90 Miles from Home

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Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés’s stories about refugees from the Mariel Boatlift present the conflicts and loneliness of exile.

In the summer of 1980, 125,000 Cubans came to Key West, Florida, having traveled on dangerously overloaded barges from the port of Mariel. The Marielitos, as they came to be known, had been living under Communism for two decades before Castro permitted them to leave, and included thousands of released prisoners and mental patients; the culture clash between these boatlifted exiles and Cuban-Americans already established in the U.S. is at the heart of Marielitos, Balseros and Other Exiles, a nuanced collection of short stories by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés.

“I am not a Marielita,” says Carmen, the main character in “A Matter of Opinion.” Like everyone in these stories, Carmen defines herself in terms of exile. Living in Miami since 1961, for twenty years she has yearned to be reunited with a sister still in Cuba. One day the phone rang… “Yes, I am here, but I don’t know why, Tía.” From ecstatic hope through confusion to rage and disappointment, Milanés chronicles the meeting between Carmen and her nephew, who has just come from Mariel:

Rafael was stiff against Carmen’s soft, voluminous bulk… the more she gushed affection, the more withdrawn he became. “Felito, mi hijo, qué grande estás!” She started to take his hand but decided only to gesture to him when she saw the thin arms straight at his sides… “How tall you’ve grown!” He nodded indifferently back to her.

Some years after her nephew’s arrival, Carmen is starting her day with conservative talk radio. The Cuban-American talk show host spews vitriol about “the beasts that Castro dumped on our shores in 1980.” He excoriates the exiles as “criminals, assassins, drug addicts and psychopaths.” Carmen, ironing while listening to the program, recalls the “strange seeds” she found when ironing Rafael’s clothing, the phone call from the Miami police station after he was caught in a dragnet. She remembers visiting him in a U.S. federal prison—over a thousand Marielitos were jailed without trial. Courageously, she telephones the radio show and, in a display of wisdom, casts a shadow of doubt on the host’s argument.

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés

The history behind these stories accrues to the reader gradually, often through simple repetition of the names and terms important to the time: Peruvian Embassy, Texas Labor Camp, Periodo Especial, Jimmy Carter, the Coast Guard. Though Milanés grounds the stories in political events, she allows a sense of personal solitude to emanate, loneliness that arises from the breakdown in relationships among exiles. In “La Buena Vida,” newcomer Juan is lonely not only because his cousin, the only member of his family willing to help him, has died but because, the day after the funeral, his cousin’s father-in-law chases him out of their house with a stick. “Lárgate de aquí, hijo de puta,” the old man says—no translation necessary. In “La Pareja,” Gabi falls asleep alone after Salvador, his partner, refuses to eat the dinner of tamales and picadillo lovingly prepared for him, withdrawing instead into silence after a day he describes only as “mierda.”

Damarys, from “A Fraction of Always,” is a fabulously wealthy matriarch “used to arranging everything for the family,” including exile via cigarette boat at $5,000 per person. Yet when we meet her she is driving down the highway, her cellular phone “unusually quiet,” a situation that seems to reflect the state of her soul. In “El Loco,” a lecherous Marielito spars with the Cuban-American woman doctor brought in to determine whether he is competent to stand trial for shooting a policeman. El Loco’s misdeeds include the unprovoked, fatal stabbing of a boatlift exile from another story. In a stylistic fillip, Milanés provides three possible endings to El Loco’s tale, none of them happy.

Like their transition from Cuba to the U.S., Milanés’s characters move fluidly between speaking English and Spanish. Her evenhanded treatment allows us not only to sympathize with the Marielitos, but also to see why the Boatlift exiles were, as a group, considered problematic. Although those who remained have long since integrated, and the revival of Miami’s South Beach might suggest an eventual happy ending, the dominant note of Marielitos, Balseros and Other Exiles is anguish. Outcast first from Cuba, then from the families and community they hoped would welcome them, the men and women who populate these stories endure a double exile. They lose everything twice.

Karen Laws lives in Berkeley, CA. Her story “Paolo’s Turn” appears in the Summer 2011 issue of The Georgia Review. You can follow her on Twitter @karenlaws. More from this author →