Last year, Barry Loveland saw a history exhibit in Philadelphia that he knew he needed to bring to central Pennsylvania.
On Tuesday, that same exhibit, “With Open Heart and Open Arms: LGBTQ Cuban Refugees and Our Community’s Response to the Mariel Boatlift” debuts at the Historic Harrisburg Association (HHA) Resource Center.
“The exhibit showcases the experience of having a group of refugees coming to this country and needing a place to be welcomed,” said Loveland, project manager for the LGBT Center of Central PA’s exhibit.
In 1980, about 125,000 refugees fled Cuba to come to the United States. Many ended up at a resettlement camp in Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Loveland said. Leaving from the Cuban port of Mariel, the event became known as the Mariel Boatlift. Within the group of refugees, Loveland said there were a significant number of LGBTQ+ Cubans.
The traveling exhibit commemorates the 40th anniversary of this event. A series of panels displaying pictures, text, documents and video clips tell the story.
The John J. Wilcox Archives of the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia originally produced the exhibit, but Loveland said that they were thrilled to let him take it on the road.
After HHA, the exhibit will make its way to other nearby counties, possibly including Lancaster, York and Lebanon.
“It’s a very well done exhibit and we are honored to have it,” HHA Executive Director David Morrison said. “This is a very important story about social justice.”
The exhibit focuses on the personal stories of the LGBTQ+ Cuban refugees. Included are accounts of the unfair treatment many gay men faced under the regime of Fidel Castro, as they were often forced into labor camps, Loveland said.
After fleeing Cuba, refugees found assistance from Pennsylvania churches, resettlement organizations and members of the local LGBTQ+ community, according to information in the exhibit.
“What inspires me the most in the exhibit is the photographs,” Loveland said. “The expression of pure joy on the faces of the refugees—they look like they feel free.”
He said the exhibit is especially relatable today with the national attention on immigration in the United States.
There will be a virtual panel discussion about the exhibit on Sept. 16. John Anderies, curator of the exhibit, Ana Fernandez, one of the Cuban refugees, Patsy Lynch, whose photographs are featured in the exhibit, and journalist Garry Lenton, who broke the story for the Lebanon Daily News, will speak on the panel.
“This is an opportunity for people to think about how we treat LGBTQ+ people and refugees in this country,” Loveland said. “It really will be something that will be an eye-opener for people.”
The “With Open Heart and Open Arms: LGBTQ Cuban Refugees and Our Community’s Response to the Mariel Boatlift” traveling exhibit will be open from Sept. 1 to 25 at the Historic Harrisburg Association Resource Center, 1230 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit https://centralpalgbtcenter.org/withopenheart. Click here to register for the virtual panel discussion.