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Childhood Exile

Mirta Ojito's Cuban memoir


In the spring of 1980, when Fidel Castro decided to rid Cuba of Cubans he disliked, Mirta Ojito was just 16. With her family, she ended up aboard the Mañana on her way toward Key West, Florida. Ojito is not only a Marielito, she is a professional journalist. There exists no other person as qualified, both privately and publicly, to cover the Mariel exodus. Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus (Penguin trade paperback, April 2006), Ojito's account of this historical moment in Cuban-American relations, reveals not only its momentous political consequences, but also its indelible impression on the personal histories of the Cubans who left. Finding Mañana, at its core, is a study in the political as the personal and the personal as the political. Ojito pulls all this off with the precision of a skilled journalist and an engaging flair for storytelling.

During what was called the Mariel exodus, Castro's regime told the gusanos ("worms," as opponents to the Castro regime were called) to flee, angry at their insistence on leaving and at the insistence among the international community on protecting those refugees. Cuban exiles from Miami jumped at the chance, hiring hundreds of boats to sail to Mariel and returning to Florida with relatives, convicted criminals and political dissidents that Castro had decided to export to the United States. In the end, over 125,000 Cubans arrived here in a mere six months.

Ojito's story begins long before Mariel. In Castro's Cuba, she explains, "wanting to leave became a way of life." Her father was forced to work in a truck-driving job he despised and both of her parents--who were comfortable ignoring politics altogether--were driven by Castro's daily intrusions into their lives to adopt opinions disagreeable to the regime. Ojito's entire experience growing up can only be conveyed through the context of Castro's Cuba. She lost a longtime boyfriend to the war in Angola, through which the Cuban government was promoting communism. She turned 16 at a camp called Felicidad ("happiness"), where she was forced to work long, hard hours harvesting tobacco in service to the revolution. She failed to get into a prestigious middle school, despite her superior academic record, because she didn't exhibit a strong enough commitment to so-called "revolutionary activities."

Finding Mañana sends a subtle messages to world leaders who transform their people's lives into political battlegrounds. As she reflects on continued tensions between Washington and Havana, Ojito concludes that "refugees were pawns in a never-ending game of Cold War politics neither was able to win or willing to concede." Castro's endless pursuit to maintain absolute power by purging political dissidents has robbed Cubans of sovereignty over their personal histories. Even now, years after Mariel, Ojito still finds personal definition through the context of the political. She reflects that "exile ... is not a temporary condition that dissipates in the euphoria of the return," but rather "a way of life, much like a chronic, but not terminal, disease." For Ojito, due to her exile, the concept of home is evasive, "like a desert mirage that grows farther" the closer she gets to it.