Havana vanities come to dust in Miami. On the August night in 1933 when General Gerardo Machado, then president of Cuba, flew out of Havana into exile, he took with him five revolvers, seven bags of gold, and five friends, still in their pajamas. Gerardo Machado is buried now in a marble crypt at Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami, Section Fourteen, the mausoleum. On the March night in 1952 when Carlos Prío Socarrás, who had helped depose Gerardo Machado in 1933 and had fifteen years later become president himself, flew out of Havana into exile, he took with him his foreign minister, his minister of the interior, his wife, and his two small daughters. A photograph of the occasion shows Señora de Prío, quite beautiful, boarding the plane in what appears to be a raw silk suit, and a hat with black fish-net veiling. She wears gloves, and earrings. Her makeup is fresh. The husband and father, recently the president, wears dark glasses, and carries the younger child, Maria Elena, in his arms.
Carlos Prío is now buried himself at Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami, Section Three, not far from Gerardo Machado, in a grave marked by a sixfoot marble stone on which the flag of Cuba waves in red, white, and blue ceramic tile. CARLOS PRÍO SOCARRÁS 1903–1977, the stone reads, and directly below that, as if Carlos Prío Socarrás’s main hedge against oblivion had been that period at the University of Havana when he was running actions against Gerardo Machado: MIEMBRO DEL DIRECTORIO ESTUDIANTIL UNIVERSITARIO 1930. Only then does the legend PRESIDENTE DE LA REPUBLICA DE CUBA 1948–1952 appear, an anticlimax. Presidencies are short and the glamours of action long, there among the fallen frangipani and crepe myrtle blossoms at Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami. “They say that I was a terrible president of Cuba,” Carlos Prío once said to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., during a visit to the Kennedy White House some ten years into the quarter-century Miami epilogue to his four-year Havana presidency. “That may be true. But I was the best president Cuba ever had.”
Many Havana epilogues have been played in Florida, and some prologues. Florida is that part of the Cuban stage where declamatory exits are made, and side deals. Florida is where the chorus waits to comment on the action, and sometimes to join it. The exiled José Martí raised money among the Cuban tobacco workers in Key West and Tampa, and in 1894 attempted to mount an invasionary expedition from north of Jacksonville. The exiled Fidel Castro Ruz came to Miami in 1955 for money to take the 26 Julio into the Sierra Maestra, and got it, from Carlos Prío. Fulgencio Batista had himself come back from Florida to take Havana away from Carlos Prío in 1952, but by 1958 Fidel Castro, with Carlos Prío’s money, was taking it away from Fulgencio Batista, at which turn Carlos Prío’s former prime minister tried to land a third force in Camagüey Province, the idea being to seize the moment from Fidel Castro, a notably failed undertaking encouraged by the Central Intelligence Agency and financed by Carlos Prío, at home in Miami Beach.
This is all instructive. In the continuing opera still called, even by Cubans who have now lived the largest part of their lives in this country, el exilio, the exile, meetings at private houses in Miami Beach are seen to have consequences. The actions of individuals are seen to affect events directly. Revolutions and counter-revolutions are framed in the private sector, and the state security apparatus exists exclusively to be enlisted by one or another private player. That this particular political style, indigenous to the Caribbean and to Central America, has now been naturalized in the United States is one reason why, on the flat coastal swamps of South Florida, where the palmettos once blew over the detritus of a dozen failed booms and the hotels were boarded up six months a year, there has evolved since the early New Year’s morning in 1959 when Fulgencio Batista flew for the last time out of Havana (for this flight, to the Dominican Republic on an Aerovías Q DC-4, the women still wore the evening dresses in which they had gone to dinner) a settlement of considerable interest, not exactly an American city as American cities have until recently been understood but a tropical capital: long on rumor, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogotá and to Paris and Madrid. Of American cities Miami has since 1959 connected only to Washington, which is the peculiarity of both places, and increasingly the warp.
In the passion of el exilio there are certain stations at which the converged, or colliding, fantasies of Miami and Washington appear in fixed relief. Resentments are recited, rosaries of broken promises. Occasions of error are recounted, imperfect understandings, instances in which the superimposition of Washington abstractions on Miami possibilities may or may not have been, in a word Washington came to prefer during the 1980s, flawed. On April 17, 1985, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the aborted invasion referred to by most Americans and even some Cubans as the Bay of Pigs, what seems in retrospect a particularly poignant progression of events was held in Miami to commemorate those losses suffered in 1961 at Playa Girón, on the southern coast of Matanzas province, by the 2506 Brigade, the exile invasion force trained and supported—up to a point, the famous point, the midnight hour when John F. Kennedy sent down the decision to preserve deniability by withholding air cover—by the United States government.
The actual events of this 1985 anniversary were ritual, and as such differed only marginally from those of other years, say 1986, when Jeane Kirkpatrick would be present, to wave small souvenir flags, American and Cuban, and to speak of “how different the world would have been” had the brigade prevailed. By one minute past midnight on the morning of the 1985 anniversary, as in years before and after, some thirty members of the 2506, most of them men in their forties and fifties wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying AR-15 rifles, veterans of the invasion plus a few later recruits, had assembled at the Martyrs of Girón monument on Southwest Eighth Street in Miami and posted a color guard, to stand watch through the soft Florida night. A tape recording of “The Star Spangled Banner” had been played, and one of “La Bayamesa,” the Cuban national anthem. “No temáis una muerte gloriosa,” the lyric of “La Bayamesa” runs, striking the exact note of transcendant nationalism on which the occasion turned. Do not fear a glorious death: To die for patria is to live.
