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Wisconsin’s unseen chapter

Posted 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

Refugees walk along a fence at Fort McCoy resettlement center. Nearly 15,000 Cuban refugees settled at Fort McCoy as part of the Mariel Exodus, a mass emigration of Cubans from Cuba's Mariel Harbor to the U.S. in 1980. Photo credit: Murphy Library Special Collections/ARC.

New grant funding will illuminate more Cuban-Wisconsin history with interactive, online exhibit

UW-La Crosse Associate Professor Omar Granados is expanding the story of a paramount moment of Cold War history. 

Through extensive research, successful grant acquisitions, new radio podcasts, and a statewide traveling exhibit, Granados has drawn attention to a previously overlooked piece of Wisconsin’s history when Cuban refugees settled at Fort McCoy in 1980. 

In April 2021, he launched a statewide traveling exhibit featuring Wisconsin’s Cuban refugee stories. In October 2022, he became co-creator of a Wisconsin Public Radio podcast about Cuban refugee lives in Wisconsin. Most recently, he earned a $10,000 Wisconsin Humanities Council grant that will create an interactive, online exhibit at the La Crosse Public Library to preserve cultural and historical artifacts surrounding the Cuban community in La Crosse and this historic moment when Cubans fled to the U.S., looking to escape Fidel Castro’s failing economy and communist regime.  

UWL Associate Professor Omar Granados has been the driving force behind several major public history initiatives in Wisconsin, shedding light on a previously untold chapter of the state’s history.

“Giving visibility to this community is our number one goal,” says Granados. “The beauty of this project is the connection it has to an underserved community and giving these people the opportunity to tell their own stories.” 

A native of Cuba, Granados says learning about Cuban history in La Crosse changed the direction of his academic scholarship from Latin American literature to public history. 

When he moved to La Crosse over a decade ago, he hadn’t realized that the Mariel Exodus, which brought 125,000 Cubans refugees to the U.S. in 1980, had resulted in settlements at refugee camps as far north as Wisconsin. History lessons about this period focus on the impact in southern Florida where about half of the refugees settled, with little regard for the additional 60,000 people that moved further north to Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Granados became aware of the northern settlement after noticing various Cuba-La Crosse connections, and eventually learning of the nearly 15,000 Cuban refugees who had settled at Fort McCoy. 

Granados, who teaches in UWL's Global Cultures & Languages Department, says his research for the radio podcast with WPR Host Maureen McCollumn resulted in the discovery of numerous images of Cubans at Fort McCoy that have not been made public. The visuals sparked the idea for a new library exhibit.  

New library exhibit

Cuban refugees learning English during Western Wisconsin Technical Institute, now Western Technical College, classes. Photo featured in the August 29, 1980, La Crosse Tribune. Photo credit: Murphy Library Special Collections/ARC.

The La Crosse Public Library exhibit will include 300 photos and documents from the Fort McCoy archives that have never been published. All accessible from the public library website, these images will show everyday life at Fort McCoy for Cuban refugees. The website will also include an interactive component where people can contribute their own stories. A permanent “spotlight collection” of textbooks, music and film surrounding the history of Cuba and Cuban migration, will also be available as part of the Wisconsin Humanities Council grant. The goal is to have the online and physical exhibit ready by April 2024, with a public unveiling in the summer. 

Helping curate the online exhibit and physical collection is Jenny DeRocher, a UWL alumna who is now is a librarian at the La Crosse Public Library Archives. UWL student Jacob Baggot, history education and Spanish, will be involved in curating the exhibit, along with former Cuban Fort McCoy refugee Ernesto Rodríguez, 67, who will serve as an advisor. 

Along with the public library display, organizers aim to host educational events for the public and also a special training on how to use the exhibit tools for K-12 teachers. Those dates are yet to be determined but will eventually be available on the La Crosse Public Library website.  

A complex story to tell

A man squats near the fence in the secure detention area at the Cuban Refugee resettlement center at Fort McCoy. Originally pictured in the June 13, 1980, La Crosse Tribune. Photo credit: Murphy Library Special Collections/ARC.

Mariel Exodus history is complicated and involves not only the experience of the boatlift and settlement into camps, but also the discrimination these Cubans faced as they settled into life in Wisconsin. The vast majority of the refugee population at Fort McCoy in 1980 identified as black or mixed race, yet racial composition and the discrimination this population faced is not discussed in the body of literature about the Mariel Exodus. Racial discrimination, as well as a lack of jobs, training, and language barriers are just a few of the struggles that this population faced as they tried to integrate into a new society. Now, over 40 years later, challenges persist as many turned to criminal activity in their pursuit of a way forward and are still dealing with the consequences after serving multiple, decade-long sentences in jail. Also, many can’t meet basic needs like healthcare as non-U.S. citizens and are caught in immigration limbo unable to go back to Cuba or become permanent U.S. citizens due to a criminal record from the 1980s. 

The digital exhibit will be used as part of a larger conversation about the ways in which different generations of racially diverse migrants in Wisconsin have forged a collective identity of cultural exile under the shared experiences of detention and racial discrimination. 

“This project is close to my heart in many ways,” says Granados. “It has given meaning to my being here in La Crosse. Maybe I was sent here to do a little bit of history.” 

Listen to the podcast 

Antomo Soto, left, playing soccer at the refugee settlement. Published October 20, 1980, in the La Crosse Tribune. Photo credit: Murphy Library Special Collections/ARC.

“Uprooted” is a podcast by UWL Associate Professor Omar Granados and Wisconsin Public Radio host Maureen McCollum. It 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 can be found on WPR's website and other podcast providers. 


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