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Posted April 10, 2005 by mattlawrence in US Embargo

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Mariel exiles firmly middle class

Posted on Sun, Apr. 10, 2005
While tightly embracing their native language and cultural traditions, Mariel refugees have become—and gained acceptance as—productive members of the middle class, earning above-average incomes for South Florida, a Herald poll found.


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Twenty five years ago, as thousands of poor Mariel refugees poured into Key West, few would have believed it would take just a generation for them to blend all but seamlessly into the American middle class.

But that’s exactly what has happened, according to a poll of Mariel refugees and other Cuban exiles conducted for The Herald as part of its coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Mariel boatlift.

Since more than 125,000 Cubans poured into South Florida during the 1980 boatlift, their collective identity has eluded analyses. This poll is an attempt to understand one of the most misunderstood and stereotyped groups of immigrants in American history.

In almost every regard, Mariel refugees have become part of the Cuban exile ‘‘economic miracle.’’ Their incomes are higher than most South Florida residents. They feel accepted by their Cuban peers. And while they are proud of being Cuban, most of them say they will never move back to Cuba, even after Fidel Castro dies.

‘‘They have pretty much joined the American middle class,’’ pollster Sergio Bendixen said.

The Coral Gables-based Bendixen & Associates interviewed 200 Mariel refugees as part of a larger poll of 600 Cuban Americans from Miami-Dade and Broward counties between March 21 and 31. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Like almost all Cubans who came from the island before and after them, Mariel refugees came with almost nothing. Eighty-eight percent had less than $100 in their pockets, and they averaged about $7,000 in income their first year here.

Today, Mariel refugees have an average annual income of $32,210 per person. The average annual income for all Cuban exiles is $37,440, while the average individual income in Miami-Dade is $21,947. Men with full-time jobs in Miami average annual incomes of $31,045 and women $24,171.

Lzaro Cuervo, 57, remembers coming to Miami during Mariel poor and desperate. Within a month, he was working two jobs.

‘‘I started working in a garage, in construction, in whatever opportunities I had,’’ said Cuervo, a poll participant who has three children. ``I’ve always had two jobs. They say there are not jobs here, but that’s only true for people who don’t want to work.’‘

‘‘They have done extremely well economically,’’ Bendixen said. ``I can’t imagine myself arriving in a foreign country with less than $100 in my pocket and without speaking the language. It’s pretty remarkable the courage and success in what they’ve done since.’‘

Politically, 76 percent of Mariel refugees identified themselves as registered Republicans. A majority said they are much more interested in education than in politics.

Perhaps most shocking about the success of Mariel refugees is that they have attained their middle-class status despite the fact that most of them still barely speak English.

Only 30 percent of Mariel exiles said they speak English well or very well. Seventy percent said they either don’t speak English or don’t speak it well. Eighty-six percent say they get their news from Spanish-language media. Their top choice on Spanish-language radio: Radio Mambi, WAQI-AM (710). And 6 percent of poll respondents elected to be interviewed in English.

Bendixen’s study found that, like other Cuban exiles, Mariel refugees take pride in their Cuban heritage. They keep alive such cultural traditions as playing dominoes, attending quinceaera parties and organizing Ferias de Los Municipios, local fairs that reunite people from different towns in Cuba.

Like other Cuban immigrants, the toughest time for Mariel refugees was their first year here: Many confronted discrimination, even from older, more established Cuban exiles. They faced stereotypes of being criminals—stereotypes fed in part by Castro’s inclusion of a minority of criminals into the boats departing Mariel—while others couldn’t find work, according to the poll.

Today, the stereotypes and discrimination are almost nonexistent. Ninety-two percent of Mariel exiles feel accepted here, and 80 percent of all Cuban exiles feel that the Mariel refugees are productive members of society.

Perhaps surprisingly, almost one out of four Mariel refugees polled feel that the Al Pacino movie Scarface, about a Mariel refugee who becomes a Miami drug kingpin, is symbolic of what the Cubans who arrived during Mariel are all about.

Daisy Roque, 51, of Hialeah, believes she has lived the typical Mariel experience. She worked a slew of low-wage jobs from the moment she arrived, including as a lunch server at a school cafeteria and a bullet-maker in a factory. She has raised three children, including two daughters who were given lavish quinceaeras at a banquet hall.

If and when Castro dies, she doesn’t plan to go back to Cuba. She believes the life she has made for herself in Miami is priceless.

‘‘They didn’t give us as many benefits or advantages when we first got here,’’ she said. ``We had to work from the first minute we got here. And we did OK, and I’m grateful for this country.’‘

  1. Follow up post #1 added on April 10, 2005 by mattlawrence with 69 total posts

    They come to succeed within the frameworks of the the very freedoms most Americans take for granted.

    Matt Lawrence, Author
    Dying To Get Here: A Story of Coming To America

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