The Un-Exceptionality of the Cuban Community and Why it’s Time to Bring it into Dialogue With Latin@ Activism

A New York Times article published last week, “Tension Simmers as Cubans Breeze Across [Mexico-]U.S. Border,” highlights both the distance and proximity of Cuban and other Latin American immigrants in the United States. There is a longstanding tradition of talking about the Latin@ community as excluding Miami/Cubans and of talking about Cubans as separate from Latin@ identity. Both of these are increasingly untenable positions to sustain.

Cuban «exceptionality» within the Hispanic community has little to do with culture or race and everything to do with politics and a narrative of political conservatism that lives on despite all evidence to the contrary.  The imaginary of the Cuban community is still dominated by the first wave of «Golden Exiles.” These were people who were welcomed into the United States with open arms (and resettlement aid) as symbols of the horrors of communism and the superiority of capitalism, and not surprisingly, they did very well for themselves and begun to build the successful immigrant enclave present in South Florida today.

Nevertheless, Cuban immigration has changed drastically since the early eighties, becoming more diverse and complex with every passing decade. Economic motivations and family reunification are easily the two biggest movers of Cubans to the United States today (much as with other large Latin@ populations). Additionally, U.S.-born Cubans now make up 44% of the community. Despite these realities, every time a “Cuban” issue grabs national attention some lazy news broadcasts will  go «listen to the voice of the Cuban people» at Versailles Café in Little Havana, where the scene is entirely dominated by white males over 50, but at least you have an available and vociferous audience to interview.

There is strong pressure in media to maintain a narrative of Cubans as successful, grateful, well-behaved immigrants who are quick to tout the freedoms enjoyed in the United States. My point is not to invisibilize older, more conservative Cubans. It is clear that the Cuban community is bitterly divided, but from where I stand divided is a step in the right direction. In 2013, 44% of Cubans registered to vote in the U.S. leaned Democrat while 47% leaned Republican–which contrasts with the 22/64 split ten years earlier. It is true that the Cubans who have attained the most power are precisely those who reject a racial consciousness and a critical stance towards the U.S.–see Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Nevertheless, accepting them as the hegemonic voice of the Cuban community and separating «Cuban» and «Latin@»–and I put them in quotations because I want to emphasize that neither of them refer to some essence or reality but rather to imagined communities and identities deployed for emotional and political gains–has negative implications for both «sides».

On the Cuban side, it has meant largely missing out on an active community that is putting out literature, news sources, comedy  and more speaking to  experiences of immigration, negotiations of belonging, cultural tensions, etc. This is a community that is fighting for and effectively provides opportunities for solidarity politics, validation of knowledges, understanding of and reflection upon one’s subject position in the United States–all things from which Cubans in the United States could benefit.

On the Latin@ side, there are losses as well. The first is that in so far as the Latin@ movement, if we can call it that, has political goals, Cubans are 2 million potential voters, 70% of which live in the swing state with the most electoral college votes: Florida. Fomenting a certain consciousness in the Cuban community–a racial consciousness, a political consciousness–can therefore have important political implications. But there’s more. According to the Pew Research center, Cubans are more proficient in English, have higher levels of education, higher income, lower rates of poverty, more health insurance coverage and higher rates of homeownership than the general Hispanic population. These statistics have been used to support the divisive Cuban exceptionality discourse, but they are also evidence of the difference government aid and legal status can make in an  immigrant community and they should be considered an important tool in the reclamation of rights for the broader Latin@ community.

While the arguments I make here have been true for a couple of decades, they are particularly salient today. As the conservative anti-immigrant discourse becomes ever-more-filled with bile, it is foolish to think that Cubans will be exempt from the discrimination and prejudices it foments. Furthermore, as relations between the U.S. and Cuba are normalized and Cold-War-era policies come under greater scrutiny, anyone can see that the Cuban Adjustment Act (la Ley de Ajuste Cubano), through which many Cubans gain legal status after arriving in the United States, has a de-facto expiration date. For these reasons, it is time that Cuban(-American) studies and activists come into greater dialogue with Latin@ studies and activism, for mutual benefit and to better understand and represent the dynamic reality of people of Caribbean and Latin American descent in the United States.

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