By late morning the police had cordoned off the weathered bungalow on Southwest Ninth Street which was meant to be the Casa, Museo y Biblioteca de la Brigada 2506 del Exilio Cubano, the projected repository for such splinters of the true cross as the 2506 flag presented to John F. Kennedy at the Orange Bowl, twenty months after the Bay of Pigs, when he promised to return the flag to the brigade “in a free Havana” and took it back to Washington, later expanding its symbolic content geometrically by consigning it to storage in what explicators of this parable usually refer to as a dusty basement.
On the morning of the anniversary ground was being broken for the renovation of the bungalow, an occasion for Claude Pepper, fresh from the continuing debate in the House of Representatives over aid to the Nicaraguan contras, to characterize the landing at Girón as “one of the most heroic events in the history of the world” and for many of those present to voice what had become by that spring the most urgent concern of the exile community, the very concern which now lends the occasion its retrospective charge, that “the freedom fighters of the eighties” not be treated by the Reagan administration as the men of the 2506 had been treated, or believed that they had been treated, by the Kennedy administration.
Sometimes the word used to describe that treatment was “abandonment,” and sometimes the word was “betrayal,” but the meaning was the same, and the ardor behind the words cut across all class lines, not only that morning at the bungalow but later at the roll call at the monument and still later, at the mass said that evening for the 2506 at the chapel on Biscayne Bay which is so situated as to face Cuba. There were men that morning in combat fatigues, but there were also men in navy-blue blazers, with the bright patch of the 2506 pinned discreetly to the pocket. There were National Rifle Association windbreakers and there were T-shirts featuring the American flag and the legend THESE COLORS DON’T RUN and there were crucifixes on bare skin and there were knife sheaths on belts slung so low that Jockey shorts showed, but there were also Brooks Brothers shirts, and rep ties, and briefcases of supple leather. There were men who would go later that day to offices in the new glass towers along Brickell Avenue, offices with Barcelona chairs and floor-to-ceiling views of the bay and the harbor and Miami Beach and Key Biscayne, and there were men whose only offices were the gun stores and the shooting ranges and the flying clubs out off Krome Avenue, where the West Dade subdivisions give way to the Everglades and only the sudden glitter of water reveals its encroaching presence and drugs get dropped and bodies dumped.
They have been construed since as political flotsam, these men of the 2506, uniformly hard cases, drifters among the more doubtful venues serviced by Southern Air Transport, but this is misleading. Some members of the 2506 had lived in Miami since before Fidel Castro entered Havana and some had arrived as recently as 1980, the year of the Mariel exodus. Some were American citizens and some never would be, but they were all Cuban first, and they proceeded equally from a kind of collective spell, an occult enchantment, from that febrile complex of resentments and revenges and idealizations and taboos which renders exile so potent an organizing principle. They shared not just Cuba as a birthplace but Cuba as a construct, the idea of birth-right lost. They shared a definition of patria as indivisible from personal honor, and therefore of personal honor as that which had been betrayed and must be revenged. They shared, not only with one another but with virtually every other Cuban in Miami, a political matrix in which the very shape of history, its dialectic, its tendency, had traditionally presented itself as la lucha, the struggle.
For most of them as children there had of course been the formative story of la lucha against Spain, the central scenario of nineteenth-century Cuba. For some of their fathers there had been la lucha against Gerardo Machado and for some of them there had been la lucha against Fulgencio Batista and for all of them—for those who had fought originally with the 26 Julio and for those who had fought against it, for barbudos and Batistianos alike—there was now la lucha on the grand canvas of a quarter century, la lucha purified, la lucha in a preservative vacuum, la lucha not only against Fidel Castro but against his allies, and his agents, and all those who could conceivably be believed to have aided or encouraged him.
What constituted such aid or encouragement remained the great Jesuitical subject of el exilio, defined and redefined, distilled finally to that point at which a notably different angle obtained on certain events in the recent American past. The burglary at the Watergate, say, appeared from this angle as a patriotic mission, and the Cubans who were jailed for it as mártires de la lucha. Mariel appeared as a betrayal on the part of yet another administration, a deal with Fidel Castro, a decision by the Carter people to preserve the status quo in Cuba by siphoning off the momentum of what could have been, in the dreamtime of el exilio, where the betrayal which began with the Kennedy administration continued to the day at hand, a popular uprising. DOWN WITH THE KENNEDY–KHRUSHCHEV PACT was the legend, in Spanish, on one of the placards bobbing for attention in front of the minicams that day. ENOUGH TREASONS. On the back of another placard there was a lettered chant: CONTADORA/TRAIDORA/VENDA/PATRIA. That traitor who would back a political settlement in Central America, in other words, sold out his country, and so his honor.
