About Mariel and the Cuban queer diaspora
Conversation with a “Marielito” who doesn’t bear a grudge because he was expelled from his country, but neither is he prepared to erase his past.
It was in early May 1980 when the police came to his home in Centro Habana with the order that he had to leave the country. At the time EloyGuzmán was 29 years old and had never thought about immigration. In Cuba, despite everything, he was happy.
More than three decades later he is amazed that in front of Havana’sMalecón seaside drive there is a gay bar or that the transvestites peacefully walk through the streets. “For me it is incredible to see how everything has changed,” he says in an interview to this journalist during his most recent trip to the island coming from Vermont, the United States, where he established himself since 2012.
The 1980s marked a difficult period for the sex minorities, charged with repression, fears and intolerance to the different. But Guzmán had been able to escape from family pressure; he had a good job, many friends and his own home.
He was never arrested; he didn’t get to suffer in the work camps called Military Units to Back Production (UMAP), where between 1965 and 1968 numerous homosexuals and other subjects who were considered anti-social elements, under the supposition that their political “deviation” could be corrected through military discipline and productive work, were sent.
Neither did he suffer from the picking ups of gays which were already usual. In fact, his first contact with the police was on that day when he was handed over the police subpoena. Curiously enough, he had just come back from vacations at the beach and was not aware that thousands of persons had asked for asylum in the Peruvian Embassy, or that one of the biggest migratory crises in the country had recently started. Even less could he imagine that that surprise visit would be related to a phenomenonon a higherscale.
That’s why he couldn’t get over his surprise when the police officer told him: “Look here, all the homosexuals can present themselves in the different offices there are. There they will prepare all your papers and in less than 24 hours you can leave on a boat to Miami.”
If not he could go to prison, as the officer let him know without too much beating around the bush, minutes before his friend Manuel (Manolo) Sayoux, the dressmaker of famous Cuban singer Farah María, confirmed to him by telephone that it hadn’t been a bad dream. Manolo had just been notified about the same thing.
It all took place so fast that even today, 36 years later, he asks himself how he was filed by the police to be one of the some over 125,000 persons who left the island in 1980 without the hope of coming back. However, according to Gerardo Gómez – the only one of his friends who remained in Cuba – the selection for the UMAP as well as the Mariel had a common element: the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), the largest mass organisation of the Cuban people, whose principal purpose was to create citizen vigilance networks in each barrio to prevent or denounce attacks against the Revolution.
“Incredibly, although Gerardo had spent nine months in the UMAP, he was not called for the Mariel because he was not as effeminate as the rest of his friends and because his uncle had fought in Che’sguerrilla,”iGuzmán says.
What’s important is that, in effect, Manolo and he went together to an office in the Havana barrio of La Vibora and, when they got there, it was confirmed that they had to leave. “No, I have to think about it,” Guzmán insisted. But it was in vain, because the papers that would serve him as his passport were readied rapidly.
On the following day, at 11 p.m., a motorised police officer parked in front of his home and screamed his name on a loudspeaker. “That was the sign so people would stand on their balconies and start screaming at me. Fortunately, I was well-liked by the people on my block. Only a boy screamed something, sent by his father,” he remembers.
In less than 48 hours, with no option but to let himself be carried by the tide, the young man was the victim of national machismo, true to the model of the new manii who had to build a socialist society, and of the stigma that would fall, as if it were divine punishment, on the protagonists of that exodus, who would form part of history as the “Marielitos.”
When he left, Guzmán bid farewell for ever to his land of birth and everything that tied him to it. At that time he did not suspect that he would return in 1995, with the sad mission of visiting the mother of Manolo, who had died of AIDS.
A fragment of history gone adrift
The Mariel exodus is a not very revisited page of national history and, at the same time, one of the sexilesiii most recognised on an international level. In Cuba one still can’t have access to data about that particular event in the country’s only source of public information, the state-run National Bureau of Statistics and information (ONEI).
Because of this, up to now the most trustworthy sources to see that invisible chapter of history continues being the testimonies of the subjectsinvolved in the object of investigation.
