Only In Miami

The Power of Words and Feelings: Semantics of Cuban Policy

There is comfort in the cold objectivity of numbers.  Numbers are honest, stoic.  The number 53 is a value.  It can be measured, counted, defined.  But, add words and everything changes, becomes tainted with feelings.

Add to that 53: years of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, 53 years of an economic embargo, sanctions and severed diplomatic relations, and it awakens thoughts, opinions, anger, sadness. Words matter. Unlike numbers, words mean far more than their definition. They carry emotional baggage. cuban - american flags

So when President Obama announced that he would “begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” he evoked a rapid response: shock, happiness, rage, disappointment, hope. Immediately, analysts, politicos and journalists raced to take the public’s pulse.  And, it seems that by and large the public supports the President on this.

But in Miami, it is more complicated.  Here people carry deep wounds, trauma.

My parents, like many Miami Cubans, are exiles. My father was a political prisoner that spent 20 years in a Cuban gulag.  Both of my grandfathers were also political prisoners.  One of them was executed by firing squad.

These stories are not uncommon here. And it is why there is such a vast division in public opinion.

The embargo has not succeeded in toppling the Castro regime.  It has not forced the brothers out of power.  It has not brought a move towards democracy and free press on the island.

It has succeeded, however, in providing a perfect scapegoat.

Rather than accept that the country’s poverty is due to their failed policies, they blame the U.S. for all its people’s woes. It is because of the “blockade,” as the Castros call it, that there are food shortages.  It is because of the “blockade,” they say, that medicine – ranging from Tylenol to prescription drugs – and reading glasses and bandages have to be sent to Cuba from family members living abroad.

However, the U.S. does – in fact – do business with Cuba, as does Canada and much of Europe.  According to the Census, the U.S. has exported more than $1.5 billion in goods to the island in the last five years. And Cubans receive upwards of $2 billion per year in remittances.  Obviously money does, in fact, flow into Cuba.  And tourists flood the island and stay in big hotels from which actual Cubans are banned.

I can understand the argument for easing economic restrictions.  Why shouldn’t American companies be allowed to invest?  Why, if other Western companies and banks are already there, keep a policy in place that is only partially enforced anyway?

I also understand the counter argument.  A change in diplomatic relations may not make much of a difference in the systematic oppression and human rights violations typical in Cuba.  Today, the Cuban government arrested, detained and harassed dissidents to prevent them from speaking at a rally, to prevent them from sharing their thoughts on what the future of Cuba should be.  Opponents argue that only the Castro government will benefit from increased trade.

And that may be true; but, we do business with plenty of human rights abusers around the world.  We even trade with countries that are, at least according to public discourse, our enemies.

In short, I am conflicted.  I understand the logic, like I understand numbers.  Hopefully, the flow of people and ideas and money into Havana will – eventually – bring about change.  This change will not be the result of American tourists sipping Cuba Libres while on lounge chairs on Varadero Beach.  If it comes, it will be as a result of Cubans that no longer believe that the non-existent U.S. ‘blockade’ of the island is the cause of all their woes.

This is something that Fidel Castro always feared.  It is why he worked hard to keep the embargo in place.  Whenever an American President moved to ease restrictions, like both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did, Castro swiftly sabotaged those actions.

But still, there is the problem of words.

My family were exiles, not just immigrants.  They lost everything: their businesses and careers, and not just material possessions, not only money or land; they lost their home, their sense of belonging.  And that sense of loss, of displacement, never goes away.  It is something that we, the next generation, inherit.  It is a deep-seated sense that home is a place that no longer exists.

So when President Obama said that the U.S. would “normalize” relations. That word struck a chord. I felt dizzy.  Normalize: to bring (someone or something) back to a usual or expected state or condition.  Normal?  Now things will be normal?

And then again, that too was a play on words. He said normalize, but he can’t change much on his own. He can’t unilaterally lift the embargo. He has to with Congress to make these reforms.  That won’t be easy.

None of this is easy.

Logically I understand the data.  The embargo is a relic of the cold war.  There is money to be made in Cuba.  There is the opportunity to wield influence in the region now that Venezuela’s economy is imploding and Russia is dealing with its own sanctions.

