Marta here: Estrella was 10 years old and part of the historic Mariel Boatlift which happened 32 years ago and brought more than 125,000 (!) Cubans to America's shore and to freedom.
Mariel: Remembering the Boatlift
By Estrella Diaz-Quibus
My parents and I were part of the Mariel boatlift, where hundreds of thousands of Cubans took to the seas seeking freedom.
On a May afternoon in 1980, all the students and faculty from the Augusto Cesar Sandino in Fontanar were led to Gaspar’s (a fellow classmate) home to scream obscenities and throw stones. I remember how sad I felt at his fate while I managed to stay far in the background, hoping to be invisible. You see, it was rumored his family was going to leave the country. In the eyes of the revolutionary government, that made him "escoria" – scum. That same week the same thing was done to Ramona, a teacher who, as far as I know, never got to leave.
Some days later a patrol car had stopped in front of my house. I ran home curious to find out why they were there. My mother let us know that my uncle Mario had sent for us. This was a complete surprise, even to my parents who had never planned on leaving Cuba. I remember begging my mother to please let us stay. I feared I would suffer the same fate as poor Gaspar.
On May 28th my mother woke me up at around 2am asking me to rush and get dressed… we were leaving. I was terrified. That evening my cousins Frank and Miriam who lived with us were patrolling the streets doing their obligatory neighborhood watch when another police car approached them asking where the Diaz-Quibus family resided.
I give Frank (my cousin/Godfather) full credit for encouraging my parents to leave. He made my mother realize it was the best thing to do if they wanted me to have a chance at a better future. I will forever be grateful to him. I knew it wasn’t easy for him to see us leave. He had said goodbye to his parents, two brothers and three sisters when his visa was denied because he was of “military age." He bravely told his parents he was not going to sacrifice his siblings. He insisted they leave so that they could be free. Here he was sacrificing himself once again. I will forever be grateful and indebted to him.
We left the house before dawn. I remember them knocking at the neighbor’s house down the block asking him if he could please take us to Marianao. He refused, fearing retaliation if anyone ever found out he helped us. So off we went to the bus stop, wearing what was on our backs and just one set of clothing for changing. By the way, I still have the one dress I wore hanging in my closet. Unfortunatelly it stopped fitting me about a week after I got to Key West!
We arrived to the Abreu Fontan where we were registered and then we waited. The place had been some sort of a country club in it’s heyday. At the moment it housed what seemed to be an endless sea of people. We slept under the stars on the cold concrete for what seemed to be an eternity to a ten year old child. I remember asking my mother if we could go back home if our names had not been called by my birthday (June 4th).
I was so looking forward to the usual party… to wearing the new shoes they had bought for me, smelling the cake they always baked themselves. Oh, what lovely memories I had. “Let’s wait and see,” was the answer I always got. My poor parents were afraid someone would hear me saying I wanted to stay. It was rumored that kids who asked to stay were separated from their parents and lured by the idea of being given some sort of a heroic title.
Five or six days later our names were called. We were led like cattle to a shuttle bus that took us to “El Mosquito." It was an awful place. I saw how they beat some defenseless looking men as the dogs were barking. I remember seeing the fear and sadness on people’s faces. We were stripped of any personal belongings and of our citizenships. We ended up being assigned to a tent that had many bunk beds. My mother was able to find a can of sweetened condensed milk (“nectar of the Gods”). I had some of it and fell asleep till dusk.
We were put on another bus and taken to the ship that evening.
A Rough Crossing
It seemed small to me… extremely crowded. We ended up sitting on a small bench on the outside deck on the left side. My mother would joke saying she was afraid to lift up her foot because she’d end up stomping someone’s head when she’d put it down.
Estrella's parents on the right in the corner.
The boat was wooden. It seemed old and not sturdy at all. I was sure the thing was going to capsize before we reached Key West. I kept wondering how Christopher Columbus must have felt. I would look out to the horizon and only saw the endless sea. Land was just an illusion and it seemed it was never going to become a reality.
The Gulf of Mexico has the roughest waters I’ve ever seen. At one point a helicopter came very near holding an SOS sign on it. We were handed life preservers. The smell of the fumes made me nauseous, not to mention the sight of people vomiting into the plastic bags they came in.
The Queen of Queens
My mother tells me it took 17 hours. To me it seemed like a lifetime. The joy I felt when we finally saw land on the horizon was overwhelming. I can sincerely say the only other time I’ve felt anything bigger was when my son was born. There were these uniformed men helping us get off the boat. I was so scared. Had we really reached the USA? We were lined up and handed a can of ice cold Coca-Cola. To this day, I remain faithful to Coke. I looked up and there was a sign in Spanish that said “the last one to leave the island, please turn off the lights.” I think that was the first laugh I had in the USA.
My mother and I would reminisce about that day… what the boat looked like. She and I had different versions. From time to time I would do an internet search for “The Queen of Queens” but would be directed to beauty pageant pages. Last year it occurred to me to Google my maiden name (which I have proudly resumed recently) and had the great pleasure of finding a posting by Mr. Jorge Rodilles who was looking to reunite with the passengers he’d brought over during the Mariel Boat Lift on his boat The Queen of Queens.
Jorge Rodilles also remembers Mariel as one of the greatest experiences of his life. He was able to bring a number of relatives on this voyage, including his parents, whom he had not seen in 18 years, and his maternal grandmother, who was then 97 years old.
Mr. Rodilles back in 1980.
Arriving in Key West
I remember that evening vividly. We were in line waiting to be taken to Opaloca when my dad recognized a flag from the Bay of Pigs Troop his Godson had served under. Someone overheard him mentioning it to my mother and we were pulled aside and taken to an office as a courtesy to wait for my aunt and uncles to come pick us up.
At midnight my parents kissed me and wished me a happy birthday. (I’m crying as I write this. What a sentimental woman I’ve turned out to be.)
Again, someone must have overheard them, because shortly after that, they came in with a piece of coffee cake with a lit match on it singing Happy Birthday. I was thrilled. They gave me an apple, gum and a dollar. They took some pictures, what I wouldn’t give to see those now!
I felt so special. The fears were now gone. I was now an 11 year old woman… Cuban by birth, American by choice. A very good choice made my two loving, aging parents that put their lives on the line to provide me with a better one.
Estrella with Captain Rodilles in 2011.
Rodilles has been compiling a list of his passengers on that voyage, now having about 105 names out of about 200 people. He still has over 100 photos of the Mariel phenomenon — of the three weeks he spent at the bay of Mariel, picking up passengers, of the journey itself, and of his passengers, many of whom were children, like me, forever changed by this experience.