In many ways the Bay of Pigs continued to offer Miami an ideal narrative, one in which the men of the 2506 were forever the valiant and betrayed and the United States was forever the seducer and betrayer and the blood of los mártires remained forever fresh. When the names of the 114 Brigade members who died in Cuba were read off that day at the Playa Girón monument, the survivors had called out the responses in unison, the rhythm building, clenched fists thrust toward the sky: “Presente,” 114 times. The women, in silk dresses and high-heeled sandals, dabbed at their eyes behind dark glasses. “Es triste,” one woman murmured, again and again, to no one in particular.
La tristeza de Miami. “We must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces in exile,” a Kennedy campaign statement had declared in 1960, and Miami had for a time believed John F. Kennedy a communicant in its faith. “We cannot have the United States walk away from one of the greatest moral challenges in postwar history,” Ronald Reagan had declared two nights before this 1985 anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, at a Nicaraguan Refugee Fund benefit dinner in Washington, and Miami once again believed an American president a communicant in its faith. Even the paper thimbles of sweet Cuban coffee distributed after the 2506 mass that April evening in Miami, on the steps of the chapel which faces Cuba and has over its altar a sequined Virgin, a Virgin dressed for her quince, had the aspect of a secular communion, the body and blood of patria, machismo, la lucha, sentimental trinity. That la lucha had become, during the years since the Bay of Pigs, a matter of assassinations and bombings on the streets of American cities, of plots and counterplots and covert dealings involving American citizens and American institutions, of attitudes and actions which had shadowed the abrupt termination of two American presidencies and would eventually shadow the immobilization of a third, was a peculiarity left, that one evening, officially unexplored.
I never passed through security for a flight to Miami without experiencing a certain weightlessness, the heightened wariness of having left the developed world for a more fluid atmosphere, one in which the native distrust of extreme possibilities that tended to ground the temperate United States in an obeisance to democratic institutions seemed rooted, if at all, only shallowly. At the gate for such flights the preferred language was already Spanish. Delays were explained by weather in Panama. The very names of the scheduled destinations suggested a world in which many evangelical inclinations had historically been accommodated, many yearnings toward empire indulged. The Eastern 5:59 PM from New York/Kennedy to Miami and Panama and Santiago and Buenos Aires carried in its magazine racks, along with the usual pristine copies of Golf and Ebony and U.S. News & World Report, a monthly called South: The Third World Magazine, edited in London and tending to brisk backgrounders on coup rumors and capital flight.
In Miami itself this kind of news was considerably less peripheral than it might have seemed farther north, since to set foot in South Florida was already to be in a place where coup rumors and capital flight were precisely what put money on the street, and also what took it off. The charts on the wall in a Coral Gables investment office gave the time in Panama, San Salvador, Asunción. A chain of local gun shops advertised, as a “Father’s Day Sale,” the semiautomatic Intratec TEC-9, with extra ammo clip, case, and flash suppressor, reduced from $347.80 to $249.95 and available on layaway. I recall picking up the Miami Herald one morning in July of 1985 to read that the Howard Johnson’s hotel near the Miami airport had been offering “guerrilla discounts,” rooms at seventeen dollars a day under what an employee, when pressed by the Herald reporter, described as “a freedom-fighters’ program” that was “supposed to be under wraps.”
As in other parts of the world where the citizens shop for guerrilla discounts and bargains in semiautomatic weapons, there was in Miami an advanced interest in personal security. The security installations in certain residential neighborhoods could have been transplanted intact from Bogotá or San Salvador, and even modest householders had detailed information about perimeter defenses, areas of containment, motion monitors, and closed-circuit television surveillance. Decorative grilles on doors and windows turned out to have a defensive intent. Break-ins were referred to by the Metro-Dade Police Department as “home invasions,” a locution which tended to suggest a city under systematic siege. A firm specializing in security for the home and automobile offered to install bulletproof windows tested to withstand a 7.62mm NATO round of ammunition, for example one fired by an M60. A ten-page pamphlet found, along with $119,500 in small bills, in the Turnberry Isle apartment of an accused cocaine importer gave these tips for maintaining a secure profile: “Try to imitate an American in all his habits. Mow the lawn, wash the car, etc…. Have an occasional barbecue, inviting trusted relatives.” The wary citizen could on other occasions, the pamphlet advised, “appear as the butler of the house. To any question, he can answer: the owners are traveling.”
This assumption of extralegal needs dominated the advertisements for more expensive residential properties. The Previews brochure for a house on Star Island, built originally as the Miami Beach Yacht Club and converted to residential use in the 1920s by Hetty Green’s son, emphasized, in the headline, not the house’s twenty-one rooms, not its multiple pools, not even its 255 feet of bay frontage, but its “Unusual Security and Ready Access to the Ocean.” Grove Isle, a luxury condominium complex with pieces by Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson in its sculpture garden, presented itself as “a bridge away from Coconut Grove,” which meant, in the local code, that access was controlled, in this case by one of the “double security” systems favored in new Miami buildings, requiring that the permit acquired at the gate, or “perimeter,” be surrendered at the second line of defense, the entrance to the building itself. A bridge, I was told by several people in Miami, was a good thing to have between oneself and the city, because it could be drawn up, or blocked, during times of unrest.
