Friday, February 22, 2008

Finding Manana...Today

I read "Finding Manana" a few months ago and it left a lasting impression. Growing up in Miami in the "Scarface" era, I was too young to understand Mariel. I remember Papi driving me and my sister in our booger-green 1978 Dodge Aspen to catch a glimpse of the fenced-in tent city under I-95 in downtown Miami. This was the temporary home for many Cubans who came through the port of Mariel. It wasn't until I read this book that I truly grasped how big this exodus was and its impact on not just South Florida but the US. When I shared it with Racso, my Cubanito friend here in Boston, he was like "Chico, I'm Marielito!" and his eyes lit up when I showed him the book. (He grabbed it out of my hands faster than the fast moving mutant in X-Men: The Last Stand) I had no idea he (my friend, not the mutant) was Cuban-born because he never talked about it before. I knew he was Cuban but I assumed he was like me, made in the US with Cuban parts. So I wrote a mini review of the book in case anyone hasn't read it yet.

In "Finding Manana," author Mirta Ojito is literally looking for "Manana,"
a boat that brought her and her family to Key West during the 1980 Mariel
boatlift. But she's also looking for answers that will help her come to
terms with yesterday and the political catalysts that led to one of the
biggest mass migrations in US and Cuban histories.
What began as a memoir, telling those experiences from the power of
memory from her childhood in Cuba, unraveled into a larger story of how
Mariel played out and its effect today on Cubans like her in Miami.
The book seesaws between the personal story and the political and
historic one.
Ojito's personal stories of growing up in Cuba and the profiles of
other Cubans looking to leave their country "shaped like an alligator at
rest" (p. 196) engage the reader the best. But the authoritative tone she
alternates into for the layered factual and historic details tend to slow
"Manana" down to a few knots.
For five months in 1980, Fidel Castrol unleashed 125,000 refugees
from the port of Mariel to South Florida. It's these same people President
Jimmy Carter took in like orphans looking to be adopted.
At 16, Ojito was a Marielita, a term that today still conjures up
images of Cuban's most dangerous and mentally ill criminals, people "with
glazed eyes, shaved heads and what appeared to be prison garb,'' (p. 211)
seen as they came upon Florida's shores.
Through her narratives, Ojito shows there were more to Marielitos
than the image of them projected in the media or in the movie "Scarface."
They were hard-working families looking to escape Fidel Castro's regime for
a better future in the US.
"To me, it was a badge of honor,'' she writes (p. 266). "a
recognition that I belonged to a group of people who had once left their
country as ballast and had managed to stay afloat, and even attain a
measure of success.''
Ojito, for one, mastered English once in South Florida, became a
reporter with The Miami Herald and later, The New York Times where she
shared the 2000 Pulitzer prize for national reporting.
Using her lens as a journalist as well as the power of her memories
of Cuba as her guide, she traces the boatlift to the men who orchestrated
it and how their sometimes overlapping roles ushered this moment in both
countries' histories.
Ojito also chronicles in detail their backstories, which humanizes
them. Ojito sketches people like Hector Sanyustiz, the Cuban bus driver who
barreled through the gates of the Peruvian embassy, which opened the
floodgates for 10,000 Cubans seeking political asylum on its property.
She chronicles the clandestine dialogue with Bernando Benes, the
Miami banker with ties to President Carter and who (meaning Benes) later
held secret meetings with Castro to bring 3,000 political prisoners to the
US.
And then there's captain Mike Howell, the Vietnam veteran who lost
his arm in the war and began chartering his boat from New Orleans. The book
picks up steam here as Ojito builds up to the actual boatlift.
Howell was moved by the story of passionate Cubans looking to pick up
their relatives in Mariel that he agreed to bring them to Key West with
help from his boat, the "Manana," which translates as "Tomorrow" in
English. Ojito paints him as her personal hero.
"The man and the women in front of him seemed determined to go,''
Ojito writes of the group of Cubans who asked Howell's help in New Orleans.
"Saving people was part of the Manana's mission, and Mike relished the idea
of playing savior."
Yet for all the build-up to the actual journey from Mariel to Key
West, there are only a handful of pages of the trip itself.
In "Finding Manana," Ojito doesn't just find the ship that bears its
name. She also finds the real story of Mariel for herself and other fellow
Marielitos.

June 01, 2006 in Cuban Being