Guest Speaker Maj. José Enriquez, observer/coach/trainer with the Mission Command Training Program, shared the impact of his experience growing up in Cuba and immigrating in 1980 to the United States on the Mariel Boat Lift during the National Hispanic Heritage Month observance Sept. 20 at the Frontier Conference Center.
National Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, observes the history and accomplishments of those with Hispanic and Latino heritage. The month-long celebration signifies the independence days of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico and Chile; it was enacted in 1988 by President Ronald Regan, expanding on a weeklong recognition created in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson.
Enriquez began his remarks by educating the audience on Cuban history and the island’s proximity to Key West, Fla., to explain the influx of immigration that led his family to the United States.
He said Cuba’s previously free economy — which included opportunities for employment, property rights and upward mobility — belonged to a heavily corrupted government under the leadership of an elitist military dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro revolutionized the Cuban population against Batista and installed a Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic on Jan. 1, 1959.
In 1970s Cuba, Enriquez and his family lived near the Port of Mariel, a deep-water port about an hour from Havana. Enriquez explained that two years into Castro’s rule, families received annual supply booklets known as Libreta de Abastecimiento based on each family’s size and age through which they could claim supplies monthly at a registered store; the ration system is still in place today. Enriquez said toys were also rationed. He said his grandfather “donated” acreage to the local government in order to keep part of his family’s land, including a vegetable garden, fruit trees and sugar cane that helped feed his family.
Enriquez said around 20 years later, the Cuban government actively persecuted anyone labeled counter-revolutionary or in dissent of Castro. On April 1, 1980, five Cubans sought asylum by driving a bus through the fence of the Peruvian embassy and Cuban police exchanged fire with embassy guards, expediting the push for mass emigration. Castro removed the guards there, and more than 10,000 Cubans crowded into the Peruvian embassy seeking asylum, prompting him to ask other nations to receive Cubans he deemed as undesirable.
“Once it became known that you were planning to leave Cuba, you were immediately labeled a ‘Traitor to the Revolution’ by the government and called an ‘escoria’ (or ‘scum’). Your ration card would be confiscated; your job terminated; if you were in school, you would be expelled immediately. And by the time you left the Port of Mariel, any property you owned had already been inventoried and taken by the government. The Cuban government also organized acts of repudiation against those who wished to leave the island,” Enriquez said.
Between April 15 and Oct. 31 of 1980, more than 125,000 migrants traveled the 120 miles from the Port of Mariel to the United States on several hundred boats picking up Cuban refugees, including 4-year-old Enriquez and his family.
“According to my Cuban passport, my immigrant Visa was stamped on May 13, 1980, which is the day we left, but I was not in-processed in Key West until May 18, 1980. I assumed it was due to procedural delay at Key West, but when I asked my dad and oldest sister if they can explain the gap, they told me it was because we were lost at sea for three or four days. It turns out that shortly after departing the Port of Mariel we ran into a bad thunderstorm and the captain lost his way,” Enriquez said. “By then, we had run out of food, most of us were dehydrated and were on the brink, but once the boat captain finally made it back to the correct sea lanes, we were air-dropped rations by Coast Guard helicopters.”
Enriquez said immigrants arriving in the United States needed a sponsor to leave in-processing. Nobody claimed his family upon arrival in Key West, and after five days, they moved into the Miami Orange Bowl stadium. Enriquez and his family moved into a tent city under the I-95 overpass after a month at the Miami Orange Bowl without a sponsor. He described the refugee camp as dangerous; he said violence and crime, including rape and theft, were common.
He said after another month, a distant relative claimed his family and they moved to Hialeah, Fla., until his parents moved the family to an apartment complex.
“Hialeah in the early 80s was particularly dangerous and gang infested, and that apartment complex was the epicenter. It was so dangerous that it was nicknamed ‘Vietnam.’ If you told anyone in Miami that you lived in ‘Vietnam,’ they knew exactly what you meant,” Enriquez said.
“We spent the better part of the 1980s moving, in the cover of night, from one apartment to the next before the deposit month (money) ran out. Back then, you weren’t asked to leave and then taken to court; you were forcibly removed from the premises by police and your stuff was unceremoniously tossed into the street. It was not uncommon to see couches, TVs, and beds flying out from an upper-story balcony.”
He emphasized his disdain for the place, still grateful to be in a different circumstance.
“Despite all that, life was good, and we didn’t complain at all. We were grateful for the generous monthly supply of government food, and we were given food stamps on top of that. It took us the whole month just to get through a block of cheese,” Enriquez said.
“I remember as a kid there was a stigma to being on food stamps among the Cuban community. We used the assistance with quiet appreciation. It was a point of pride when your family didn’t it need it anymore. We were just grateful for the privilege of being in the land of freedom and opportunity, and we knew we had to integrate and prove ourselves.”
Enriquez recalled watching the 1986 Challenger disaster on the day of its launch and feeling angry.
“That day stuck with me because I think it was the first time I felt real anger and fear that something very bad had happened to my country. I didn’t feel that anger and dread again until Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, I decided to finally serve and defend my country.”
He shared highlights from his career and meeting his wife, Estefany before closing with his purpose for serving.
“I serve not only because I owe a dept to this great nation that can never be repaid, but to also preserve for future generations our founding principles enshrined in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.”