Fort McCoy observes Hispanic Heritage Month
Approximately 20 people participated in a socially distanced observance Sept. 17 for the 2020 Hispanic Heritage Month at McCoy’s Community Center at Fort McCoy.
Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 every year. In the presidential proclamation by President Donald J. Trump observing the month, it describes the important contributions of Hispanic Americans.
“During National Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate the countless contributions of more than 60 million Hispanic Americans to our culture and society,” the proclamation states. “Hispanic Americans are the largest minority group in the United States today, and generations of Hispanic Americans have consistently helped make our country strong and prosperous. They contribute to our nation beyond description. Hispanic Americans embody the best of our American values, including commitment to faith, family, and country.”
The guest speaker for the Fort McCoy event was Jared Roll, county historian for Monroe County, Wis. Roll provided a review of the 1980 Cuban Refugee Program at Fort McCoy.
Roll said between May and November 1980, Fort McCoy became a refugee compound where more than 14,000 Cuban exiles were screened and detained as they awaited potential sponsorship from Wisconsin organizations and families. The program at Fort McCoy, he said, impacted the lives of many Monroe County citizens — leaving them with unforgettable memories of that time.
Roll discussed first how so many Cubans became refugees in what would be called the Mariel Boatlift. According to immigrationhistory.org, the 1980 Mariel Boatlift was the mass movement of approximately 125,000 Cuban asylum seekers to the United States from April to October 1980. It prompted the creation of the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program by U.S. immigration officials.
“Amidst an economic downturn in Cuba and an increasing number of dissident Cubans seeking asylum, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced on April 20, 1980, that any Cuban who wished to leave the island could do so, reversing the Communist regime’s closed emigration policy,” the web site states. “Between April and October 1980, some 1,700 boats, many arranged by Cuban exiles already in the United States, carried Cubans from the port of Mariel (the departure zone designated by the Castro government) to Florida. Within the context of the ongoing Cold War, the U.S. and Cuban governments sought to use the situation to project a positive image internationally and consolidate power and undermine a geopolitical rival, respectively.”
Roll, in his presentation, described how one Cuban felt about leaving Cuba because the conditions had gotten so bad.
“(One) said, ‘Living in Cuba came to the point where it is unbearable. It was like a room filling with toxic gas. It was such an unhealthy atmosphere that it felt like something was going to explode. You had to open a window or you would suffocate,’” Roll said. “Mariel was that explosion.”
To accommodate the thousands of refugees, Fort McCoy was named among five refugee processing centers in the U.S. And from the time the boatlift began to when the first refugees would arrive, officials had a short time to get ready.
Roll read some quotes about how Fort McCoy and other government officials had to quickly prepare part of the post’s cantonment area to receive the refugees in the 400 to 700 blocks. The effort included building fences and installing concertina wire around buildings holding the refugees. It also required the hiring of hundreds of people to support the Cuban Refugee Program.
During those months of the program on post, the installation and local communities dealt with many escapees of the program. The escapees would be caught in communities surrounding the post, including in Tomah, Sparta, Angelo, and Tunnel City.
Roll said as the program progressed at Fort McCoy, it was littered with problems. He cited one case where two Cuban teenagers made their way to the county courthouse in Sparta, and they spoke with a judge about their treatment. That meeting led to an investigation ordered by the Wisconsin governor, which verified the claims by the teens and began the process for better treatment. The exact nature of the conditions weren’t provided in the presentation.
Throughout the presentation, Roll showed how perceptions about Cubans changed over time by the employees and others who interacted with them. He said, also, that the influx of the program to area was also a financial windfall at a time the country was going through a tough recession by providing jobs for people from throughout the county.
After his presentation, Roll was presented with a special appreciation plaque by Garrison Commander Col. Michael D. Poss. The event was organized by Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison-Fort McCoy.