MIDDLETOWN — Middlesex Community College history professor Victor Triay has a salient memory from his childhood. A Cuban American who lived in Miami with his parents, Triay recalls riding through neighborhoods in the city’s Little Havana section in 1980 and seeing families readying boats in their front yards.
He asked his mother why, and her answer shocked him: “They’re going to Cuba.”
It was 1980, and the historic Mariel boatlift was beginning. But the 13-year-old Triay had little understanding of the event, the Communist revolution that rocked Cuba two decades earlier that led his parents to immigrate here, or even the full breadth of his own heritage.
“I thought, ‘Wow, look at this.’ To me, Cuba was like the planet Krypton, it was a place that used to exist but didn’t anymore. For me, growing up, Cubans were the people in Miami,” Triay said.
That cultural and historical awakening stuck with Triay, and led him to write the award-winning book, “The Mariel Boatlift: A Cuban-American Journey.” Published in September by the University of Florida Press, the book earlier this year won the 14th annual Florida Book Awards Phillip and Dana Zimmerman Gold Medal for Florida Nonfiction.
In May, it was selected for an honorable mention (local history category) by the American Association for State and Local History by the Leadership in History publication awards committee. The award is the most prestigious recognition for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history.
The Mariel boatlift out of Cuba happened between April 15 and Oct. 31, 1980, after thousands of Cubans protesting Fidel Castro’s Communist regime first sought asylum in Peru. Castro decreed that anyone who wanted to leave could go to the United States. His decision led to the exodus of some 125,000 Cubans out of Mariel Harbor in Cuba.
Cuban Americans in Miami, who had been separated for years from loved ones, eagerly launched boats, some as small as 17 feet, to make the often perilous 90-mile journey to the island nation.
“They went over in every kind of boat,” Triay said. “Some of them were tiny, 17- to 25-footers. Some families got together and hired shrimp boats and went over.”
Many of those waiting in Mariel Harbor were harassed and mistreated by the government, Triay said. Many who piled into private boats to leave were forced to share the vessels with others the government crowded onto the boats.
Those overloaded vessels sometimes sank on the journey to America. Triay’s own wife, a child at the time, was a Mariel refugee who was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard when her boat sank.
“Professor Triay details the violence and mistreatment many Mariel refugees faced at the hands of pro-government mobs and government authorities in Cuba upon leaving the island, their terrifying journey across the Florida Straits, and the unique challenges they encountered entering U.S. society,” MxCC said in a press release announcing the award.
“The refugees’ first-person testimonies reveal both their hardships and successes and illustrate the human impact of international power struggles,” the release continued.
Triay said he was motivated to write the book, in part, by a need to dispel some of the myths and untruths about the boatlift, the people who immigrated to America during that time, and Cuba’s often fractious history and relationship with the United States.
“I want people to know the history of Cuban exiles. I want people to know the truth about Mariel,” he said.
One of the most enduring myths about the Mariel boatlift is that many of those who came to Florida during the event were criminals. That misconception resulted because a small minority of the Mariel immigrants were people released from prison by Castro as part of his attempt to taint the larger immigrant population from Mariel, Triay said.
“The impression was everyone who came here during that time was a delinquent or a criminal. It became a stigma to say you came from Mariel. But it wasn’t true. The people who came here were very successful. They were doctors, lawyers, engineers, car mechanics,” he said.
Triay has taught at the college for 28 years and focuses on Cuban immigration history. He has written two other books, “Fleeing Castro: Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children’s Program,” and “Bay of Pigs,” a look at the historic and failed invasion of Cuba from those who participated in it.