The Cubans of Miami
Posted by Matra on Thursday, August 2, 2007 at 09:22 PM
Since the Cubans in the US are often sited as an American immigration/migration success story I thought I would review a book I’ve read called City On The Edge: The Transformation of Miami by Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick (published in 1993). The book is about all of the ethnic changes in Miami but I’ll concentrate on the Cubans – a majority of whom are considered ethnically European.
In this book the authors look at previous models used to examine migration to urban areas of the US such as those that conclude that new ethnic groups join the cultural mainstream – defined as white Anglo-Protestant – as they become more successful, and those that say ethnic groups do not acculturate and instead form a social mosaic under the hegemony a white Anglo-Protestant elite. Portes & Stepick argue that neither of these models is appropriate for Miami – at least not in 1993 – and that the social structure of the city does not fit into any familiar theoretical pattern.
Although people from various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean have gone to Miami in recent decades, the Cubans have had, by far, the greatest impact, radically transforming the city politically, culturally, and economically.
The radicalization of the Cuban Revolution was the key event which led to the mass exodus from the island. During the first wave of mass migration , January 1959 to April 1961, some 135,000 Cubans arrived in the US. Even after it became almost impossible to get visas, a steady stream continued to escape from Cuba until December 1965 when 5000 flooded into Miami following Castro’s decision to allow relatives of exiles to leave. This led to an understanding between the US and Cuban governments to allow two daily flights of refugees to Miami resulting in 340,000 by April 1973, when Castro stopped the flights.
Portes & Stepick believe the US government agreed to this not only to prevent the problems that a sudden and massive flood of refugees would cause, but also for political reasons: the daily flights of people wanting out of Cuba were a public indictment of Caribbean communism. It is unlikely that economics figured greatly in the decision to allow in so many Cubans as thos arriving in the daily flights were not as well educated as previous refugees from the island. Before 1970 about 15% of the exiles in the US were professionals whearea a representative sample of those arriving in 1973 showed that only 4.8% were professionals.
The third wave of Cuban refugees arrived during the Mariel boatlift, and these were even less educated. Not only that but many were criminals and a much greater proportion were non-white. The authors argue that the US government reacted to Mariel out of fear of alienating Cuban voters rather than for economic reasons.
Of all the Cubans who have gone to the US about 80% live in Miami, making it the most concentrated foreign-born minority in the country (as of 1993). Geography and historical ties between the Cuban middle class and Miami had made the city the quite familiar to Cubans and once an enclave had been created those who came in later waves naturally gravitated towards it.
But Cubans were not the only refugees fleeing political repression and poverty in latin America. In the 1980s many Nicaraguans and Haitians also arrived in Miami with the former providing evidence of Miami’s transformation due to the Cuban presence. The majority European Cuban community welcomed and embraced the non-white Nicaraguans as fellow victims of communism and used their political clout to get all kinds of privileges for the newcomers – lower tuition fees at state universities for one – and to neutralize the effects of the hostile American response to the refugees:
The refugees also had a major impact on the rise of the Cuban business enclave. In that enclave owners had always been expected to hire their own and in return new Cuban refugees were expected to work hard without making too many demands: “Low wages were accepted in exchange for preferential access to employment even in the absence of English or formal certification”. (The ethnic Cuban enclave was also helped by US government funds, particularly from the CIA, which was very active in Cuban Miami along with various minority handouts which in other cities and states would have gone to blacks). The arrival of Nicaraguans contributed greatly to the expansion of the Cuban business enclave beyond the Cuban parts of Miami into the entire metropolitan area by providing cheap labour. Miami being transformed from a small unimportant resort town (according to the authors) into the so-called ‘Capital of the Caribbean”. This would not have happened without these political refugees or for that matter the US domination of its periphery which helped socialize these refugees towards the US in the first place.
The increased political and economic strength of the Cubans may have made Miami more important but it has resulted in the decline of the city’s old elite known as the “Anglos” – ethnically European and Jewish English-speakers. Portes & Stepick analyse this decline and argue that 1980 was the turning point.
Prior to 1980 the exile community was politically focused on Cuba, caring little about local politics. However in 1980 that all changed following the anglo campaigns, led by the Miami herald, against the Mariel boatlift and bilingualism. These were seen by the Cubans as an attempt by anglos to assert their dominance of the city. However ...
The authors analyse the decline of “Anglo hegemony” by using the Miami Herald as a barometer of change. The newspaper that had provided the Anglo “hegemonic discourse” throughout Mariel and 1980 anti-bilingual campaigns was targeted by the Cuban American National Foundation for its advocacy of immigration control. With Cubans not buying it and Anglos leaving the city, the Miami Herald decided to change its editorial stance and subsequently reversed its view on immigration, encouraged Anglos to learn Spanish, and it even started up a Spanish-language newspaper which, like the exiles, is more conservative than the mostly liberal English edition. Miami had been transformed.
The triumph of bilingualism and biculturalism show that the Cubans have not accepted integration into the Anglo-American cultural mainstream nor are they part of a social mosaic under white Anglo hegemony. Yet the authors believe that when Castro is no longer in power that it is possible, even likely, that the Miami Cuban enclave will fade during a process of cultural convergence. This view seems to be based on the Robert Dahl theory that even though ethnic groups may initially organize politically around their own particular interests, by becoming involved in the political institutions a process of convergence into the mainstream culture begins. This is supposedly what happened to the Poles of Chicago, Irish of Boston, and the Italians of New York. I doubt that will be the case for Miami. As David Reiff (Susan Sontag’s son) has pointed out in one of his books the Cubans are the only ones who feel at home in Miami. That sounds like they have achieved dominance to me. Add to that the fact that hundreds of thousands of white Anglo-Americans have left Dade County (down from a majority to only 10% of the population) there’s no reason why the Cubans can’t strengthen their hold on the city. Besides, with media improvements and their close geographic proximity to Cuba there’s no reason why Cubans in Miami can’t continue to remain a part of Cuban culture after communism.
The majority of Cubans may be ethnically European something which some posters at MR have pointed out. They have certainly been successful unlike most Latin Americans . However, it is clear that they have had a negative impact on the native whites who have lived in Miami over the last few decades - why else would so many leave? It’s bad enough that they made Miami bilingual but they also used their influence to bring non-white Nicaraguans to the city. There’s little to indicate that having a shared European background with white Americans means anything to Cubans in Miami: The tribe comes first as is the norm everywhere. Perhaps those who argue that Cuban immigrants are fine because they are white will reconsider their views.