She was a short and skinny 15-year-old, sitting down on a sunny afternoon for lunch of brown-sugar sandwiches at her grandmother's house...

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MIAMI — She was a short and skinny 15-year-old, sitting down on a sunny afternoon for lunch of brown-sugar sandwiches at her grandmother’s house, when Lourdes Hernandez was forced to face her future.

Her grandmother called out, “You have to go home. Officials just came over to your house. You’re leaving the country.”

About a week later, Hernandez walked through the mosquito-filled night in Mariel, Cuba, toward a shrimp boat, the Lorraine, and its American captain. Clutching her father’s hand, she stepped onto the vessel with about 200 other refugees joining the “freedom flotilla” toward Key West.

“My dad said, ‘Let’s risk it. If not, we might never get a chance to leave,’ ” she recalled. “My world was totally crushed.”

More than 125,000 Cubans arrived in Key West by boat in the spring and summer of 1980, leaving their homes and braving treacherous seas to reach their new world. Their arrival affected a cross-section of America, from retirees on Miami Beach, to residents of Jenny Lind, Ark., to President Carter in the White House.

About 85,000 of them ended up in Miami, where the Cuban influence already had been felt through previous migrations. The boatlift also unleashed a relatively small but ruthless cadre of criminals into refugee camps and Miami streets, tainting for years America’s image of the “Marielito.”

“It was a demographic bomb,” said sociologist Juan Clark.

The exodus from the small Cuban port began when Cuban President Fidel Castro sought to remove about 10,000 people who were seeking to leave the island after crashing through the gates of the Peruvian embassy April 1, 1980.

Castro allowed those who wanted to leave the island to depart by boat. He also sent about 2,000 of communist Cuba’s most violent criminals across the Florida Straits, along with mental patients and about 23,000 others identified by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as “non-felonious criminals and political prisoners,” according to Clark’s 1980s research on Mariel’s impact.

“Those who have no revolutionary genes, those who have no revolutionary blood … we do not want them, we do not need them,” Castro said in a May 1, 1980, speech.

A small opening

But experts say the roots of the boatlift went back to the late 1970s, when Castro agreed to release more than 2,000 political prisoners and allowed exiles to visit relatives in Cuba. Visitors brought televisions, jeans and other gifts. Castro’s acknowledgment that he held political prisoners disillusioned some Cubans, and the visits made them aware of capitalism’s luxuries.

Hearing of a possible exodus, people flocked to tiny Key West. There, many paid American boat captains cash to pick up their family members from Cuba and bring them back to the United States.

President Carter, who had expressed a desire to ease tensions between Havana and Washington, accepted the new arrivals “with open hearts and open arms” in a May 5, 1980, speech.

Cuban exile activist Arturo Cobo got the call April 17, 1980. A friend told him that Cubans were starting to arrive in Key West by the boatload.

“I told [Key West officials] to be ready for thousands more,” Cobo said. “They told me I was crazy.”

Cobo quickly set up a table with food and water and started registering the early arrivals. He assembled a group of volunteers, set up cots and a bathing facility, and provided fresh clothing and even toys for children.

By early May, the U.S. government had established a large processing center, at the Navy’s facilities at Truman Annex.

Cobo said contacts near Mariel would radio the names of boats and the number of passengers. He would then check the boats off his list when they arrived.

Some did not, sinking in rough seas. At least 25 people were known to have died.

Cobo would greet the exhausted arrivals with a pleasant “Welcome to the United States.”

The scene in Key West was surreal. Tourists were water-skiing among the throng of boats. Arrivals saw hundreds lining a fence on the dock, screaming last names of relatives. At least one refugee had a heart attack on the wharf; a woman had a baby.

Even the food awaiting them on shore was a new experience.

“I had never seen an apple before,” recalled Hernandez, now married with the name Lourdes Campbell.

Riots and misgivings

Many of the new arrivals were quickly claimed by relatives and went to live in Miami to begin their “resettlement.”

However, thousands were forced to stay in cramped Key West or in Miami’s Orange Bowl, waiting for family to eventually claim them. Others who were not immediately claimed by sponsors, admitted being jailed in Cuba or were identified as potential dangers were sent to processing camps in Indiantown Gap, Pa.; Fort Chaffee, Ark.; Fort McCoy, Wis.; and Pensacola, Fla., and to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

The Arkansas camp became a public embarrassment for then-Gov. Bill Clinton when Cubans rioted at Fort Chaffee in June 1980. About 300 spilled out of the compound and pelted officers with rocks before retreating when state troopers opened fire. Refugees ran through the streets of Jenny Lind, Ark., shouting “Liberty, liberty.” Riots also erupted in Pennsylvania and Atlanta. Clinton lost his gubernatorial re-election bid later that year.

“It was a terrible time for Miami,” in terms of crime, said police Cmdr. David Rivero, who was on a law-enforcement task force targeting Mariel criminals.

Murders spiked, and the city was depicted in the national media and films such as “Scarface” as crime-infested. Miami Beach, today known for its nightclubs and Art Deco hotels, was so besieged that its mayor complained residents were “prisoners” in their homes. Even then-Gov. Bob Graham, whose family had been in the Miami area for generations, called it a “city of fear.”

By the end of 1980, only those Mariel Cubans deemed too dangerous to be released remained in custody. The Orange Bowl holding area had closed, as did camps in Fort Chaffee and elsewhere.

“A great American story”

Time passed, and most Mariel refugees found jobs, finished school and blended into society. And while the 85,000 spike in Miami’s population strained the city’s social services, schools and housing, the refugees eventually became a part of the city’s diverse mix.

“If that amount of people arrived at one time in any other city, it would have created chaos,” said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks. “It was a great American story, because we proved that we could bring in a group of people and they could fit in.”

Because of the influx, Parks said, Hispanics became the majority in Miami-Dade County, earning many positions of power.

Initially, some Cuban Americans who already had established lives in Miami looked down on the Mariel refugees. “To call someone a ‘Marielito’ was an insult, but I think that’s changed,” Clark said.

Campbell, who was joined by her mother and siblings later, said she remembers classmates who told her, “You came on a banana boat.” But she overcame those obstacles.

“I wanted to prove that we were not all incapable,” said the now-40-year-old Florida Power and Light analyst. “It was very rewarding for me to say who I am, that I’m part of this.”