The Straits of Florida are a unique national border that subsumes the bodies of those who perish crossing it. Empty rafts, husks that bear the traces of the balseros who do not arrive with them, wash up constantly on Florida beaches. In this paper, I argue that visual representations of the Cuban rafter phenomenon in U.S. photojournalism, exhibitions, and memorials produced in the 1990s and early 2000s constructed a false sense of closure by obscuring the then-ongoing nature of these sea migrations.
Beginning with the Straits of Florida, I attend to the way that balseros who die at sea disappear into the landscape. Meanwhile, photojournalistic representations of the rescued obscure the dead from the public eye through a rhetoric of U.S. humanitarianism. The dead, whose number remains undetermined, are further sealed off by stone monuments that seek to memorialize them despite their ongoing disappearance. I turn to the rafts themselves as sites that bear potential for representing the dead, yet occupy a conflicted cultural status as both relics and refuse. They are both systematically removed from the land and seascape like trash by U.S. governmental agencies and historicized in cultural institutions whose modes of exhibition have frequently dehistoricized their origins.
In a climate where migration is one of the most urgent humanitarian issues of our time, it is necessary to examine how U.S. visual culture obscures the deaths that happen at its borders. Resisting false closure, this paper treats absence as a site of potential by proposing the abandoned rafts as sites for alternative memorials to the lost balseros.