MIAMI -- A decade ago on May 5, President Jimmy Carter said the United States would accept Cuban refugees from the Port of Mariel with 'an open heart and open arms.'
By the time Fidel Castro closed Mariel harbor that September, 125,225 Cuban refugees had made the 90-mile voyage across the Straits of Florida aboard 2,005 boats. More than two-thirds settled in Miami where they could enjoy the climate, language and proximity of their homeland.
Today, the Marielitos are virtually indistinguishable from earlier Cuban immmigrants.
'It's just like the last group. They pay their taxes, they have their small businesses. They have been absorbed,' said City Manager Cesar Odio.
They also have changed Miami from an Anglo-American city with a large Hispanic population to a predominantly Hispaniccity.
'It is sheer demographics. We are now, Hispanics are, the single largest group. Anglos have probably diminished, with white flight, and the Marielitos are a significant factor there,' said Dr. Juan Clark, a Miami-Dade Community College professor.
'It tipped the scale,' said Philip Mann, director of the University of Miami's entrepreneurial center, which helped set up job training programs for the refugees.
And the Mariel boatlift tainted the image of all Cuban refugees, even though most of the Marielitos did not deserve the awful reputation they got as Castro's rejects.
The Marielitos as a group were younger, darker, poorer, less educated and more adapted to socialism than any group of Cubans that came before them, Clark said. That has made their success a greater victory.
'The typical Marielito may not be teaching college. But you'd be surprised when you get to know some people that this person came through Mariel,' Clark said. 'It is most significant because of the bad name that this particular sector had got. They have progressed tremendously.'
Said Mann, 'They've kept up the neighborhoods. Around Calle Ocho, where many have settled, it still looks good. It's safe. I think many people had fears that weren't realized, that they would turn it into a slum.'
'There are a lot of success stories,' Mann said.
Economically, the group's greatest impact was in providing a cheap labor force for a city that had had a severe shortage of workers for low-paying service jobs, Mann said.
'There was a vacuum (of workers) in restaurants, hotels, lawn services, manufacturing,' Mann said.
The Marielitos have since moved up the ranks, leaving the waiter and maid jobs to newer arrivals from Central America, Clark and Mann said.
Some of them succeeded in Miami because of the very skills that made them misfits in totalitarian Cuba.
'The artists, musicians, creative people made the greatest contribution. They fared very well here. They could not develop creatively in Cuba,' Mann said.
From the start, the Mariel refugees had several handicaps.
'Many were forced to leave their country. They did not leave voluntarily. I imagine a lot of them came here with a little bit of hostility,' Mann said.
Many spoke no English and had no relatives here.
'Fifteen to 30 percent of the Marielitos were non-white, which could constitute a handicap because of the possiblity of discrimination. Sex-wise, the highest percentage were unaccompanied males who were not allowed to brng their families,' Clark said.
Thousands, possibly as many as 15,000, were homosexuals who were expelled from Cuba because they did not fit Castro's ideal, Clark said.
'They tended to be the more visible homosexuals, who liked to display that trait,' Clark said.
The Marielitos' numbers alone would have overwhelmed just about any resettlement program. In that first month alone, more Cubans arrived than had come in any previous year.
But the refugee program was badly botched. The Cuban Refugee Emergency Center had helped the federal government resettle Cuban refugees for 20 years. In the height of the boat lift, the Federal Emergency Management Agency took over.
'FEMA knew nothing about how to handle refugees. They ignored their own agency, which had been dealing with refugees for 20 years,' said Monsignor Brian Walsh, who was in charge of the refugee resettlement program for the Catholic Archdiose of Miami.
FEMA's method of resettling the refugees was to bus them from Key West, where the boats arrived, to Miami. It was not until twoweeks after the boatlift began that the government opened up Air Force bases to serve as processing centers.
'They were bused in and dumped here. Then they turned around and they were surprised people are sleeping under the expressways,' Walsh said.
The resettlement program was thrown into further chaos by the change in the refugees' immigration status. Instead of Cuban refugees automatically entitled to political asylum, they were suddenly classified as 'entrants.'
'After about three days, the government decided to change it,' City Manager Odio said. 'They said, 'They're no longer Cuban refugees.' What are they, Chinese?