So although many polls and media outlets reflect a generational chasm in opinions on thawing relations with Cuba, I venture to guess that those answers depend on the semantics of the questions these young people were asked.

I think the only honest answer is that we, the children of Cuban exiles, are torn.  I can’t quantify my feelings, because – unlike numbers and figures — emotions are difficult to define.

Miami’s Wynwood: Food, Art, Culture and — yes — Hipsters & Commercialization

Miami is the magic city because it is constantly changing, morphing, reinventing itself and attracting people who long to do the same, either because of political and/or economic strife and instability or because the sunshine, sand and surf lured them here. IMG_4008

The latest change to the landscape, as Miami — and its tastes — continue to grow up, is a concentration on art, culture and good food.  Ever since Art Basel first came to Miami Beach in 2002, art galleries, museums and public art installments have flourished throughout the city.

Nowhere is that more evident than Wynwood, the once blighted area north of Downtown Miami.  Today, it is a mecca to art lovers, tourists, and those eager to be a part of the latest trend.

Wynwood is one of those places that is thriving and suffering for the same reason: it’s the new hot spot.  And in Miami, when something becomes cool, it gets inundated.  That commercialization, some fear, will change what made the area special: it’s authenticity. (Watch: Wynwood, the Mecca of Art a short film that my students filmed and produced.)

That may be; but, as I walked the streets there today, as the first Basel tourists began to trickle into the city, I was happy to enjoy an amazing cup of Panther coffee, which roasts all of their beans in-house and brew coffee to order.  This attention to quality and detail produces an amazing product.  And Panther Coffee is well-known for their fair and responsible trade and sourcing practices.

IMG_4007IMG_4018No, this isn’t for everyone.  Plenty of people scoff at the long line, the cramped quarters.  Many will surely argue that coffee is coffee is coffee.  And I am certain that many of today’s patrons were there for the novelty, the hype, the cool factor.

But, so what?

Walking the streets, people were everywhere.  They were admiring the murals, photographing, and watching artists work, many of them with young children in tow.

So maybe Wynwood is a Hipster haven, and maybe it is incredibly ironic that this area that attracted artists specifically because it was affordable is now a hot piece of real estate that becomes more mainstream every day.  But it is home to great restaurants that focus on good, fresh and locally sourced foods.  There is art everywhere and people who just a few years ago avoided this part of Miami, now show it off to friends visiting from out of town.

So if the Hipsters change Miami for the better — forcing us to focus on art and culture, making us think a little more about ingredients — if only because it’s cool and trendy, I welcome them.

black and white  IMG_4011

I look ‘Different’? And other Lessons Learned

I read somewhere that more fugitives run to South Florida than anywhere else in the country. Apparently it has something to do with the weather. Since its genesis, people from everywhere have flocked to Miami searching for a new start amidst the ocean and palm trees and sunny skies.  It is a land of foreigners. In fact, there is such a fusion of cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and languages that no one, from anywhere, really stands out.

Growing up here, I had no idea how different Miami was from the rest of the world.  And I had no idea how different I was. 

I learned just how wrong I was a few years ago, while visiting Chicago. And, it wasn’t the absence of Spanish, that surprised me. It was how people reacted to — me. This was my first visit to the Midwest and, everywhere I went, people stared at me.

Chicago is a beautiful city; but, while visiting there, I realized just how far away Miami is -- from here, and everywhere.

f=””> Chicago is a beautiful city; but, while visiting there, I realized just how far away Miami is — from here, and everywhere.[/capt

This is not an exaggeration People STARED. And let me tell you, these were not the kind of stares that you enjoy. These weren’t, “Wow, look at her!” stares. To be fair, they didn’t seem like looks of utter fear and disgust either; but, they were STARES.

At first, I thought that I was being paranoid. I tried to ignore it. But when people turn around and look at you, whisper to one another, and then turn and stare some more, it is difficult to ignore.

I became incredibly self-conscious. Obviously it does not help that I’m a woman. Immediately that female disease – insecurity, you know, that disorder that is a result of producing estrogen – rears it’s ugly head. So I wonder, did I spill something on myself? Am I mismatching? Am I wearing something completely unstylish? Is my fly open? I mean, WHAT is it?

