In 1980, Juan Carlos Zaldívar was a 13-year-old loyalist of the Cuban Revolution jeering in the streets at the thousands of “Marielitos” leaving the island by boat for the United States. Within weeks, he was a Marielito himself, headed with the rest of his family for a new life in Miami. Now a U.S.-based filmmaker, Zaldívar recounts the strange twist of fate that took him across one of the world’s most treacherous stretches of water in 90 Miles, a new documentary having its broadcast premiere this summer on PBS’s acclaimed P.O.V. series.
Juan Carlos Zaldívar’s 90 Miles airs Tuesday, July 29, at 10 p.m., (check local listings).
As related by Zaldívar in the intensely personal and evocative 90 Miles, arrival in South Florida is only the beginning of the family’s struggles to comprehend the full meaning of their passage into exile. What follows is an intimate and uneasy accounting of the historical forces that have split the Cuban national family in two, and which shape the passage of values from one generation to the next.
Filmed over five years, including the filmmaker’s return to Cuba in 1998 to visit his hometown of Holguín, and again in 1999 as a guest of the Havana Film Festival,
90 Miles also uses news clips, family photos and home movies to create a portrait of recent Cuban history as dramatized by one family’s aspirations and disappointments.
Zaldívar’s is a tale rich in crossed borders, crossed loyalties and cross-cultural ferment. In the early 1980s, during the Mariel boatlift, he was not just a child of the Cuban Revolution, but a highly promising one. He had done very well in Cuba’s free education system, receiving a scholarship to study film and television at a government boarding school. As such, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Castro regime, and happy to join in the regime’s efforts to publicly humiliate some of the 250,000 Cubans who were leaving in the boatlift, labeling them gusanos (worms).
One of Zaldívar’s uncles who had fled to the U.S. in the 1960s offered to arrange the family’s boatlift to Florida on the condition that all or none of the family go. The family was only reluctant to interrupt the lives of their children Juan Carlos and his two sisters if the siblings were not willing. While Zaldívar’s older sister was happy in Cuba, she was much less politically inclined than Juan Carlos and more willing to follow her family into exile. So the decision fell, for all practical purposes, on Juan Carlos.
90 Miles is the account of Zaldívar’s quest to piece together the twists and consequences of his family’s journey into exile. Above all, it is a search for understanding and healing between father and son, by uncovering the emotional distance opened up by just 90 miles of water between Cuba and the U.S. mainland.