For a city even then being presented, in news reports and in magazine pieces and even in advertising and fashion promotions which had adopted their style from the television show Miami Vice, as a rich and wicked pastel boom town, Miami seemed, at the time I began spending time there, rather spectacularly depressed, again on the southern model. There were new condominiums largely unsold. There were new office towers largely unleased. There were certain signs of cutting and running among those investors who had misread the constant cash moving in and out of Miami as the kind of reliable American money they understood, and been left holding the notes. Helmsley-Spear, it was reported, had let an undeveloped piece on Biscayne Bay go into foreclosure, saving itself $3 million a year in taxes. Tishman-Speyer had jettisoned plans for an $800-million-dollar medical complex in Broward County. WELL-HEELED INVESTORS RETURNING NORTH was a Herald headline in June of 1985. COSTLY CONDOS THREATENED WITH MASSIVE FORECLOSURES was a Herald headline in August of 1985. FORECLOSURES SOARING IN S. FLORIDA was a Herald headline in March of 1986.
The feel was that of a Latin capital, a year or two away from a new government. Space in shopping malls was unrented, or rented to the wrong tenants. There were too many shoe stores for an American city, and video arcades. There were also too many public works projects: a new mass transit system which did not effectively transport anyone, a projected “people mover” around the downtown which would, it was said, salvage the new mass transit system. On my first visits to Miami the gleaming new Metrorail cars glided empty down to the Dadeland Mall and back, ghost trains above the jammed traffic on the South Dixie Highway. When I returned a few months later service had already been cut back and the billion-dollar Metrorail ran only until early evening.
A tropical entropy seemed to prevail, defeating grand schemes even as they were realized. Minor drug deals took place beneath the then unfinished people mover tracks off Biscayne Boulevard, and plans were underway for yet another salvage operation, “Biscayne Centrum,” a twenty-eight acre sports arena and convention hall that could theoretically be reached by either Metrorail or people mover and offered the further advantage, since its projected site lay within the area of the 1982 Overtown riot, a district of generally apathetic but occasionally volatile poverty, of defoliating at least twenty-eight acres of potential trouble. ARENA FINANCING PLAN RELIES ON HOTEL GUESTS was a Herald headline one morning. S. FLORIDA HOTEL ROOMS GET EMPTIER was a Herald headline four months later. A business reporter for the Herald asked a local real estate analyst when he thought South Florida would turn around. “Tell me when South America is going to turn around,” the analyst said.
Meanwhile the construction cranes still hovered on the famous new skyline, which, floating as it did between a mangrove swamp and a barrier reef, had a kind of perilous attraction, like a mirage. I recall walking one October evening through the marble lobby of what was then the Pavillon Hotel, part of the massive new Miami Center which Pietro Belluschi had designed for a Virginia developer named Theodore Gould. There was in this vast travertine public space that evening one other person, a young Cuban woman in a short black dinner dress who seemed to be in charge of table arrangements for a gala not in evidence. I could hear my heels clicking on the marble. I could hear the young woman in the black taffeta dinner dress drumming her lacquered fingernails on the table at which she sat. It occurred to me that she and I might be the only people in the great empty skyline itself. Later that week control of the Pavillon, and Miami Center, passed, the latest chapter in a short dolorous history of hearings and defaults and Chapter 11 filings from Theodore Gould to the Bank of New York, and it was announced that the Intercontinental chain would henceforth operate the hotel. The occupancy rate at the Pavillion was, at the time Intercontinental assumed its management, 7 percent. Theodore Gould was said by the chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce to have made “a very unique contribution to downtown Miami.”
On the 150th anniversary of the founding of Dade County, in February of 1986, the Miami Herald asked four prominent amateurs of local history to name “the ten people and the ten events that had the most impact on the county’s history.” Each of the four submitted his or her own list of “The Most Influential People in Dade’s History,” and among the names mentioned were Julia Tuttle (“pioneer businesswoman”), Henry Flagler (“brought the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami”), Alexander Orr, Jr. (“started the research that saved Miami’s drinking water from salt”), Everest George Sewell (“publicized the city and fostered its deepwater seaport”), Carl Fisher (“creator of Miami Beach”), Hugh M. Anderson (“to whom we owe Biscayne Boulevard, Miami Shores and more”), Charles H. Crandon (“father of Dade County’s Park System”), Glenn Curtiss (“developer and promoter of the area’s aviation potential”), and James L. Knight (“whose creative management enabled the Miami Herald to become a force for good”), this last nominee the choice of a retired Herald editorial writer.
There were more names. There were John Pennekamp (“conceived Dade’s metropolitan form of government and fathered the Everglades National Park”) and Father Theodore Gibson (“inspirational spokesman for racial justice and social change”). There were Maurice Ferre (“mayor for twelve years”) and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas (“indefatigable environmentalist”) and Dr. Bowman F. Ashe (“first and longtime president of the University of Miami”). There was David Fairchild, who “popularized tropical plants and horticulture that have made the county a more attractive place to live.” There was William A. Graham, “whose Miami Lakes is a model for real estate development,” Miami Lakes being the area developed by William A. Graham and his brother, Senator Robert Graham, at the time of Dade’s 150th anniversary the governor of Florida, on three thousand acres their father had just west of the Opa-Locka airport.
