The Florida Times-Union - March 29, 2005
Memoir: A wrenching exodus from Cuba
By TANYA PEREZ-BRENNAN
There are some moments in life that you never forget. And even though time passes, these moments remain frozen in time, forever lodged in memory.
For Mirta Ojito, that moment came as she stood on a boat at age 16, watching her native country, Cuba, disappear in the distant darkness knowing she might never return.
And now Ojito -- a journalist and contributing writer for The New York Times -- put all those unforgettable moments into her first book, Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus, which will be published next week. Ojito will be in Jacksonville Saturday to speak about her memoir at Much Ado About Books at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
Ojito arrived in Miami on the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. That year, between April and September, more than 125,000 Cubans, including a small number of criminals, left the island on boats heading for Florida. These Cubans, known as marielitos, later became stigmatized and sterotyped as representing the unwanted "scum" Fidel Castro used as a political ploy against the United States.
Unlike other memoirs that are mainly steeped in personal memories and experiences, Ojito used her journalistic expertise by combining her story with those of other Cubans who were key to bringing about the boatlift.
Her journey started three years ago, when she felt the need to find the captain of the Manana, the boat that brought her and her family to Florida. That led to more questions about the others who had also left, until she knew there was a story she had to tell.
"What got me going was the fact that I wanted to find out who these people [were] rather than a book-writing project of my life," she said during a recent interview.
And to her it was natural to structure the narrative around two voices: the authoritative, journalistic voice that would provide the historical and political context of U.S.-Cuban relations and the personal profiles that would result in an honest, searing story.
"It works for me as a writer because that's what I wanted to find out," she said. "The whole point is that it is us, individuals, who make history. I ended up writing profiles of these amazing people that changed history and therefore my life."
The memoir touches on the hardship Ojito's family experienced as people who did not blindly believe in the revolution when Castro came to power in 1959. The book also reveals Ojito's personal transformation from an adolescent who at first embraced the tenets of socialism but later became disillusioned.
"People here [in the States] simply age a lot later," she said. "When you grow up in Latin America in general and you add to that the ideal of sacrifice and revolution and war, and if everything around you is political, you grow up even faster in a much more serious way."
This multilayered memoir also points to the painful reality of exile.
"I don't think that ever goes away," she said. "Would I like to go back? Sure. Would I actually do it? I don't know."
What she does know is that those final months on the Manana were traumatic, one of those moments imprinted indelibly in her memory.
"I will never forget," she said.