I told myself that it was just my imagination. People weren’t staring; I was just being too sensitive.

Then one night, I’d had enough. At the theater, a lady sitting in the row in front of us saw me, said something to the man that she was with and they both turned to look. This was definitely not my imagination. So I finally ask my husband, I try to phrase this question just right because I have also been guilty of that aforementioned female disease — asking “does this make me look fat” perhaps 100 times too many – if he’d noticed that people had looked at me funny.

“Oh yeah,” he replied without hesitation. “They’ve looked at you since we got here. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make you self conscious.” Gee, thanks. “You probably just look different to them. They can’t tell where you’re from.”

I look different? Really? I’d never thought that I looked “different.” Then it hit me. I’m in the Midwest. I look different than most of the people there.  Chicago has a large Hispanic population. But, few of them live downtown.  Like many major cities, it is expensive to live in the urban core, where restaurants, theaters, department stores and companies abound.  And, like throughout the country, there is a wealth gap between minorities and White Americans.

So, on Chicago’s Miraculous Mile, there very well may be few Hispanics.  And although the Hispanic population continues to soar throughout the country, many Americans — particularly Midwestern tourists from Indiana and Wisconsin — imagine that we all look the same.  And, apparently, I don’t fit that image.

It all made sense. I didn’t have mucus hanging from my nose, I hadn’t sprouted a pimple the size of Mount Everest, and I wasn’t wearing two different styles of shoes. People in downtown Chicago had just never seen someone who looked like me.

There is a lesson in this.

There is certainly something to learn here about diversity, race and ethnicity.  There is, I’m sure, a lot to discuss about social stratification, or about the struggles foreignness and belonging.

But, right now, I guess I’m just glad that I’m home with all the other exotic looking exiles, immigrants and wanderers.  Even if there are fugitives among us.

Miami: sun, palm trees & embracing differences

My classroom doubles as a newsroom, work space, photo studio and home away from home.

It is the place where the kids brainstorm, write essays & articles, and — every once in a while — solve a few life crises.

This was one of those days. It was way after school and the editors were completing a deadline. But, that frenzy had subsided and the conversation had changed. Their tone was different. The volume was lower and the girls looked worried.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that's the norm.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that’s the norm.

Placing my counselor hat on, I ask what is wrong. Iqra’s eyes were wide and her face was folded into the saddest frown I’d ever seen. Gaby seemed just as dejected.

There really is no place like Miami.  At least that was the conclusion that a small group of my graduating seniors came to after visiting colleges across the country.

Many city-dwelling metropolitan teenagers find the rural areas where many of our country’s universities are located kind of, well, quiet.  But, it wasn’t the lights or the noise or the late-night entertainment that they were referring to.

“I’ve never felt like a minority before,” said Iqra, who is of Pakistani descent who is a minority even in South Florida.

“Apparently, I have a ‘Miami Girl’ accent,” said another, who commented that people who spoke in a Southern drawl thought that she “talked funny.”

The kids are actually right.  Miami is different.  Minorities make up the majority in Miami-Dade where, according to the Census, only 16 percent of the population is White, non-Hispanic.

This is very different from the racial and ethnic make-up of the rest of the country, and even from the rest of Florida, where Whites make up 63.4 and 57.5 percent of the population, respectively. And college enrollment rates are similar.  In 2010, 61 percent of college students were White.

The United States has always been diverse.  For hundreds of years, people travelled here to begin new lives.  And, the newest groups to arrive always struggled to adapt, fit in and overcome their ‘otherness.’

But these kids are different because they never knew that they were different.  They were born and raised in South Florida, where asking someone where they are from is the natural follow-up question to “what’s your name?”

They grew up in a place where different was normal — where different colors, languages and dialects made up the tapestry of their experiences.  These kids grew up in South Florida, listening to rock and salsa and hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton, where hijabs are almost as common as headbands, where a pot luck lunch means an international buffet and a trip to the beach meant meeting tourists from around the world.

So adapting to college life is going to be difficult for them.  It is difficult for everyone.  It is that moment where kids take that big grown-up step into the world and try to make it on their own.  Any kid packing their bags to move into a college dorm for the first time can attest to the excitement, anxiety and absolute fear that they feel.

