MADISON – When Afghan refugees arrived at Fort McCoy in August 2021, it wasn’t the first time that the rural Wisconsin Army base was used as a transit point for those seeking safety and a better life in the United States. In 1980, the base became home to nearly 15,000 Cubans who left the island during the Mariel Boatlift — a brief moment when President Fidel Castro opened the country’s borders. Roughly 125,000 people fled to the United States. Some of them were seeking economic opportunities, some wanted to be reunited with family, and others were pushed out of prison.
The story of the Mariel Boatlift is well documented in history, but the story of the Mariel refugees who settled down in Wisconsin hasn’t been, until now.
“WPR Reports: Uprooted” from Wisconsin Public Radio is a new, eight-episode podcast about the lives of the Cubans who still call the state home. Co-host and executive producer Maureen McCollum, who attended University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and started her journalism career in southwest Wisconsin, has been interested in the story for more than a decade, but she could never find the first hand accounts that she was looking for.
“I wanted to put the voices of the refugees at the forefront of this podcast – to center the experiences of those who came here and remained in this area,” McCollum said. “A lot of people were sent to Wisconsin, but not many stuck around. So, why did some stay here, and what was their experience like?”
Some of the refugees on “Uprooted” were incarcerated in Cuba for petty crimes and fled the island when Castro opened the prisons and allowed inmates to leave. Ft. McCoy, near Sparta, was specially designated for refugees — mostly single men — who didn’t have family or connections in the U.S. The podcast features the stories and experiences of refugees who not only had to adjust to life in a new country but also had to contend with a different kind of racism than they had experienced in Cuba.
“The men in the podcast are some of those who didn’t have anywhere else to go – they stayed in La Crosse and they have stuck together, like a family, to help each other out,” co-host and producer Omar Granados said. “They can help us understand what race is about and what immigration detention is about from the perspective of those who have suffered from the worst consequences of the structures that we have in place.”
According to Granados, who is the director of the UW-La Crosse Institute for Latin American and Latino Studies and an associate professor, there is no doubt that these men are Wisconsinites.
“After 42 years, all of them have lived in Wisconsin longer than they ever lived in Cuba,” Granados said. In addition to their life stories, “Uprooted” explores the refugees’ immigration status and pathways that might provide them with permanent residency in the country they call home. “There is so much we can learn from them just by hearing their stories,” he said.
“One of the main reasons I got interested in radio was to help people understand one another better,” McCollum said. “Uprooted” is a chance to hear life stories from Wisconsin neighbors you may not know too well – stories of risk, resilience and community. “These men are fathers, co-workers and musicians. There are some great moments, but there are also some sad and dramatic moments. So, I hope people will listen and understand them a little better,” McCollum said.
“WPR Reports: Uprooted” is available at wpr.org/uprooted and on all major podcast platforms. A live, virtual event about the podcast with McCollum, Granados and two of the men interviewed for the project, Ernesto Rodriguez and Marcos Calderón, will be held at noon CST Oct. 19 Registration is free at wpr.org/presents.