40 years later, Cuban refugees tell their stories
Forty years ago this summer, Marcos Calderon, Rodosvaldo Pozo, Ernesto Rodriguez and Tomas Consueergra Rodriguez, arrived on America’s shores as refugees from Cuba.
The four men, in their early 20s at the time, were among the 124,796 arriving in southern Florida as part of the Mariel Boatlift, the most traumatic exodus of people from Cuba to the U.S. as Omar Granados, an associate professor of global cultures and language at UW-La Crosse, referred to it.
Granados, himself from Cuba, brought the four former refugees to the Monroe County Local History Room last Thursday to relate their experiences of living in the area since leaving the Ft. McCoy resettlement camp that they called home in the summer of 1980.
Ft. McCoy was one of four resettlement camps in the U.S. It held 15,000 refugees, a disproportionate number of them young, single men.
The four men, who all had sponsors from Sparta, expressed their gratitude for the people of the area who helped them assimilate into American culture. Pozo and Consuegra Rodriguez had Phil and Diane Dammen as their sponsors.
Pozo lived in Sparta for six years before moving to La Crosse, where he married and had a daughter.
He said life in Cuba was bad, with the government controlling everything and the people always under its thumb. He embraced the freedom he found in America.
“In the U.S., as long as you want to do good, they let you do good,” he said.
Consuegra Rodriguez admitted that he had some troubling times when he arrived. He said as a young man in Cuba he was often getting into trouble. When he came to the U.S., he had no clue of what he would find but said, “it was a beautiful and wonderful place and the people were giving,”
He recalled his life in the U.S. being like a roller coaster, filled with ups and downs. He said while he never harmed anyone, he did get into trouble with drugs, but has been clean since 2005, and currently works in construction.
He says he is very patriotic and has three American flags in front of his house. “I love this country and I love these people,” he told the standing-room-only crowd.
Ernesto Rodriguez also knew little about America when he arrived. He said in Sparta he was treated well by some and not so well by others.
Granados said the media didn’t help matters, often negatively representing the young refugees in the camps. The story of one refugee who killed his sponsor in Tunnel City received a lot of exposure and stoked fear of the Cuban refugees among the local population.
But a daily newspaper produced at Ft. McCoy by the refugees portrayed a different side. Granados said it showed the interrupted lives of people who included artists, poets and displaced humans acting as ambassadors to the surrounding communities.
Many in the community saw the refugees as just that and opened their arms and homes to young men.
Ernesto Rodriguez had nothing but praise and gratitude for the late Roger and Annette Brandstetter, who took him in when his first sponsor could no longer keep him.
Today, he is retired and enjoys La Crosse. “My life in Cuba was bad, my life here is awesome,” he said.
Calderon said its was scary leaving Cuba and his family and coming into alien culture. He also had ups and downs since leaving Ft. McCoy.
He recalled seeing an American grocery store for the first time and being overwhelmed by the amount of choices and the amount of food available. He remembered thinking, “Where am I? Am I in Heaven?”
While most of the men said they would like to go back and visit Cuba, only Consuegra Rodriguez would like to return for good.
“I do want to go back to Cuba,” he said, noting he is the second youngest of six sisters and eight brothers, three whom have died. “I want to get to know my family.”
He said he is grateful to all the people who helped him and would take a full newspaper ad to thank them before he left.
The local history room continues to mark the 40th anniversary of the Mariel Boatlift with an exhibit that will be up until March 28. It includes a photo history from the refugee’s perspective created by Granados.
The local history room augmented the exhibit with some of its own items and partnered with Ft. McCoy to give it a Monroe County perspective.
The History Room also has created a page on its website for anyone who was around during that time and would like to share their own experience. Roll said people who lived in the area, worked at Ft. McCoy or were in local government are encouraged to contribute to the page.