Thirty years ago this month, the Miami Herald reports, the Mariel boatlift began with a trickle of refugees and ended 159 days later with 125,000 having fled Cuba to South Florida — the largest influx of refugees to arrive here in such a short span of time. The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald will mark the anniversary with an upcoming series of stories and the unveiling of an exclusive searchable database listing the names of nearly every Mariel refugee. The database will be made public on May 21, the start of the three-day Cuba Nostalgia exposition at Tamiami Park in west Miami-Dade.
As part of the reporting, the newspaper is asking readers to help them solve a photographic mystery — the identity of a baby whose image appears amid a group of refugees.
Here’s what they know:
During the famed 1980 freedom flotilla, there were many poignant photographs taken. Among them: the image of a group of newly arrived Mariels who landed in Key West and were flown to Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle for temporary housing. Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman took the shot, which he considers one of the most endearing of the thousands he took during the freedom flotilla. The powerful photograph shows a slice of that mass of refugees inside an airport hangar, mostly men scrambling toward the front. Suddenly, a baby — wearing only diapers — is hoisted high, just as Chapman snaps his shutter. The baby’s face becomes the focus of the shot, telling a story and conveying the mixed feelings of apprehension and happiness of those crowding the hangar.
Chapman recalls the photo was probably taken around May 4, 1980, as refugees first arrived at the Air Force base. “There was pure energy in that room, which was full of people feeling free maybe for the first time in their lives,” Chapman said. “I remember it sent a chill down my neck. And in the middle of this, it’s like they wanted the baby to know: You are part of this happy moment when we’re all free.”
Chapman says the photo made him feel part of a historic event. “The shot had all the stuff I had read about in history books, about your huddled masses. Imagine, I was able to photograph the coming of the huddled masses,” he said. It’s difficult to tell if the baby is a boy or a girl. The face of the man holding the infant is partially obstructed, but could be recognized by someone who knew him. However, he might not be the father. If you look closely, there are six hands lifting the baby in the air.
Today, the baby, who appeared to be six months to a year old, would be in his or her 30s.
Chapman often wonders how the baby’s life played out in America.
So the news paper is asking its readership to help them put a name to this one tiny face. If you know the answer, please contact Luisa Yanez via e-mail: lyanez@MiamiHerald.com
And, if like this baby, you were among those who came to the U.S. during Mariel and would like to share your story, they’d also like to hear from you.