Democracia y Política

For Cubans in Miami, the Gulf to Their Homeland Narrows


Clockwise from top left: Isabel De Lara arrived in Miami in 1961 among the first wave of Cuban refugees; Jose Antonio Lorenzo came during the Mariel boatlift in 1980; Alicia Garcia survived a perilous voyage by raft in 1994; Elsa Riverón, who came in 2011, is part of a newer generation of arrivals. Credit Photographs by Ángel Franco/The New York Times.
En este artículo que aparece en la primera plana del New York Times, se le dice al mundo el rol de los cubanos en la construcción del Miami capital de America Latina. Para Cuba como nación y todos los cubanos sin excepción este artículo es importante y a la vez fruto del cambio de política de USA y Cuba con el restablecimiento de las relaciones diplomáticas entre ambos países.

MIAMI — Over a half-century, they have transformed what had been a sleepy, heat-drenched Southern town, infusing it with the rat-a-tat patter of Spanish in boardrooms and restaurants, the Cuban rhythms blasting from car radios, the linen guayaberas men don for parties and work, and the smells of mojo and picadillo wafting in the air.

Beyond that, Cubans fleeing their island have helped turn Miami into an economic powerhouse, the capital of Latin America and a center of Hispanic political power in the United States.

Isabel De Lara, a 65-year-old former banker, arrived alone here at the age of 12 in 1961, put on a plane by fearful parents determined to get her out of Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution. Jose Antonio Lorenzo, 61, boarded one of an armada of boats in 1980, joining other desperate Cubans in the Mariel boatlift. Alicia Garcia, 43, almost died during her voyage in a rickety raft in the “balsero” wave of 1994. Elsa Riverón, a lawyer in Cuba, arrived three years ago via Spain as part of a new era in which Cubans with connections and money can arrive by plane.

They came to a city that over the years went from feeling like a foreign land to an extension of home, and faced both enormous obstacles and one great advantage: The United States government has for decades accepted them with open arms, granting them asylum and allowing them to become permanent residents a year and a day after arriving in the United States.

On Wednesday, the gulf between here and there shrank again when President Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba and a move to liberalize travel, exports, communication and banking rules.

Miami stands to benefit economically from the softening of sanctions. Businesses here that charter direct flights and ship goods to Cuba will see the most immediate windfall. And the changes will make it easier for Cuban-Americans, who already visit the island frequently, to see their relatives.

How the news is being received varies widely in Miami, where first-generation exiles who remember Mr. Castro’s brutality mix with millennials for whom Cuba is more a cultural touchstone than a personal memory. Their opinions, though, seldom stray far from the blueprint of their own experience.

Lives Shaped by an Island

Every Cuban in Miami has a story. I have mine. I was not born in Cuba. But like the lives of so many Cuban-Americans of my generation who grew up in Miami, mine was framed by the island. Through my parents’ stories, I saw its radiance and felt its sea breezes. The lessons they conveyed were clear: In one moment, everything could be lost — jobs, homes, pets, friends and family.

In 1961, my mother, sister and brother boarded a plane with three suitcases and left Havana. My mother had $100 sewn into her belt. Their first home was a boardinghouse, a world away from the country club life they had led. My mother, a writer, got a job as a secretary. My father arrived a few months later. A pilot, he diverted a plane midair to Miami. He found work as a cabdriver and later flew covert missions in Africa for the Central Intelligence Agency. In time, he became a commercial airline pilot.

Through sheer will, my family prospered. My brother is a lawyer. My sister became a professional ballerina. And I sit here tapping away at my laptop, happy to have inherited even the smallest slice of Cuba.

Isabel De Lara came at the same time as my family. By the time Ms. De Lara arrived in Miami, she was deep into Cold War tumult. Her father, a civil engineer, had been jailed for being an anti-Castro activist. Revolutionaries had rummaged through her Havana house. Her pregnant mother, under too much stress, lost her baby.

Chaos ruled the island as Mr. Castro embraced communism, imprisoned and executed opponents and began seizing businesses and homes. The first large exodus took form — a collection of Cuba’s elite, the middle class and the upper middle class who realized that their homes, jobs and, in some cases, their lives were at risk.

Hundreds of thousands arrived on the so-called freedom flights to Miami in the early 1960s, only 240 miles away, with the hope that soon they would head back home. They arrived with no money and few possessions, but with college degrees, business acumen and vivid memories of the island they left behind.