This is only natural.  They are still young enough to remember their teen identity crises – scarred by memories of acne, braces, first heartbreaks and bad haircuts.  Now they find themselves in a whole other struggle.  Now these kids find themselves at the bottom of the social order again.  College freshmen — feeling the pressure to succeed, to select the right college major, to build a life for themselves, while learning to balance their social lives — which can be a pretty big challenge at some of these schools.

But these kids have a little extra on their plate.  Not only are they navigating through the regular rites of passage, they face another mini identity crisis.  Each of these kids was born here.  They never felt like anything other than American.  Now they’ve discovered that, in other places, many people don’t see them that way.

On their recent trips, some of my students found themselves reluctant ambassadors of a culture that they, second or third generation Americans, are only partially aware of.  They may find themselves explaining that not all Hispanics are Mexican, not all Asians are Chinese and not everyone in Miami is a “Cocaine Cowboy.”

They found that it’s not just their mothers’ home cooking that they’ll miss, not just the weather and the beach and the palm trees, but also the amalgam of culture that makes up their home.  What they found was that, as my student surmised, is that there really is no place like Miami.



Lebron James goes back home, and Miami Understands

I'm Coming Home

In an essay in Sports Illustrated, Lebron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Miami is always the bad guy.  People love to hate us.  We’ve been called everything from a ‘Paradise Lost’ to a banana republic and everyone, from politicians to sports commentators can barely hide their disdain for our city or our sports franchises.

Never was this more evident than when Lebron James left Cleveland to join the Miami Heat in search of NBA championships.  The criticism was endless.  And although Cavaliers’ fans burned his jersey and called him a traitor, although the team’s owner derided him on the team’s official website until just two weeks ago, despite the insults and the boos, it was Lebron and Miami that became the NBA villains.  The Miami Heat became the team that everyone loved to hate.

And why?  Because a young man wanted to pursue opportunities that he didn’t have at home?  Because he was ambitious?  Because he wanted to grow and develop his talent?  Because he wanted to win? 

Well, we welcomed him.  And he did flourish as a player and as a leader, and he won and he shared the spotlight with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh and an entire team that he propelled to two NBA Championships, and while the sports commentators grumbled, we celebrated.

earned not given

In four years, the Miami Heat won two NBA Championships. Thanks, not only to Lebron James, but to the dedication of the team.

So isn’t it wonderfully ironic that when Lebron James announced that he was leaving us, Miami did not implode.  There weren’t mass demonstrations, jerseys burning in trash cans.  No one called him a coward.  Instead, overwhelmingly, he was met with gratitude.  Mickey Arison wished him well.  The Miami Heat thanked him for the memories.  We are disappointed.  We wish he had chosen to stay.  We know that our team will struggle without him.

But, we understand, because people have called us all kinds of names: obnoxious, vain, fair weather fans, superficial, narcissistic.  We are a young city and maybe we carry a lot of the swagger and exaggerated bravado that comes with youth.   

Do we like to win? Of course, who doesn’t?  Do we celebrate big? Yes.  Are there fickle fans?  Yes, and so do many other cities.  And, are we suckers for glitz, glamour and excess?  Sure.  But that doesn’t make us villains.

We also know what it is to move to build and to prove ourselves.  We are a new city, constantly proving ourselves.  We are a city made up primarily of immigrants, who know what it is to leave home to chase a dream or pursue greater opportunities.  We know what it’s like to be called selfish for that.  And like Lebron James, we understand how it feels to long for home.

As James returns home, I know that Miami will miss him.  He is a phenomenal athlete, maybe even the best to ever play the game, and we are happy that he brought his talent here.  But, I also know that the Miami Heat will regroup, recover and rebuild, because that is what we do.



Life on the Hyphen: American or Miamian?

Miami Miami, an amalgam of language, light people and eccentricity.

I used to be hyphenated. Many of us were. I was considered a Cuban-American. Others might have been African-American or Mexican-American. But now, the grammatical rule is to drop the hyphen. So now, I am a Cuban American.

