The two volumes under review share the same premise: Cubans are a unique immigrant group in that they have never accepted their separation from the motherland, and the story of the Miami Cubans is as much a part of the history of Latin America as of North America. Both books contend that the first generation of exiles from the Cuban Revolution now faces a painful dilemma. Can they be sure Fidel Castro will fall before the transition to the second generation is complete, when a majority of Cuban Americans will be youngsters who care more about their own personal future than the destiny of Cuba?
Cuban Americans: From Trauma to Triumph devotes more than half its pages to a review of Cuban history from Columbus to Castro. James and Judith Olson unquestioningly repeat numerous facile judgments that greatly distort our perception of contemporary Cuba. We are told of the all-powerful Spanish “theocratic monarchy” that stifled all signs of intellectual life in the colonies, and the incessant peninsular-creole rivalry that paved the way for Cuban independence. The African element in Cuba is mentioned only sporadically; and curiously, Afro-Cuban religion is discussed only after the authors come to the Mariel boatlift of 1980.
The book does best in treating Cuban immigration to the United States. The authors draw a revealing comparison between the nineteenth-century Cuban community in Florida, dedicated to the overthrow of Spanish rule, and the anti-Castro exiles of today. Those earlier refugees also resisted assimilation while dreaming of the liberation of La Patria, but they were much more critical of their U.S. hosts for fear of a U.S. takeover of Cuba. This volume might serve as a useful reminder to Cuban Americans that the relationship between their two homelands has not been without its share of mistrust.
Gustavo Pérez Firmat has his eye fixed on the “1.5 generation,” born in Cuba around the time of the revolution and now reaching middle age in the United States. The book is both a celebration of the way “one-and-a-halfers” have triumphally navigated down both streams of their heritage, and a lament; the author knows that the second generation, including his own children, is bound to become 100 percent American. Pérez Firmat eulogizes the patriarchs of the community—Desi Arnaz, Pérez Prado —and dissects the contributions of contemporaries —singers Willie Chirino and Gloria Estefan, novelist Oscar Hijuelos, and poet José Kozer—who try to make sense of “life on the hyphen.” I’m not sure if deconstructing “I Love Lucy” episodes and mambo lyrics is the best way to recreate the Cuban American experience, but it makes for entertaining reading.
A more serious drawback to the book is Pérez Firmat’s refusal to acknowledge how the denial of Cuban history has shaped Cuban American identity. Most of the exiles cannot admit that Cuba was a troubled nation —economically, politically, and racially—before 1959, and that prosperous Plavana was not representative of Cuba as a whole. Nor are Cuban Americans comfortable recognizing the many advantages they enjoyed as escapees from a Communist revolution, which Olson and Olson outline: Cubans were granted automatic asylum along with refugee status; they received federally funded bilingual education; and they benefited from a retraining program for professionals to allow them to regain their licenses in law, medicine, and other high-paying activities. These privileges created a contradiction that Pérez Firmat never addresses: while they reject full assimilation into Anglo culture, Cuban Americans do not see themselves as Latinos, either.
Olson and Olson pay homage to Cuban Americans as perhaps the most successful immigrant group to come to the United States in the twentieth century. Pérez Firmat lauds them for making a virtue of their marginality from both Cuba and the United States. What is still lacking in the literature on this question is an honest reappraisal of how the exiles have contributed to the freezing of relations between the two countries by their refusal to see that the Cuba they left behind is gone for good, and that not even the demise of Fidel Castro will bring it back.