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Podcast explores Wisconsin’s complicated history with Cuban refugees

A new podcast from UWL Associate Professor Omar Granados and WPR host Maureen McCollum explores the arrival of nearly 15,000 Cuban refugees at Fort McCoy in 1980. In the four decades since, many have made La Crosse or greater Wisconsin their permanent home. Photo courtesy Murphy Library Special Collections/ARC and the La Crosse Tribune

Posted 5:04 a.m. Friday, July 29, 2022

Reuniting old friends. Uncovering forgotten stories. Helping people better understand a complicated chapter in Wisconsin history.

A new podcast by UWL Associate Professor Omar Granados and Wisconsin Public Radio host Maureen McCollum accomplishes that and more. 

“Uprooted” examines the relocation of thousands of Cuban refugees to Fort McCoy in 1980, delving into refugees’ personal stories and establishing a clearer picture of their past, present and future. The podcast officially launches Wednesday, Oct. 12, and can be found on WPR's website and other podcast providers.

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, the public can join Granados and McCollum for a virtual event introducing the podcast. Guests are asked to register in advance

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Professor Omar Granados

“Maureen and I had an immediate connection, and I could tell she was approaching the work in hopes of making a statement about the lack of visibility and attention this community has received historically,” says Granados, who teaches in the Global Cultures & Languages Department and specializes in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought nearly 15,000 Cuban refugees to western Wisconsin. 

His traveling exhibit, “Uprooted: The Cuban Refugee Program at Fort McCoy,” helped inspire the podcast.

“We really wanted to prioritize these unheard voices and make this a podcast told by the migrants who were part of this event,” Granados explains. “We were fortunate to find a lot of impactful stories and moments.”

The boatlift was a mass exodus of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s failing economy and communist regime. Under President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. accepted more than 125,000 refugees. For months in 1980, the Coulee Region was a focal point of this international news story, as communities across the country absorbed the largest Cuban population influx in U.S. history. 

Much was written about refugee arrival and their first few months in America. But less is known about their personal stories, including their lives since. That’s what the podcast explores.

Maureen McCollum

“I’ve always been interested in the story of the Mariel boatlift and always wanted to talk to people about it,” says McCollum, ’07. 

When many shared stories on Mariel’s 40th anniversary, McCollum approached the story more intimately. Granados, with connections and expertise gained from years of research, was the perfect partner.

“It’s amazing how few people know the story, or only know part of the story,” she notes. “Many Cubans left the area, but many chose to stay here instead of going to Florida, New York, Minneapolis or Chicago. They chose to stay, and that’s what we wanted to get to the heart of.”

Through interviews with experts, academics, journalists and refugees, the podcast tells a touching and definitive history of the Cuban refugees. 

While many of the stories are unique and personal, Granados and McCollum also tackle overarching issues, such as how refugees — many Black, single, gay men — were viewed through a racialized and prejudiced lens. Their detention in military facilities also served to portray them as untrustworthy.

If there’s one thing Granados and McCollum hope listeners absorb, it’s that refugees don’t view themselves as outsiders for long.

“The most enjoyable part has been understanding the Cuban population as a Wisconsin population — these people are Wisconsinites,” Granados says. “There’s this iconic photo of Cuban guys playing music, and they’re all wearing Green Bay Packers gear. To me, that says everything. They’ve been here for 42 years. This is their home.”


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