This may seem of little consequence, but it isn’t. Grammatically, the words were hyphenated because the first word modifies the second. In other words, what type of American was I? Well, a Cuban one, or a Hispanic one, or a Chinese one, or African, etc. But, people did not like being “hyphenated Americans.” So now, both words stand alone. Both are nouns.

Both are equal.

This is interesting in today’s climate, where who we are and where we live is increasingly important for polls, voter registration drives and purges, and political activism. I thought about this after a recent trip.  When on vacation, it’s common to be asked where you’re from; it’s the most polite way to begin a conversation.  While sitting with a group of tourists, we engaged in just this kind of small talk.  When asked, most people name the state in which they live. There were visitors from around the country – Texas, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. And obviously, there were plenty of people from Florida.

Now here is where it gets interesting.

When asked, people who lived in South Florida replied that they were from Miami, whereas people from other parts of the state simply said Florida. I wondered why. I don’t think that this is a conscious choice. I don’t think that people harbor any ill feelings towards the Sunshine State. At least I don’t. Yet, whenever the question comes up in casual small talk, I too answer Miami.

So, why don’t people in say, Orlando, one of the state’s largest cities volunteer their city of residence? And why do South Floridians see themselves more as Miamians than Floridians? Are we different? Could there be something in our collective unconscious that leads us to categorize ourselves? What about others? Have they also realized that we do this? Do they also see us as Miamians and not Floridians?

I remembered a visit to an art gallery in Sausalito, California the docent, asked the typical ice breaker question and when I said Miami she replied, “Oh how nice, from Miami; or, should I say Meee-ah-meee?” in her best attempt at a Cuban accent.

Okay, so maybe we are different.

We do naturally identify with where we live or, at least, some of us do. Miami: the Magic City, or a “third world country” as Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo called it, a diverse multicultural melting pot or a banana republic?

It depends on who you ask.

Growing up in Miami I never felt different. In fact, I never felt like anything other than an American. Not a hyphenated American, not a compound noun American, but simply American.

Although my culture, heritage and background play a huge part in who I am, English is the language that I speak most, the one that I feel most comfortable with. It’s the language that I speak with my friends; it’s the language that I think in. So, it’s usually the language that I choose for entertainment (television, movies, music).

I am not an arrepentida, a phrase that Cubans use to describe people who are ashamed of, and therefore reject and deny their culture, but my thoughts and beliefs are a product of growing up in the United States.  And, growing up in Miami, I heard people speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, Patuá, and countless languages and dialects. I had friends of all different cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. I was used to people of all shades and colors, and I thought nothing of it. I thought that this was normal.

I always believed that Americans were people who left behind their old lives to begin anew, like my parents who emigrated to the US and worked to build new, successful lives. It is why I have always believed in the possibility of achieving the American Dream.

My mother was only 19 when she arrived. She worked hard, went to school and is financially and professionally successful. For over 20 years she has worked in the business world and handled clients living around the world, and not just the Spanish speaking world, but throughout the world. Yet when she called a 1-800 number for help trouble shooting her computer, an operator in Tennessee was rude to her and complained that my mother’s accent was too thick. Apparently, not considering that, she too, had an accent and that my mother found her Southern drawl difficult to understand.

And there was the time in high school when a classmate who lived in Pembroke Pines was appalled that there was a Sedanos under construction in his neighborhood because, he said, it meant that “they,” presumably Cubans, were now moving north.

But these incidents were always few and far between, so it was easy to forget them. As offensive as they were, I never thought that the “they” included me. I never had any doubt that others also thought of me as American. But maybe that’s simply because I have always lived in Miami where being American has more to do with living here and believing in American ideals — pursuing life, liberty and happiness, complaining about politics and government because we pay attention to it and feel that it’s within our power to change it, wondering how tax dollars are spent and hoping that our children and grandchildren will be better off than we are.

Maybe if I had grown up somewhere else, somewhere where speaking with an accent is equated with stupidity, or where Americans only come in one shade, size and shape, maybe then I would feel differently.

Maybe we still haven’t let go of that hyphen. Maybe we still do need to explain what type of citizens we are. If that’s true, then I really am a Miamian.


posted on WLRN in September, 2013: