Her grandmother’s decision 40 years ago to flee Cuba from Mariel changed everything

Cherie Cancio
·3 min read

Like many Miamians of Cuban descent, I grew up very aware of my family’s history on the island.

This year marked the 40th anniversary of their exodus. My grandmother, aunt and father left Cuba on the Mariel boatlift of 1980, in which as many as 120,000 Cubans fled the island in a traumatic exodus to the United States.

My father was born in Havana in 1964 into a family of entertainers, five years after the revolution. My grandfather, Miguel Cancio, along with my grandmother’s brother, Kiki Morua, founded the popular ‘60s band Los Zafiros. My grandmother, Monica Leticia Morua, a musician in her own right, was known as the “Voz de Crystal.”

As a young boy, my father had a dream to become a great doctor like my great-grandfather, Dr. Leoncio Morua. He was able to attend a boarding school in the province of Matanzas.

When he was 16, he was caught telling a joke about Pepito, a famous Cuban character. My father and his friends were told that they were being expelled for betraying the trust of the revolution. My grandmother, fearing my father’s future in Cuba, decided it was time to leave the country.

At that time, there was no legal way to leave Cuba. Then, in April 1980, an incident at the Peruvian Embassy in Havana caused Castro to announce that all those who wished to leave Cuba could do so from the port of Mariel, west of Havana.

The Mariel situation offered an unexpected way out for my family. After appearing in front of a government panel, my father was separated from my grandmother and aunt and was taken to a holding facility in Havana, then to a camp for unaccompanied males near Mariel. There, he waited alongside newly released criminals. A few weeks later, he was put on an American cabin cruiser.

As the boat left Mariel harbor, my father panicked and tried to dive overboard and swim ashore, but the American captain on the boat and a family friend calmed him.

My father was reunited in Miami with my grandmother and aunt, who had come on another ship, and they spent several days in the Orange Bowl, where other refugees were kept, until they found their way to a home in Miami Beach. My father did not return to Cuba until 1993.

Since his return he has dedicated his life to advocating for the reconciliation between his native and adopted countries. I also have had the opportunity to return to my father’s country of birth and walk on the same streets my family once walked through in Varadero.

This year marked 40 years since my grandmother decided to leave her family, her career, her beloved Varadero and the future she hoped to have in Cuba for her children. This year also marked 40 years of her life in this country, raising two children and becoming abuelita to three grandchildren.

We want to hear your Mariel story

In collaboration with the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami Libraries and as a part of the program El efecto Mariel: Before, During, and After, HistoryMiami Museum is collecting stories related to the Mariel boatlift of 1980.

Members of the community are encouraged to share their personal memories, stories, and reflections related to Mariel. Stories will be collected virtually on a rolling basis and a series of prompts give participants ideas from where they can begin their story. Submitted stories will become part of the permanent collections of the HistoryMiami Museum and Cuban Heritage Collection and featured on both online platforms.

Learn more at http://www.historymiami.org/share-your-mariel-story/