Bringing Together Personal Stories

Ninety Miles and a Lifetime Away: Memories of Early Cuban Exiles shares the triumphs and heartbreaking moments experienced by some of the first Cubans to come to the United States after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The book in 2023 received the Samuel Proctor Award for oral history from the Florida Historical Society.

What’s Inside The Book?

David Powell conducted extensive interviews with fifty-four persons and uses those interviews to tell the story of the refugees who left Cuba between 1959 and the 1962 Missile Crisis, as well as those who embarked on the Freedom Flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During these years more than 600,000 Cubans migrated to the US, some by way of other countries but most arriving in Miami with only a few clothes and pocket money. Most came without visas, but the government let them enter the country anyway.

They were ordinary people caught in a struggle between powerful historic forces, but they survived and created the modern Cuban American community. In their own words, exiles describe why they left the island, how they prepared for departure, what situations they faced when they arrived in the US, and how they integrated into American life. Powell shows how the US government created an assistance program for them unlike anything the nation had done before, transforming their lives and America as well.

With the Cold War as a backdrop, the book portrays America at its best—as the imperfect land of refuge and opportunity that it has always been. It shows how refugees can strengthen America if we let them. And it demonstrates that our government can manage a refugee crisis, effectively and humanely, if our leaders choose to do so. It’s an important story to keep in mind during a roiling national debate about immigrants and refugees.

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The Cuban diaspora is an epic of heroic deeds, thrilling escapes, and dangerous journeys to a new land. But it's also an intensely personal story, as David Powell ably conveys in his oral history told by Cuban exiles themselves. These vivid accounts remind us that history is lived by ordinary people, whose memories are invaluable.

Alfredo José Estrada
Author of Havana: Autobiography of a City and Editor of Latino magazine

An intensely personal collection of memories from people who lived through a tragic epoch of Cuban history that became a transformative period for Florida.

Bill Cotterell
Tallahassee Democrat

Through a combination of storytelling and oral history, Powell explores the Cuban exile experience chiefly through the voices of exiles themselves. Their accounts invite us to consider the importance and challenges of memory as a vehicle for understanding the history of the Cuban Revolution.

Michael J. Bustamante
Author of Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile and Emilio Bacardi Moreau Chair of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami

This book is a powerful historical testament to the first waves of Cuban American immigrants. It is clear proof of their parents’ and grandparents’ struggles and perseverance to survive in the face of adversity in a new homeland while never forgetting their love and passion for the country they left behind.

José Manuel García
Author of Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the 1980 Cuban Boatlift and associate professor of Spanish, Florida Southern College

Provides a unique and engrossing perspective on the lived experience of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled Cuba to evade Fidel Castro’s oppressive regime. An excellent demonstration of the power of oral history. These stories add rich detail to the events of that tumultuous period.

Tom Fiedler
Former executive editor, Miami Herald; dean emeritus, Boston University College of Communication

Powell expertly weaves the history of early post-revolution exiles with the voices of those who experienced these events. This enriches our understanding of the revolutionary process and its aftermath as it humanizes the often misunderstood and at times maligned Cuban exiles.

María de los Ángeles Torres
Author of The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago

A beautifully imagined, carefully researched, and masterfully edited oral history. Readers will share the struggles of those who made the journey from Castro’s Cuba and changed the United States.

Steve Kroft
Longtime CBS 60 Minutes correspondent
Hailed as an excellent example of the power of oral history.
Joy Wallace Dickinson
Orlando Sentinel

About The Author

A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and the Columbia Journalism School, David began his professional life as a reporter for the Associated Press in New York, Miami, and Tallahassee. After earning a law degree from Florida State University, he practiced law for thirty years. In his work and through civic organizations he met many Cuban Americans and was moved by the stories of their lives. He began recording interviews about their memories in 2016, first in Florida and then elsewhere. In 2021, the University of Miami acquired his interview recordings, transcripts, and workpapers for its Cuban Heritage Collection. Ninety Miles and a Lifetime Away: Memories of Early Cuban Exiles is his first book. In 2023, David’s book received the Samuel Proctor Award for oral history from the Florida Historical Society. David and his wife reside in Tallahassee, Florida.

David Powell