The Cuban Refugee Center Records

A Conversation with Béatrice C. Skokan

People getting off a plane

Béatrice Colastin Skokan, manuscripts & archives librarian at the University of Miami’s Special Collections, talks with Choice about The Cuban Refugee Center Records, a collection that documents correspondence, reports, publications, photographs, and clippings created and collected by Cuban Refugee Program staff and administrators.

How would you describe the project to a perfect stranger?

Béatrice Colastin Skokan
Béatrice Colastin Skokan has been the manuscripts & archives librarian at the University of Miami’s Special Collections and the Otto G. Richter Library’s subject liaison for Africana studies, Caribbean studies, and French language & literature for the past ten years, and is currently serving as the Interim Esperanza B. de Verona Chair of the Cuban Heritage Collection.

The Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC) at the University of Miami Libraries was established by Cuban librarians who immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s and built the collection in active collaboration with the immigrant community. The CHC documents the experiences of the Cuban people both on the island and in the diaspora from colonial times to the present. The Cuban Refugee Center Records capture the key historical moments of Cuban refugees’ immigration to the United States as a result of the 1959 Revolution in Cuba.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Cuban Refugee Center and its history?

The Cuban Refugee Program was established in 1961 and codified by the “Migration and Refugee Assistance Act” of 1962. The Miami Cuban Refugee Emergency Center, housed at what came to be known as the “Freedom Tower,” administered the relief and resettlement of families to various parts of the United States. The educational, medical, and employment assistance to the refugees occurred in collaboration with other not-for-profit agencies such as Catholic Charities and the International Rescue Committee. The Cuban Refugee Center officially closed in 1994 after three decades of operation.

Retired Cuban Heritage Chair Esperanza B. de Varona, like many exiled Cuban Americans, remembers the symbolic significance of the center, housed in the Freedom Tower. The Cuban Refugee Center records are far from being vestiges of a distant past, since many of the librarians and staff who would come to curate the collection still had vivid memories of leaving their homeland and building new lives in the United States. Visitors who are fortunate enough to engage in conversation with Esperanza on her volunteering days will hear how the records were rescued by her colleague Professor Clark, and how the Cuban Heritage Collection staff was mobilized to help him rescue the records after the building’s closure.

What is the intended audience of Cuban Refugee Center Records? How do you envision undergraduates using the archive?

Cuban refugees
Cuban refugees awaiting consultation at a voluntary resettlement agency.

The Cuban Refugee Center Records, housed in the Cuban Heritage Collection, are available for teaching and research to University of Miami faculty, students, and the general public. Undergraduates are often introduced to primary and secondary sources from the CHC through class visits covering a variety of topics, such as Caribbean and Latin American history, theatre, literature, political science, and engineering, to name a few.In 2010, thanks to a grant from the Goizueta Foundation, the Cuban Heritage Collection, working in collaboration with the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, developed the Undergraduate Scholars Program. The initiative provided an opportunity for University of Miami undergraduate students to conduct original research using content from the Cuban Heritage Collection. The grant provided undergraduate fellowships with stipends and funding for advising faculty. The results of the student’s research were later presented at the University of Miami annual Research, Creativity, and Innovation Forum and the Cuban Heritage Collection annual Undergraduate Scholars Symposium.

How did the archive come to be?

The collection was a gift of Professor Juan M. Clark, a sociologist at Miami Dade College and former political prisoner in Cuba. Professor Clark had been notified of the center’s closure and arranged for the records to be curated by the Cuban Heritage Collection under the leadership of the CHC Chair, Esperanza B. de Varona.

What was the process of compiling the materials like?

Cuban refugees
Group of people getting off Freedom Flight, 1966.

From 2006 to 2007, the staff was able to complete the processing of 25 linear feet of materials from the Cuban Refugee Center Records, thanks to the Miami Dade Community Based Grant program. The Cuban Heritage Collection Preservation and Access Program resulted in the arrangement and description of 107 boxes of photographs, correspondence, newsletters, and various other documents that trace the history of Cuban immigration to the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s. In 2010, the records were digitized, thanks to a Goizueta Foundation grant. The digitized materials are available online as part of the University of Miami Libraries Digital Collections:

Given the recent attention toward American immigration policy, what role do you think archives like the Cuban Refugee Center Records could play in fostering discussions about immigration to America in 2017? What can current students and activists learn from this collection?

Archives like the Cuban Refugee Center Records provide the documentation for an informed citizenry. Researchers have direct access to statistical reports, newsletters, photographs, and personal testimonies, to name a few of the sources that provide an unfiltered lens into the Cuban immigration story as it unfolded during the Cold War. The records, which also contain a limited number of dossiers on the immigration of Haitian refugees to South Florida, are a worthwhile reminder of the multifaceted components of world migrations, concepts of border control, and ideological legitimacy within immigration discourse. The Cuban Refugee Records allow students and activists unmitigated access to primary sources that provide context and multiple perspectives of a particular instance of U.S. immigration history. By using the Cuban Refugee Center archives as a case study, students and activists have the opportunity to articulate nuanced and informed dialogues around the topic of U.S. immigration in its current manifestations within the long history of immigration to the United States.

How do the Cuban Refugee Center Records fit into the larger Cuban Heritage Collection?

Baby during a medical examination.
Baby during a medical examination.

The Cuban Heritage Collection as a whole represents a complex and rich narrative of Cuban history both on the island and in the diaspora. Librarians who were themselves exiles sought to document the impact of the revolution on the lives of the Cuban people on the island and abroad. The Cuban Refugee Center Records are thus intrinsically linked to the minds and hearts of the Cuban American professionals who built the repository, and to the faithful community that continues this work through ongoing donations of business records and family papers, and all the cultural artifacts that serve as testimony to this particular human experience.

What is the most interesting thing in the archive? What’s your favorite thing?

Each visitor determines what is most significant to her, and this is often tied to personal experience or the lens through which the individual wishes to study a topic. Within the Cuban Refugee Center Records, I have been touched by the “Unaccompanied Cuban Children’s Program” series. As a mother of two boys I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for a child to make such a journey alone and to arrive in a foreign land completely at the mercy of others. Lately, I have been reminded through other refugee crises that children are still travelling alone from Central America to the United States, and that there have been debates about whether or not they can represent themselves in court and articulate a case for themselves. The Cuban Refugee Center Records contain many images of family reunions of parents and children that took place throughout the United States. These images show the human dimensions of immigration. I think that the records are a testimony not only to the resiliency of the human spirit but also to our ability to connect to others and to find creative solutions once our thinking moves toward acceptance and inclusion of difference.

Georgina Iglesias is reunited with her family in Indianapolis, 1966.

What is the mission of the archive? Does the presence of the archive reflect a particular mission of the University of Miami?

The mission of the Cuban Heritage Collection is to collect, preserve and provide access to sources of information that have enduring historical value. The Cuban Heritage Collection works in tandem with the educational mission of the University of Miami by supporting the teaching, learning, and research needs of students, faculty, and the general public. The Cuban Refugee Center Records contain many photographs that capture poignant and emotional moments. The images of families patiently sitting in waiting rooms, of children standing next to suitcases with whatever favorite toy they could take, and the joyous scenes of family reunions connect the University and Cuban Heritage Collection to a vibrant community. We are the curators of all these stories. Our staff maintains the connection between the individuals who continue to entrust the CHC with their unique contributions to the historical record and the people who wish to learn and reflect upon them.

Visit The Cuban Refugee Records at

This interview was conducted by Anna Denton. She is a student at Wesleyan University and an editorial intern at Choice.