Opinion

Commentary: A list from the Freedom Flights

In this 1966 replica, a "flight receptionist" assigned to greet the arriving Freedom Flights Cuban refugees at Miami International Airport and make them feel welcome, holds an baby in her arms, as other arrivals look on. (Courtesy the Juan Clark Collection via Miami Herald/MCT)
In this 1966 replica, a "flight receptionist" assigned to greet the arriving Freedom Flights Cuban refugees at Miami International Airport and make them feel welcome, holds an baby in her arms, as other arrivals look on. (Courtesy the Juan Clark Collection via Miami Herald/MCT) MCT

My Herald colleague Luisa Yanez was rubbing her hands together like she had just solved the world's greatest mystery. She finally would get to see the list. The one that included her.

"You know that story I did about the Freedom Flights," she told me a couple months ago. "Well, I found a way to get the list of all 265,000 Cubans who came to Miami from 1965 to 1973."

Eres una bárbara, I told her – as in you're-too-much, job-well-done bárbara. Amazing.

The rest, as they say, is exile history wrapped in the ultimate American experience: freedom.

Luisa's dream of an online site that would serve as a mini Ellis Island-style directory for the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who arrived in South Florida since Fidel Castro's revolution 50 years ago is about to come true. The site, posted on MiamiHerald.com, will give Cuban Americans the opportunity to share photos of that time and write their memories about the trip, the loved ones and towns they left behind and their yearning for a free and democratic Cuba.

Whether you came on a Freedom Flight or arrived earlier – like Sen. Mel Martinez, as part of the Pedro Pan exodus that took 14,000 children out of Cuba – or even last year, we all know someone who took that historic flight from Varadero Beach to Miami. The children who arrived without knowing a lick of English are now lawyers and doctors, authors, business people, teachers and, well, journalists.

I still remember my mother's tears as we watched my grandparents gingerly walk down the steps of a Freedom Flight on Sept. 9, 1969. "Mamaita, papaito," she cried, waving her arms and hugging my little brother and me so hard that we gasped.

Whenever I hear people rag on the Democrats and Cuba policy, I remind them that most of us are here because a Democratic president, clueless or not, opened the door. Democrats may be too mushy to fight commie regimes in swift and determined fashion, but they surely have defended human rights to our advantage – particularly during the Cold War when the Kennedy and Carter administrations cut deals that freed thousands of Cuban prisoners.

In 1965, it was Lyndon B. Johnson and a Democratic Congress that ushered in the flights to end the Camarioca boatlift. Many who arrived by boat via Camarioca also will find their names on the list, though some corrections will be warranted. Clerks misspelled or transposed some of the passengers' names.

The Freedom Flights didn't just liberate my grandparents – they freed me to dream. The few years I had with them here in Miami before they died became my little piece of Cuba.

Their history became part of my history; their struggle, my struggle.

One day – (not too soon, my dear college sons) – when I become a grandmother, I plan to take my grandchild by the hand and show her or him how to click on the laptop and look for their great-great Cuban grandparents' story.

It'll be there on that magical list that Luisa's persistence helped create forever in time.

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