Lakeland professor’s ‘Voices from Mariel’ gains wide attention

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A report by Gary White for The Ledger.

Jose Manuel Garcia’s original plan was to write a book, not to make a movie.

Garcia, a professor at Florida Southern College, began working on a book nearly a decade ago about the Mariel boatlift, the notorious 1980 mass exodus from Cuba.

Garcia had taken part as a 13-year-old in the dangerous trip from his native country to Florida. He began interviewing other Marielitos in preparation for a book.

But then plans for a trip to Cuba emerged, and Garcia conducted clandestine interviews with a film crew that became the basis for “Voices from Mariel,” a documentary released in 2011.

Seven years later, Garcia has at last produced a book, “Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the 1980 Cuban Boatlift,” and it is drawing international attention.

The 200-page book will be the subject of an article in the April issue of Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association. Garcia also has received invitations to do promotional events in Australia, Spain and Macedonia.

Garcia’s first publicity event, though, will take place in the city where he lives and works. He will hold a book signing at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College. The award-winning documentary will be shown at 7 p.m.

The Mariel boatlift occurred from April to October 1980, when an estimated 125,000 Cubans migrated to Florida, most on small boats leaving from Mariel Harbor. The exodus became notorious because Cuban dictator Fidel Castro allowed some prisoners to join the migration, leading some American politicians to brand all the Marielitos as criminals.

Garcia, an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, said one of the purposes of his book is to dispel that lingering stereotype. “Voices from Mariel” is based on interviews with fellow Marielitos, many of them Florida residents who have achieved success in the United States.

“One of my goals was to teach about the Mariel boatlift and in the process try to clear a little of that negative image that was placed on that event in regards to Marlelitos being criminals, being scum of earth,” said Garcia, 51.

The book is based on interviews Garcia conducted during the making of the documentary, produced by Lakeland’s NFocus Productions and directed by Jim Carlton. Jesse Larson, one of Garcia’s former students, also played an integral role in the film project.

The interviews with former refugees had to be edited down for the film, Garcia said.

“The documentary is mostly about my return to Cuba and catching those voices of the people that stayed there,” Garcia said. “The book itself goes into detail, into the stories of people that survived the boatlift, and obviously they are in the documentary but you don’t hear the stories in detail. In order to be able to understand the story of the Mariel boatlift, in my personal opinion, you have to see the documentary and also read the book, so you can get basically the whole picture of what happened.”

Garcia, who has taught at Florida Southern since 1999, said he intended his book to be an educational tool used at the college level. The book is priced for the mass market, though, and the author said officials with University Press of Florida tell him the early sales are surprisingly strong.

“The University Press of Florida has a long history of publishing works on Cuban and Cuban-American studies,” Romi Gutiettez, UPF’s associate director of sales and marketing, said in an email. “We’re proud to publish ‘Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the 1980 Cuban Boatlift.’ It’s an invaluable contribution that captures a unique moment in Caribbean and American history.”

Even before the official publication date of March 20, Garcia began receiving far-flung offers for promotional events. He said he has been invited to spend about two weeks in Australia, discussing the book and screening the documentary for a university.

Invitations have also come from England, Spain, Finland, Macedonia and Albania, Garcia said.

The book seems to be benefiting from the current international attention to immigration issues and enhanced interest in Cuba, the author said. Though much has been written about the Mariel boatlift, the book is unique in containing oral histories of former refugees, he said.

Hispanic Outlook on Education magazine gave the book a positive review.

“I am very surprised; obviously, it’s exciting,” Garcia said of the attention. “People told me, ‘Oh, you’re going to make a lot of money,’ but honestly I wasn’t thinking the book would do so well. I put in the book that I’m dedicating this to the Marielitos, to show another side of the boatlift, that they were not all criminals. In a way, I feel like I’m making a personal and academic contribution.”

Brad E. Hollingshead, Florida Southern’s Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, said the book reflects well on the college.

“By bringing together first-person accounts of this harrowing moment in history, Dr. Garcia has done something unique and compelling, forcing us to come to grips with a human story that continues to unfold well after the boatlift that prompted it,” Hollingshead said by email. “As such, it is particularly gratifying to see the important work that Dr. Garcia has done through this project receive the kind of recognition that will allow many more people to learn the lessons of the Marielitos. All of us at Florida Southern are proud of what Dr. Garcia has accomplished through this project and look forward to seeing what more he will do with it as he expands its reach. ”

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