Particularly, speaking of the Mariel Cuban sexile is a bit difficult to count, especially if it is taken into account that many people pretended they were homosexuals to get a safe-conduct to leave the country; neither has any figure segregated by sexual orientation or gender identity been made public.
Undoubtedly, the most representative aspect of the exodus (especially on an international level) continues being the autobiographical novel Antes queanochezca(Before Night Falls; 1993) by the also Marielito Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), recognised as one of the principal exponents of queer literature in Latin American narrative. But that work, in addition to never having been published in Cuba, is a vision that is too subjective and partial of what occurred.
In terms of theoretical production there are few researches centred on the Cuban homoerotic diaspora of the 1980s. These are the cases of Oyeloca. From the Mariel Boatflit to Gay Cuban Miami (2013), by Susana Peña, and Queering Mariel, by Julio Capó Jr., published by U.S. academies in the last decade. Moreover, some references to the issue can be found in other texts like Gay Cuban Nation (2001), by Emilio Bejel, and Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality and AIDS (1994), by Marvin Leiner.
All these publications point out that Mariel was the opportunity to take out of the game many undesired subjects for the socialist project. These of course included the homosexuals, who were identified as representatives of several vices left over from the republican period and, therefore, not related to that idea of the new man that the Cuban Revolution brought with it in 1959.
Even the negative experiences of several gays who were sent to the UMAP in 1965 can be considered as antecedents of the Cuban sexile. In addition, after those units were closed given a great international rejection, the discrimination in terms of sex and gender continued in other ways. Especially standing out is the openly homophobic Declaration of the Congress of Education and Culture, in April 1971, which attributed to homosexuality the “character of deviation, complex problem and social patology.”iv
This point of view derived in the so-called “parameterisation,” punitive measures against those subjects that did not meet the guidelines approved in the aforementioned congress, which caused numerous layoffs or labour reassignments, fundamentally in the cultural sector.
One year after the migratory crisis the law on public scandal from 1936 was updated, adding the term “antisocial behaviour” and increasing from six to nine months the maximum imprisonment for that crime. In her research, sociologist Susana Peña sustains that “although these laws did not explicitly identify the homosexuals, numerous reports indicate that before Mariel the most visible gays were frequently arrested and accused under this law.”
Guzmán recalls that Cristóbal (Cristobalina) Hernández was one of the “strongest” gays who travelled with him to the United States, and while he was in Cuba he spent more time in prison than at home, because his image was too transgressive for the period. Unfortunately, Cristobalina – one of the few survivors of all his group of sexiled friends – afterwards was able to have a sex reassignment or change in Miami and worked for a long time as a drag queen.
Guzmán, on the other hand, was only affected in terms of education because, in the middle of the parameterisation, his condition as a homosexual prevented him from doing the exams for acting to enter the National Art School and, from his second option, the University of Havana, where he wanted to study to be a teacher.
“At the beginning I regretted having to be forced, directly or indirectly, to leave Cuba, since many left because they had no life there. But what pains me is that I wasn’t able to do in my country everything I did in this one for the simple fact of being gay,” he affirms.
That’s why it is not strange that Mariel became a great means of escape for the lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersexual (LGBTIv) community from that time, after constant repression, imprisonment, labour restrictions and the loss of prestige on a social level.
“We left through Mariel on May 6, 1980. When we arrived there, one couldn’t see the water, it was all boats, yachts…and what really impressed me a great deal was to see a grey bus full of prison inmates arrive at the precise moment when we were in the line and they were picking up our passports. The latter, all them skinny and with shaved heads, were placed in between the line we were in. Later I found out that they had been given the choice of being in prison or free in Miami,” he recalls.
The sexiled as well as the rest of the immigrants were described as “scum,” a term that still remains in the collective memory of the Cuban people, giving the exodus a pejorative charge.
The lake and memory
More than three decades later, Eloy has not forgotten when he arrived in Key West on a shrimp boat and how he was welcomed by Manolo’s family in Miami until he was able to make a new life for myself in New York.