There was another Graham, Ernest R., the father of Robert and William A., nominated for “his experiments with sugarcane culture and dairying.” There was another developer, John Collins, as in Collins Avenue, Miami Beach. There were, as a dual entry, Richard Fitzpatrick, who “owned four square miles between what is now Northeast 14th Street and Coconut Grove,” and William F. English, who “platted the Village of Miami.” There was Dr. James M. Jackson, an early Miami physician. There was Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the governor of Florida who initiated the draining of the Everglades. There appeared on three of the four lists the name of the developer of Coral Gables, George Merrick. There appeared on one of the four lists the name of the coach of the Miami Dolphins, Don Shula.
On none of these lists of “The Most Influential People in Dade’s History” did the name Fidel Castro appear, nor for that matter did the name of any Cuban, although the presence of Cubans in Dade County did not go entirely unnoted by the Herald panel. When it came to naming the Ten Most Important “Events,” as opposed to “People,” all four panelists mentioned the arrival of the Cubans, but at slightly off angles (“Mariel Boatlift of 1980” was the way one panelist saw it), and as if this arrival had been just another of those isolated disasters or innovations which deflect the course of any growing community, on an approximate par with the other events mentioned, for example the Freeze of 1895, the Hurricane of 1926, the opening of the Dixie Highway, the establishment of Miami International Airport, and the adoption, in 1957, of the metropolitan form of government, “enabling the Dade County Commission to provide urban services to the increasingly populous unincorporated area.”
This set of mind, in which the local Cuban community was seen as a civic challenge determinedly met, was not uncommon among Anglos to whom I talked in Miami, many of whom persisted in the related illusions that the city was small, manageable, prosperous in a predictable broad-based way, southern in a progressive Sunbelt way, American, and belonged to them. In fact 43 percent of the population of Dade County was by that time “Hispanic,” which meant mostly Cuban. Fifty-six percent of the population of Miami itself was Hispanic. The most visible new buildings on the Miami skyline, the Arquitectonica buildings along Brickell Avenue, were by a firm with a Cuban founder. There were Cubans in the board rooms of the major banks, Cubans in clubs that did not admit Jews or blacks, and four Cubans in the most recent mayoralty campaign, two of whom, Raul Masvidal and Xavier Suarez, had beaten out the incumbent and all other candidates to meet in a runoff, and one of whom, Xavier Suarez, a thirty-six-year-old lawyer who had been brought from Cuba to the United States as a child, was by then mayor of Miami.
The entire tone of the city, the way people looked and talked and met one another, was Cuban. The very image the city had begun presenting of itself, what was then its newfound glamour, its “hotness” (hot colors, hot vice, shady dealings under the palm trees), was that of prerevolutionary Havana, as perceived by Americans. There was even in the way women dressed in Miami a definable Havana look, a more distinct emphasis on the hips and décolletage, more black, more veiling, a generalized flirtatiousness of style not then current in American cities. In the shoe departments at Brudine’s and Jordan Marsh there were more platform soles than there might have been in another American city, and fewer displays of the running shoe ethic. I recall being struck, during an afternoon spent at La Liga Contra el Cancer, a prominent exile charity which raises money to help cancer patients, by the appearance of the volunteers who had met that day to stuff envelopes for a benefit. Their hair was sleek, of a slightly other period, immaculate pageboys and French twists. They wore Bruno Magli pumps, and silk and linen dresses of considerable expense. There seemed to be a preference for strictest gray or black, but the effect remained lush, tropical, like a room full of perfectly groomed mangoes.
This was not, in other words, an invisible 56 percent of the population. Even the social notes in Diario Las Americas and in El Herald, the daily Spanish edition of the Herald written and edited for el exilio, suggested a dominant culture, one with money to spend and a notable willingness to spend it in public. La Liga Contra el Cancer alone sponsored, in a single year, two benefit dinner dances, one benefit ball, a benefit children’s fashion show, a benefit telethon, a benefit exhibition of jewelry, a benefit presentation of Miss Universe contestants, and a benefit showing, with Saks Fifth Avenue and chicken vol-au-vent, of the Adolfo (as it happened, a Cuban) fall collection.
One morning El Herald would bring news of the gala at the Pavillon of the Amigos Latinamericanos del Museo de Ciencia y Planetarium; another morning, of an upcoming event at the Big Five Club, a Miami club founded by former members of five fashionable clubs in prerevolutionary Havana: a coctel, or cocktail party, at which tables would be assigned for yet another gala, the annual “Baile Imperial de las Rosas” of the American Cancer Society, Hispanic Ladies Auxiliary. Some members of the community were honoring Miss America Latina with dinner dancing at the Doral. Some were being honored themselves, at the Spirit of Excellence Awards Dinner at the Omni. Some were said to be enjoying the skiing at Vail; others to prefer Bariloche, in Argentina. Some were reported unable to attend (but sending checks for) the gala at the Pavillon of the Amigos Latinamericanos del Museo de Ciencia y Planetarium because of a scheduling conflict, with el coctel de Paula Hawkins.
