Fort McCoy News October 25, 2013

Event highlights McCoy's link with Cuban refugees

Public Affairs Staff

Fort McCoy community members gathered Sept. 19 to observe Hispanic Heritage Month.

"Hispanic Heritage in the United States honors the many Latinos, from many cultures, who have helped in the building of America and the leading of our people," said Chaplain (Maj.) Virginia Emery during the event's invocation. "We are especially grateful for the great numbers who have committed their lives to the military services."

Photo for Hispanic heritage article
Manuel Fernandez, the guest speaker at Fort McCoy's observance
of Hispanic Heritage Month, discusses the Resettlement Center for
Cuban refugees that was located at Fort McCoy in 1980. Fernandez
is a Cuba native and associate professor of Spanish at the University
of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Manuel Fernandez, a Cuba native and associate professor of Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who holds a doctorate in Spanish, was the event guest speaker.

"I came to this area of Wisconsin about 10 years ago, and at that time I began hearing about things that happened here in 1980," he said.

He learned the details of Fort McCoy's involvement as a Resettlement Center for Cuban refugees in 2008 when he worked with an undergraduate student on a project about the center.

Working with the Fort McCoy Public Affairs Office, Fernandez said he was able to obtain many photos of this well-documented time of Fort McCoy's history.

"There is this wealth of material here that I was very impressed with and which is very well-kept, also."

Fort McCoy's connection to Cuba extends further than its involvement as a refugee center in 1980. Robert Bruce McCoy, Fort McCoy's founder and namesake, served during the Spanish-American War — a conflict in 1898 between Spain and the U.S. that was fought partly in Cuba, Fernandez said. McCoy returned from the war and established what would become Fort McCoy.

Cuba experienced several major historical events leading up to the resettlement in 1980. Fidel Castro's rise to power in 1959 and subsequent limitations on citizens' abilities to leave the island ultimately led to a massive emigration in 1980 known as the Mariel Boatlift, Fernandez said.

Fernandez said boats jam-packed with people came to the U.S. over a six month period. About 125,000 refugees came to the U.S., with about 15,000 ending up at Fort McCoy from May through October 1980.

During their time at Fort McCoy, Fernandez said the refugees were processed and had many services provided to them. They participated in leisure activities, held celebrations and took GED and English classes.

"This became a community for them, basically," he said.

The refugees included males, females, adults and children.

A number of the refugees had been released from Cuban prisons and mental-health facilities and exiled to the U.S., Fernandez said. Because of this, there also was crime and violence in the resettlement center.

Tension existed between the Cubans and people in the local communities, he said. "There are interviews with people at the time who said they were supportive of the people here but also leery. All of sudden there are 15,000 people here, bigger than some of the small towns around here."

The majority of the refugees left the area after the resettlement center was closed.

"One of the most vexing parts of the research we did was that it's very hard to find people who were in the resettlement camp at Fort McCoy," he said.

Fernandez said his grandfather was a refugee who experienced the Mariel Boatlift but did not come to Fort McCoy.

"My grandfather didn't do anything significant, but he lived honorably just like many of the Hispanics in the U.S.," he said. "They may not have achieved notoriety, but they still contribute to society in a way that we all contribute."

There are, however, many Hispanics who have achieved notoriety and served the nation in many ways, Fernandez said, such as Lt. Col. Alfred Rascon, a Medal of Honor recipient; Linda Alvarado, CEO of Alvarado Construction; Joseph Unanue, former president of Goya foods, and Dolores Huerta, a community activist.