He is proud of being a “Marielito” and of everything he has achieved in the United States. He is currently living in a paradisiacal zone on the outskirts of Burlington, in Vermont, the State of Democrat politician Bernie Sanders, and the first where the civil union between persons of the same sex was approved in 2000.
At times, while looking at Lake Champlain, which is in the back of his residence, he remembers the country he had to leave behind. But “in the United States I worked for 25 years as a teacher, I went twice to university and I met David, my couple of 32 years, a wonderful being. When I feel resentful, I think of all this and let it pass,” he affirms.
Ever since he has been living in Vermont he has adapted to maple syrup, the dry cold from the mountains and to always dedicate time to meditation. When the weather is good, he usually sits in his terrace, with a glass of tea and his laptop, to write a book about his experience, since he fears that the history of Mariel will be erased, “like a badly written sentence on the blackboard.”
He also writes to pay tribute to the memory of the 17 friends who came with him and were unable to stand the change. “I must be thankful to life for having been a survivor, all the others are dead. That’s why it is up to me to speak on their behalf, because that is nowhere and no one is talking about it,” he says.
He is of the opinion that the value of his book lies in the fact that he was one of the luckiest protagonists of those events, because he didn’t die from HIV, which causes AIDS, nor did he become an alcoholic or drug addict. Out of all his gay friends he was the only one who was able to have a steady partner.
“It must be understood that, after so many years of repression, most of them did not have the strength to get ahead in life. In fact, when I went to university, in 1983, I was an oddball, many of my friends said, but you’re crazy, we’re going to live it up now!” Guzmán says.
Unfortunately, the rejoicing did not last long for them, especially because of the heyday in a short time of the so-called “gay cancer.”The first of his friends who got infected with HIV died in 1983 and, gradually, the others followed suit. He buried the last one in 2004.
In addition to being in charge of the funerals of a great many of them and accompanying them in the hospitals, he zealously kept, together with his own memories, hundreds of photos, letters and other documents he was bequeathed by them.
All that is today material for his work and he keeps it under lock and key in his personal library, also full of all the Cuban films, records or books he has been able to collect during all the time he has lived outside his land of birth.
On the other side, not all was a bed of roses
The arrival of so many immigrants in a short period of time caused a great many headaches to the U.S. government, because of all the negative values attributed to the “Marielitos” compared to the preceding Cuban emigration.
During that period, U.S. laws excluded gay immigrants and that is why the arrival of so many openly homosexual “Marielitos” was a problem for the government, for which, on the other hand, the mass exodus of Cubans was convenient to show it as proof of the failure of communism in the midst of the Cold War.
While in Cuba it was pertinent to classify the homosexuals to have the pretext to expel them, in the United States such identification was a problem for the authorities, since the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) since the 1950s had forbidden the entry to that country of those identified as gays. But they had to make an exception with the Cubans.
It was not until September 1980, almost at the end of the exodus, Peña explains, that the USCIS rectified its policy of exclusion and, therefore, one can deduce “that it felt the need to specify its mechanisms to deal with the sudden migratory flow and the increase in the media’s interest about the Cuban homosexual immigrants.”
In addition, around that time the identification mechanisms of the USCIS were being weakened – the researcher says in Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality in the Border, by EithneLuibhéid – after the American Association of Psychiatry in 1973 stopped considering homosexuality as a mental disorder, although it was not until five years later that the head of the U.S. General Health Service requested that that process be stopped.
There is no proof that the U.S. officials formally identified, enumerated or processed in a different way subjects who were not heterosexual in that population. Although it is clear, Peña points out, that “that politically and sexually stigmatised emigration was also the same in terms of race.”
One of the government’s segregation strategies was to assess through penitentiary institutions which of them had criminal records in Cuba. In that group, obviously, the homosexuals were included since they were penalised on the Caribbean island.
Since U.S. public opinion was also charged with negative perceptions regarding the “Marielitos,” their social insertion was hindered, especially in the case of those sent to resettlement camps for not having someone responsible for them or family in the United States.