Fete followed fete, all high visibility. Almost any day it was possible to drive past the limestone arches and fountains which marked the boundaries of Coral Gables and see little girls being photographed in the tiaras and ruffled hoop skirts and maribou-trimmed illusion capes they would wear at their quinces, the elaborate fifteenth-birthday parties at which the community’s female children came of official age. The favored facial expression for a quince photograph was a classic smolder. The favored backdrop was one suggesting Castilian grandeur, which was how the Coral Gables arches happened to figure. Since the idealization of the virgin implicit in the quince could exist only in the presence of its natural foil, machismo, there was often a brother around, or a boyfriend. There was also a mother, in dark glasses, not only to protect the symbolic virgin but to point out the better angle, the more aristocratic location. The quinceanera would pick up her hoop skirts and move as directed, often revealing the scuffed Jellies she had worn that day to school. A few weeks later there she would be, transformed in Diario Las Americas, one of the morning battalion of smoldering fifteen-year-olds, each with her arch, her fountain, her borrowed scenery, the gift if not exactly the intention of the late George Merrick, who built the arches when he developed Coral Gables.
Neither the photographs of the Cuban quinceaneras nor the notes about the coctel at the Big Five were apt to appear in the newspapers read by Miami Anglos, nor, for that matter, was much information at all about the daily life of the Cuban majority. When, in the fall of 1986, Florida International University offered an evening course called “Cuban Miami: A Guide for Non-Cubans,” the Herald sent a staff writer, who covered the classes as if from a distant beat. “Already I have begun to make some sense out of a culture, that, while it totally surrounds us, has remained inaccessible and alien to me,” the Herald writer was reporting by the end of the first meeting, and, by the end of the fourth:
What I see day to day in Miami, moving through mostly Anglo corridors of the community, are just small bits and pieces of that other world, the tip of something much larger than I’d imagined…. We may frequent the restaurants here, or wander into the occasional festival. But mostly we try to ignore Cuban Miami, even as we rub up against this teeming, incomprehensible presence.
Only thirteen people, including the Herald writer, turned up for the first meeting of “Cuban Miami: A Guide for Non-Cubans” (two more appeared at the second meeting, along with a security guard, because of telephone threats prompted by what the Herald writer called “somebody’s twisted sense of national pride”), an enrollment which suggested a certain willingness among non-Cubans to let Cuban Miami remain just that, Cuban, the “incomprehensible presence.” In fact there had come to exist in South Florida two parallel cultures, separate but not exactly equal, a key distinction being that only one of the two, the Cuban, exhibited even a remote interest in the activities of the other. “The American community is not really aware of what is happening in the Cuban community,” an exile banker named Luis Botifoll said in a 1983 Herald sunday magazine piece about ten prominent local Cubans. “We are clannish, but at least we know who is whom in the American establishment. They do not.” About another of the ten Cubans featured in this piece, Jorge Mas Canosa, the Herald had this to say:
He is an advisor to US Senators, a confidant of federal bureaucrats, a lobbyist for anti-Castro US policies, a near unknown in Miami. When his political group sponsored a luncheon speech in Miami by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, almost none of the American business leaders attending had ever heard of their Cuban host.
The general direction of this piece, which appeared under the cover line “THE CUBANS: They’re ten of the most powerful men in Miami. Half the population doesn’t know it,” was, as the Herald put it,
to challenge the widespread presumption that Miami’s Cubans are not really Americans, that they are a foreign presence here, an exile community that is trying to turn South Florida into North Cuba…. The top ten are not separatists; they have achieved success in the most traditional ways. They are the solid, bedrock citizens, hard-working humanitarians who are role models for a community that seems determined to assimilate itself into American society.
This was interesting. It was written by one of the few Cubans then on the Herald staff, and yet it described, however unwittingly, the precise angle at which Miami Anglos and Miami Cubans were failing to connect: Miami Anglos were in fact interested in Cubans only to the extent that they could cast them as aspiring immigrants, “determined to assimilate,” a “hard-working” minority not different in kind from other groups of resident aliens. (But had I met any Haitians, a number of Anglos asked when I said that I had been talking to Cubans.) Anglos (who were, significantly, referred to within the Cuban community as “Americans”) spoke of cross-culturalization, and of what they believed to be a meaningful second-generation preference for hamburgers, and rock-and-roll. They spoke of “diversity,” and of Miami’s “Hispanic flavor,” an approach in which 56 percent of the population was seen as decorative, like the Coral Gables arches.
Fixed as they were on this image of the melting pot, of immigrants fleeing a disruptive revolution to find a place in the American sun, Anglos did not on the whole understand that assimilation would be considered by most Cubans a doubtful goal at best. Nor did many Anglos understand that living in Florida was still at the deepest level construed by Cubans as a temporary condition, an accepted political option shaped by the continuing dream, if no longer the immediate expectation, of a vindicatory return. El exilio was for Cubans a ritual, a respected tradition. La revolución was also a ritual, a trope fixed in Cuban political rhetoric at least since José Martí, a concept broadly interpreted to mean reform, or progress, or even just change. Ramón Grau San Martín the president of Cuba during the autumn of 1933 and from 1944 until 1948, had presented himself as a revolutionary, as had his 1948 successor, Carlos Prío. Even Fulgencio Batista had entered Havana life calling for la revolución, and had later been accused of betraying it, even as Fidel Castro was now.
