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.
News footage of the Mariel boatlift
As related by Zaldívar in the intensely personal and evocative film, arrival in South Florida is only the beginning of the family’s struggle 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.
90 Miles was filmed over five years, as the filmmaker returned to Cuba in 1998 to visit his hometown of Holguín, and again in 1999 as a guest of the Havana Film Festival. Using news clips, family photos and home movies, the film creates 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 thousands of 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 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.
Faced with the sudden possibility of leaving the country, Zaldívar’s family revealed to him, for the first time, their ongoing disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution. Out of this difference of opinion, innocuous enough in Cuba, grew a cruel dilemma for the child.
In the end, unable to deny his family the opportunity to start anew in Florida and deciding to place blind trust in his parents, Zaldívar agreed to go.
In the United States, though homesick and nostalgic for his homeland and surprised both by what he liked and disliked about North American life, Zaldívar resumed learning and growing with the headstrong adaptability so often demonstrated by youth. He continued his media studies, moved to New York, became a filmmaker, and came out as a gay man. Similarly, his two sisters made happy lives, marrying and having children.
Interestingly, it is the older generation, which had most wanted to come to Florida, that experienced the greater problems. Zaldívar’s father, especially, grew depressed and remote from his son after arriving. The father’s dream of building his own home in Cuba, derailed by the Revolution, seemed to lose its power in the United States, where many Cuban men find themselves working jobs well below their professional level. Feeling betrayed by the Cuban Revolution and defeated by the ‘American Dream,’ Zaldívar’s father withdrew into himself. Where Zaldívar’s revolutionary zeal in the home country had created a divide of silence between father and son, in the U.S., the father’s sense of failure and futility only widened the gap.
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.