Inside these sites, the sexiled self-segregated themselves, which facilitated the press coverage about his group, but hindered their inclusion, especially in the case of the most visible transgendersand gays. In addition, the sociologist says that “from the government authorities there was a high degree of attention toward the homosexual population, despite the official denials.”vi
According to Peña, in a Washington Post article published in July 1980 it was said that there were around 20,000 homosexuals waiting to be located somewhere.
The Cuban Haitian Task Force (CHTF) and the USCIS, which were the principal bodies in charge of the process, immediately hurried up to deny such a number, alleging it was much less than that. In addition, they refuted that some type of identification of gay persons had been made.
All these contradictions also make it impossible to get from the United States the precise number of gays and lesbians among the “Marielitos.” In fact, the estimates that were able to be obtained fundamentally refer to those who were in the resettlement camps.
Since Guzmán wasn’t in any of those camps, his perception of that LGBTI community is basically limited to the city of New York. For him, “the Big Apple was almost a CDR. Reinaldo Arenas lived three blocks from his apartment in the East Village and he affirms the meeting place for Cuban gays was on 52 and 9th Ave., in Manhattan, behind the Broadway theatres.”
Despite the racism and xenophobia, in the so-called capital of the world they felt a great deal of freedom and were the protagonists of a time of a lot of struggle of the sex minorities. Unfortunately, that is a story still told from a white, elitist perspective, which could be reversed if there were more information.
As Susana Peña recognises, that impossibility of quantifying “facilitated the silence about that matter in the media. When paying attention to the quantitative mistakes, the federal authorities helped to maintain veiled and full of uncertainty the potentially explosive gay history of Mariel.”vii
However, it is unquestionable, says historian Julio Capó Jr., that that exodus was crucial for the rights of the LGBTI community in the United States, since it “not only brought changes to the south of Florida but also cemented a new and politicised gay movement throughout the country.”viii
Remembering so that the past is not repeated
After four years of not coming to Cuba, in April 2016 Guzmántook advantage of a family visit to retrace his steps in the history before his exodus. He went to Mariel just to make sure that there wasn’t the slightest trace of everything that occurred.
He also returned to his hometown of Artemisa, where one of his brothers still lives in the farm that belonged to his family, and very nearby is the home of his cousin Gloria Guzmán, who was his closest relative.
With Gloria he recalled when they wanted to vaccinate him to “make him a man,” the visits to a psychologist and the beating his older brother gave him one day, which was what led him to move to Havana when he was only 19 years old, where one of his aunts lodged him.
He also visited the past house on Maloja, in Centro Habana. His younger brother now lives there and he still has two friends in the barrio. But he no longer recognises his street. His biggest surprise during the trip, however, was his reencounter with Gerardo Gómez, who took him to a gay bar in front of the Malecón.
“For me it is incredible to see how everything has changed, for example seeing the transvestites in the street, which in my time was unthinkable. What’s more, you couldn’t even dream until I left, if my friends had been alive and could see what is happening, what would they say?
“I’m a very optimistic person, I think about the future and about the new generations, which won’t have to go through what we went through, if they are well-educated. They are going to live better, that’s very important for me,” he concluded.
However, Guzmán thinks, this can only be possible if the lack of memory doesn’t devour his history, as it already did with the bay of Mariel, now turned into an important economic zone, where the new airs that blow eclipse the sad past.(2017)
i Ernesto Che Guevara was one of the principal leaders of the Cuban Revolution and died in Bolivia in 1968.
ii It is a concept enunciated by Ernesto Guevara in his textEl socialismo y el hombre en Cuba (Socialism and Man in Cuba; 1965), which became a sort of pattern of how revolutionary citizens should be, a model in whichhomosexuals were conceived as opponents of that idea of the new man.
iiiSexileis a word used to identify emigration for sex-relatedl reasons.
iv Sierra Madero, Abel: Del otro lado del espejo.La sexualidad en la construcción de la nación cubana. Casa de lasAméricas Publishing Collection, 2006.
vThese acronyms identify the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and interesexual community. Some persons also add Q for queer.
viIdem, p. 43.
viiIdem, p. 57.
viiiTaken fromMariel Boatlift Crucial to Cementing National Gay Movement, Says FIU Historian, published onwww.fiu.comon January 18 2012.
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