This was a process Cuban Miami understood, but Anglo Miami did not, remaining as it did arrestingly innocent of even the most general information about Cuba and Cubans. Miami Anglos for example still had trouble with Cuban names, and Cuban food. When the Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante came from London to lecture at Miami-Dade Community College, he was referred to by several Anglo faculty members to whom I spoke as “Infante.” Cuban food was widely seen not as a minute variation on that eaten throughout both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean but as “exotic,” and full of garlic. A typical Thursday food section of the Herald included recipes for Broiled Lemon-Curry Cornish Game Hens, Chicken Tetrazzini, King Cake, Pimiento Cheese, Raisin Sauce for Ham, Sauteed Spiced Peaches, Shrimp Scampi, Easy Beefy Stir-Fry, and four ways to use dried beans (“Those cheap, humble beans that have long sustained the world’s poor have become the trendy set’s new pet”), none of them Cuban.
This was all consistent, and proceeded from the original construction, that of the exile as an immigration. There was no reason to be curious about Cuban food, because Cuban teen-agers preferred hamburgers. There was no reason to get Cuban names right, because they were complicated, and would be simplified by the second generation, or even by the first. “Jorge L. Mas” was the way Jorge Mas Canosa’s business card read. “Raul Masvidal” was the way Raul Masvidal y Jury ran for mayor of Miami. There was no reason to know about Cuban history, because history was what immigrants were fleeing.
Even the revolution, the reason for the immigration, could be covered in a few broad strokes: “Batista,” “Castro,” “26 Julio,” this last being the particular broad stroke that inspired the Miami Springs Holiday Inn, on July 26, 1985, the thirty-second anniversary of the day Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks and so launched his six-year struggle for power in Cuba, to run a bar special on Cuba Libres, thinking to attract local Cubans by commemorating their holiday. “It was a mistake,” the manager said, besieged by outraged exiles. “The gentleman who did it is from Minnesota.”
There was in fact no reason, in Miami as well as in Minnesota, to know anything at all about Cubans, since Miami Cubans were now, if not Americans, at least aspiring Americans, and worthy of Anglo attention to the exact extent that they were proving themselves, in the Herald’s words, “role models for a community that seems determined to assimilate itself into American society”; or, as George Bush put it in a 1986 Miami address to the Cuban American National Foundation, “the most eloquent testimony I know to the basic strength and success of America, as well as to the basic weakness and failure of Communism and Fidel Castro.”
The use of this special lens, through which the exiles were seen as a tribute to the American system, a point scored in the battle of the ideologies, tended to be encouraged by those outside observers who dropped down from the northeast corridor for a look and a column or two. George Will, in Newsweek, saw Miami as “a new installment in the saga of America’s absorptive capacity,” and Southwest Eighth Street as the place where “these exemplary Americans,” the seven Cubans who had been gotten together to brief him, “initiated a columnist to fried bananas and black-bean soup and other Cuban contributions to the tanginess of American life.” George Gilder, in The Wilson Quarterly, drew pretty much the same lesson from Southwest Eighth Street, finding it “more effervescently thriving than its crushed prototype,” by which he seemed to mean Havana. In fact Eighth Street was for George Gilder a street that seemed to “percolate with the forbidden commerce of the dying island to the south…the Refrescos Cawy, the Competidora and El Cuño cigarettes, the guayaberas, the Latin music pulsing from the storefronts, the pyramids of mangoes and tubers, gourds and plantains, the iced coconuts served with a straw, the new theaters showing the latest anti-Castro comedies.”
There was nothing on this list, with the possible exception of the “anti-Castro comedies,” that could not most days be found on Southwest Eighth Street, but the list was also a fantasy, and a particularly gringo fantasy, one in which Miami Cubans, who came from a culture which had represented western civilization in this hemisphere since before there was a United States of America, appeared exclusively as vendors of plantains, their native music “pulsing” behind them. There was in any such view of Miami Cubans an extraordinary element of condescension, and it was the very condescension shared by Miami Anglos, who were inclined to reduce the particular liveliness and sophistication of local Cuban life to a matter of shrines on the lawn and love potions in the botanicas, the primitive exotica of the tourist’s Caribbean.
Cubans were perceived as most satisfactory when they appeared most fully to share the aspirations and manners of middle-class Americans, at the same time adding “color” to the city on appropriate occasions, for example at their quinces (the quinces were one aspect of Cuban life almost invariably mentioned by Anglos, who tended to present them as evidence of Cuban extravagance, i.e., Cuban irresponsibility, or childishness), or on the day of the annual Calle Ocho Festival, when they could, according to the Herald, “samba” in the streets and stir up a paella for two thousand (ten cooks, two thousand mussels, two hundred and twenty pounds of lobster and four hundred and forty pounds of rice), using rowboat oars as spoons. Cubans were perceived as least satisfactory when they “acted clannish,” “kept to themselves,” “had their own ways,” and, two frequent flash points, “spoke Spanish when they didn’t need to” and “got political”; complaints, each of them, which suggested an Anglo view of what Cubans should be at significant odds with what Cubans were.
