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Fort McCoy Has A History Of Receiving Refugees

Susan Kepecs
Ricardo Gonzalez (top left) with the Cuban Salsa Band, composed of refugees from Ft. McCoy, taken at Rick's Havana Club in Madison in 1980.

It's been just over a month since Fort McCoy started receiving Afghan refugees. Right now, there are about 13,000 refugees housed there after fleeing their home country. However, this isn't the first time the military installation has opened its doors for those in need.

In 1980, 125,000 Cubans traveled from Mariel Harbor in Cuba to seek asylum in the United States. Those who left Cuba were called Marielitos, and Fort McCoy housed about 14,000 of them.

As the executive director of Organization de Hispano-Americanos in the 1980s, Ricardo Gonzalez helped Cuban refugees at Fort McCoy transition to life in Wisconsin. He's retired now but is a former alderman in Madison and serves as the Madison-Camaguey Cuba Sister City president.

Gonzalez was himself a refugee and arrived in the United States with the first wave of Cuban refugees in the 1960s. "When the refugees began to land here at Ft. McCoy, our Spanish American organization determined that we would do what we could to assist the Latinos, and we felt an obligation to help them, and we did," Gonzalez says.

Most of the Cuban refugees were working-class and so Fort McCoy's military set up, including barbed wire fences and strict rules came as a surprise, Gonzalez explains.

"When they came over, they thought that they'd be checked in and allowed to go on free," Gonzalez recounts. "But no, there was this process of finding a sponsor. There was a hesitancy on the part of the federal government, certainly and other agencies that were helping to just let people loose."

While Gonzalez points out that Cubans and Afghans have their differences, he highlights some parallels between the two.

Gonzalez describes, "What is on the same level, as with the Cuban refugees is that these folks are refugees, that they need help. They need assistance in getting familiar with the United States. They need homes that would welcome them and that is our approach that is going to be taken."

Mallory Cheng joined WUWM as a producer for Lake Effect in 2021.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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