castro had large segments of Cuba’s gay population lined up for the Boatlift as “undesirables.” One of the most famous of these was the poet Reinaldo Arenas, who would later go on to write a memoir of his life in Cuba and his experience in the Mariel boatlift. A film would later be made of this book (Before Night Falls, 2000). (If any of you are interested in researching Arenas’ writing and life, I can help you with that; I am a fan.) The thousands of gay men among the Marielitos helped create a thriving gay subculture in Miami’s South Beach area. At the time, however, the influx of gay Cuban men added to the negative image of Marielitos in the mainstream American media.

As we read about this event over the next couple of weeks, I’ll ask you to keep your eyes open for research questions you would like to answer.

Example of research questions might be:


                What was media coverage of the Mariel Boatlift like? Was it positive or negative? Did it start positive, and then become negative?

                What was media coverage like in the Miami area (Miami Herald), and how did this compare with national coverage of the event (say in the New York Times)?

                What information can we derive about the later lives of the Marielitos in the U.S.? What are Marielitos and their descendants doing in Florida (and elsewhere in the U.S.) today? (Wikipedia has a list of prominent Marielitos… this could be a starting point).

                Did this incident have an effect on American immigration policy regarding refugees?

                Are there any lessons we could learn from the Mariel Boatlift incident that might be relevant to our discussions about refugees in the U.S. today? (Specifically, Syrian refugees?)


        One of the striking features about both the Al Pacino film (1983) and the Marisa Tomei film (1995) is that all of the Cubans we see are white – and in fact in both productions most actors are actually Italian American rather than Hispanic. But in fact there were many Cuban refugees in the Mariel boatlift who are black, or identifiable as having mixed ancestry (or “brown”/ Moreno). What can we learn about the actual demographics of Cuban refugees in general and Marielitos in particular? What about the demographics of today’s remaining Cuban population (in Cuba itself) vs. the Cuban American population?

What was the U.S. policy towards refugees in the 1970s and 80s, and how has it changed? What is a reasonable number of refugees for the U.S. to accept? Is this country living up to its history of inclusiveness and hospitality?

With some of these specific questions we will work together in class to help you develop some strategies for finding answers that goes beyond simple Google searches. (For studying news coverage of an event, for instance, a powerful tool is the subscription-only database Lexis-Nexis. Another powerful research tool is JSTOR, which is a digital collection of scholarly articles published over many years.)