This question of language was curious. The sound of spoken Spanish was common in Miami, but it was also common in Los Angeles, and Houston, and even in the cities of the Northeast. What was unusual about Spanish in Miami was not that it was so often spoken, but that it was so often heard: in, say, Los Angeles, Spanish remained a language only barely registered by the Anglo population, part of the ambient noise, the language spoken by the people who worked in the car wash and came to trim the trees and cleared the tables in restaurants. In Miami Spanish was spoken by the people who ate in the restaurants, the people who owned the cars and the trees, which made, on the socio-auditory scale, a considerable difference. Exiles who felt isolated or declassed by language in New York or Los Angeles thrived in Miami. An entrepreneur who spoke no English could still, in Miami, buy, sell, negotiate, leverage assets, float bonds, and, if he were so inclined, attend galas twice a week, in black tie. “I have been after the Herald ten times to do a story about millionaires in Miami who do not speak more than two words in English,” one prominent exile told me. ” ‘Yes’ and ‘no.’ Those are the two words. They come here with five dollars in their pockets and without speaking another word of English they are millionaires.”
The truculence a millionaire who spoke only two words of English might provoke among the less resourceful native citizens of a nominally American city was predictable, and manifested itself rather directly. In 1980, the year of Mariel, Dade County voters had approved a referendum requiring that country business be conducted exclusively in English. Notwithstanding the fact that this legislation was necessarily amended to exclude emergency medical and certain other services, and notwithstanding even the fact that many local meetings continued to be conducted in that unbroken alternation of Spanish and English which had become the local patois (“I will be in Boston on Sunday and desafortunadamente yo tengo un compromiso en Boston que no puedo romper y yo no podre estar con Vds.,” read the minutes of a 1984 Miami City Commission meeting I had occasion to look up. “En espíritu, estaré, pero the other members of the commission I am sure are invited…”), the very existence of this referendum was seen by many as ground regained, a point made. By 1985 a St. Petersburg optometrist named Robert Melby was launching his third attempt in four years to have English declared the official language of the state of Florida, as it would be in 1986 of California. “I don’t know why your legislators here are so, how should I put it?—spineless,” Robert Melby complained about those South Florida politicians who knew how to count. “No one down here seems to want to run with the issue.”
Even among those Anglos who distanced themselves from such efforts, Anglos who did not perceive themselves as economically or socially threatened by Cubans, there remained considerable uneasiness on the matter of language, perhaps because the inability or the disinclination to speak English tended to undermine their conviction that assimilation was an ideal universally shared by those who were to be assimilated. This uneasiness had for example shown up repeatedly during the 1985 mayoralty campaign, surfacing at odd but apparently irrepressible angles. The winner of that contest, Xavier Suarez, who was born in Cuba but educated in the United States, a graduate of Harvard Law, was reported in a wire service story to speak, an apparently unexpected accomplishment, “flawless English.”
A less prominent Cuban candidate for mayor that year had unsettled reporters at a televised “meet the candidates” forum by answering in Spanish the questions they asked in English. “For all I or my dumbstruck colleagues knew,” the Herald political editor complained in print after the event, “he was reciting his high school’s alma mater or the ten Commandments over and over again. The only thing I understood was the occasional Cubanos vota Cubano he tossed in.” It was noted by another Herald columnist that of the leading candidates, only one, Raul Masvidal, had a listed telephone number, but: “…if you call Masvidal’s 661-0259 number on Kiaora Street in Coconut Grove—during the day, anyway—you’d better speak Spanish. I spoke to two women there, and neither spoke enough English to answer the question of whether it was the candidate’s number.”
On the morning this last item came to my attention in the Herald I studied it for some time. Raul Masvidal was at that time the chairman of the board of the Miami Savings Bank and the Miami Savings Corporation. He was a former chairman of the Biscayne Bank, and a minority stockholder in the M Bank, of which he had been a founder. He was a member of the Board of Regents for the state university system of Florida. He had paid $600,000 for the house on Kiaora Street in Coconut Grove, buying it specifically because he needed to be a Miami resident (Coconut Grove is part of the city of Miami) in order to run for mayor, and he had sold his previous house, in the incorporated city of Coral Gables, for $1,100,000.
The Spanish words required to find out whether the number listed for the house on Kiaora Street was in fact the candidate’s number would have been roughly these: “¿Es la casa de Raul Masvidal?” The answer might have been “Sí,” or the answer might have been “No.” It seemed to me that there must be very few people working on daily newspapers along the southern borders of the United States who would consider this exchange entirely out of reach, and fewer still who would not accept it as a commonplace of American domestic life that daytime telephone calls to middle-class urban households will frequently be answered by women who speak Spanish.
Something else was at work in this item, a real resistance, a balkiness, a coded version of the same message Dade County voters had sent when they decreed that their business be done only in English: WILL THE LAST AMERICAN TO LEAVE MIAMI PLEASE BRING THE FLAG, the famous bumper stickers had read the year of Mariel. “It was the last American stronghold in Dade County,” the owner of the Gator Kicks Longneck Saloon, out where Southwest Eighth Street runs into the Everglades, had said after he closed the place for good the night of Super Bowl Sunday, 1986. “Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not alone in my inability,” a Herald columnist named Charles Whited had written a week or so later, in a column about not speaking Spanish. “A good many Americans have left Miami because they want to live someplace where everybody speaks one language: theirs.” In this context the call to the house on Kiaora Street in Coconut Grove which did or did not belong to Raul Masvidal appeared not as a statement of literal fact but as shorthand, a glove thrown down, a stand, a cry from the heart of a beleaguered raj.
This is the first in a series of articles on Miami.
May 28, 1987