Remembering the exiles of Mariel

Forty years ago, this summer, Monroe County and Ft. McCoy were on the international radar.
That was the year Fidel Castro opened up his borders, allowing any citizen who wanted to go to the U.S. to leave.
Called the Mariel Boatlift, it brought 125,000 refugees to American shores, 14,000 of which ended up at Ft. McCoy. With them came a welcomed infusion of money into the slagging local economy and well-paying, although temporary, jobs.
What also accompanied the refugees was fear and concern among the native population, which didn’t know what to expect.
 Monroe County Historian Jarod Roll said it was a four-month period that put the area at the center of media attention and a time that presented unique challenges to county residents and government officials as well as the refugees themselves.
Around 200 of the refugees initially ended up settling in the area, but as of 1985 only 50 were left.
The Monroe County Local History Room is marking the 40th anniversary of that summer with an exhibit that will be up from Friday, Jan. 31 to March 28. It includes a photo history from the refugee’s perspective created by Omar Granados, an associate professor of global cultures and language at UW-La Crosse.
Granados grew up in Havana, Cuba before coming to the U.S. and has investigated what became of those refugees, which is the subject of his photo display. Roll said the local history room augmented the exhibit with some of its own items and partnered with Ft. McCoy to give it a Monroe County perspective.
Some of the items include “sponsorship gifts”, gifts the refugees made out of available materials to give to people they hoped would sponsor them. There’s a bag woven from plastic tie-down strips as well as art objects.
On Feb. 13, the History Room will be hosting Granados as part of its lecture series. He will lead a panel of Cubans who were refugees at Ft. McCoy. They will give a presentation and answer questions.
The History Room also has created a page on its website for anyone who was around during that time and would like to share their own experience. Roll said people who lived in the area, worked at Ft. McCoy or were in local government are encouraged to contribute to the page.

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