'All of a sudden people were here without sponsors, with no place to go. That's what created the tent cities. It ended up costing three times as much,' Odio said.
Upon learning that a small percentage of the Marielitos were fresh from Castro's jails and asylums, the media quickly spread the news. Some elected officials highlighted the criminal aspect, thinking it would bring more federal help.
'It backfired completely,' Walsh said. 'This destroyed overnight the resettlement program outside of Miami. The U.S. Catholic Conference resettlement program had tens of thousands of resettlement opportunities canceled within 24 hours.'
'In the short term it was very negative. The impact was terrible. There were criminals, but 99 percent were not,' Odio said.
The sudden refugee influx threw Miami's budget into chaos. At one point, the federal government owed Miami $40 million in resettlement reimbursements. It still owes the city $8 million, Odio said.
'We carried the load. We had to have more police officers in a hurry, more services, fire, sanitation. The money was drained from other areas, parks, social services,' Odio said.
That rocked the city budget for at least the first five years, he said.
By the time welfare funds became available 11 months later, most no longer needed welfare. By then, the Cuban refugees who had come in the 1960s had opened their homes to the new arrivals, given food and clothing, and helped them find jobs.
'Credit has never been given to them for what they did,' Walsh said.
'They were essentially strangers,' Mann said. 'I don't think these groups mingled that much in Cuba. Here they were forced to merge. That process was a little painful.'
'They were great, but it also hurt them,' Clark said. 'They felt their image had been tarnished by Castro, who sent people who never should have been sent.'
'Everyone was hurt by that. Before Mariel, no one was questioning when you came. Ultimately everyone from Cuba could be considered in the same boat,' Clark said.NEWLN:------
The Marielitos also had other handicaps. More than half were under 30, and had no experience with a capitalist job market, Clark said.
'A lot of people there had simply pretended they were working. This attitude toward work, they had to overcome that,' Clark said. 'They were more suprised with the cost of living, getting jobs. In terms of finding housing, medical care, it was not in their experience.'
The earlier Cuban refugees who had struggled at menial jobs for years were occasionally annoyed at some of the new arrivals' attitudes toward work.
'They saw other Cubans here with nice homes, cars. They wanted that instantly. They thought it would be theirs overnight,' said one Cuban woman who came to the United States in the 1960s.
Many of the younger ones also did not fit into the heavily Catholic Hispanic culture. They identified themselves as Catholics, but when they first arrived they did not even recognize the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patron saint.
'Among the younger ones we noticed a complete lack of any identification with the church or any knowledge of what church meant,' said Walsh, who took in a group of unaccompanied teenagers.
'In the plane hangar in Key West, where they were processed, the archbishop and I were there with our Roman collars and people asked what part of the government we were from. They didn't know what we were.
'When we talked to the parents about how come the children knew so little, they said, 'We didn't train or teach them because we didn't want to prejudice their chances when they went to school.''NEWLN:------
In spite of it all, the Mariel refugees assimilated quickly. Clark helped conduct a study of 519 Marielitos, questioning them in 1983 and again in 1986.
In 1983, 42 percent were unemployed, but that had dropped to 13 percent in 1986. In 1983, 29 percent were receiving welfare, but only 16 percent were three years later.
In '83, only 5.8 percent owned their own homes and just 13 percent were self-employed. By 1986, 11.8 percent were homeowners and 28 percent owned businesses.
Today, fewer than 5 percent receive welfare, 'mostly the mental cases,' Clark said, and unemployment among the Marielitos has dropped to the same level as that of the overall population, Clark said.
Said Odio, 'Is Miami worse off today? No. We're still moving ahead.'
But the influx did prompt many non-Latin whites to flee to the Fort Lauderdale and Naples areas.
'The Hispanic community is better off. This is a cultural mecca for them,' Mann said. 'For Anglo Miami it's a matter of opinion.'
The boat lift contributed to the strength of the Hispanic culture, creating larger audiences for Hispanic radio and TV stations and Spanish-language publications.
Clark's study showed that in 1986, 95 percent of the refugees said most of their social interaction was with other Cubans, and only 15 percent spoke passable English. Today, only half speak some English, other studies have shown.
'They've assimilated into the mainstream Hispanic society,' Clark said.
In today's Miami, that is enough.