Ms. De Lara, like so many children in that wave and others that followed, arrived alone. Fearing the worst, her parents had put her on a plane to Miami. Her father arranged with the Catholic Church in Miami to care for her until the family could be reunited, through a network known as Peter Pan.

Ms. De Lara was one of 65 Cuban girls delivered to an orphanage in Denver. She cried. She mourned. She stole, along with the others, toiletries at a pharmacy on their Sunday trip there because the girls were given so little.

Nearly two years later, in 1963, her parents were able to bring her to Miami. “I hated their guts,” Ms. De Lara said. “Now I know the sacrifice they had to make to let go of me.”

Many of these newly arrived lawyers, doctors and businessmen took the jobs that were traditionally held by African-Americans — waiters, bartenders and gas station attendants. Cubans were called ethnic slurs. But slowly, they cobbled together a life and began to transform the city. “We wanted to be what we were before,” Ms. De Lara said.

Ms. De Lara assimilated and prospered quickly. She got a job at a bank, ultimately becoming a vice president, and in the 1980s worked for nearly three years for the Republican Party of Florida.

Even now, she can clearly picture her family’s house in Havana. Her father was fiercely anti-Castro; he would have hated Mr. Obama’s recent decision. Ms. De Lara does not think the president’s move will lead to change. But she has softened her own views of the embargo, believing it to be futile.

Leaving Cuba Behind

Each wave of Cubans had its own narrative.

Not too long after he clambered aboard the crowded boat, Majestic 2, that would take him out of the Port of Mariel to Florida in 1980, Jose Antonio Lorenzo wept. Then he looked back at the island one last time.

“I started to watch Cuba disappear in the horizon,” Mr. Lorenzo said. “When it disappeared, I turned to the captain and said, ‘What I left behind, I never want to see again.’ ”

Mr. Lorenzo, an employee at a thermoelectric company, was part of a Cuban refugee flotilla that became known as the Mariel boatlift. In a couple of weeks, 125,000 Cubans arrived in Miami, brought here by friends or relatives with access to boats.

Mr. Castro, facing broad discontent, opened the borders for a brief spell, and out they poured: people seeking freedom and opportunity, together with thousands of criminals and mentally ill patients, a gesture of spite from Mr. Castro.

For nearly a third of his life, Mr. Lorenzo lived apart from his parents and siblings, a story that permeates the Cuban exodus. His parents left in 1970, but Mr. Lorenzo was barred from leaving because he was of military age. A decade later, on May 14, Mr. Lorenzo arrived at Key West and was bused to Miami, which was awash with refugees in staging areas. His was the Orange Bowl stadium, and his daughter was handed an apple, the first she had seen. Soon, he was reunited with his parents, and life took a turn for the better.

He spent years at Bacardi as a maintenance worker. His wife taught ballet. And his daughter, Riolama, became a professional ballerina.

The boatlift’s impact on Miami was profound. The “Marielitos” — mostly poor and reared under Communist rule — were at first viewed with suspicion. Crime skyrocketed; schools were strained. But success followed. Their numbers — not just the largely comfortable exiles of the first wave but now a much broader cross section of Cuban life — helped bolster the spread of Cuban restaurants, music, Spanish-language movies and media. After 1980, Miami felt Cuban to the core.

Fearless and Fed Up

Alicia Garcia was 21 the night of Aug. 16, 1994, when she left Cuba’s coast in a homespun raft of inner tubes with three men she had only recently met. She was fearless, fed up and young enough to shrug off everything that could go wrong.

On that day she became a “balsera,” part of an exodus of 33,000 who crossed the Straits of Florida. Most were intercepted and taken to the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba for months, a crisis that led to a major change in United States immigration policy toward Cubans. Ms. Garcia’s parents left for Miami in 1980, assuring her that she would be right behind them. But because of a passport problem, she could not join them. She grew up with her grandparents, became a pharmacist and savored the few minutes of conversation she had once a week with her parents.

She knew she wanted more; 1994 was an especially difficult year in Cuba. The Soviet Union, Cuba’s economic lifeline, had dissolved. Severe shortages of gas, food and medicine followed. Wages plummeted. Riots broke out. This led Mr. Castro to temporarily allow Cubans to leave by sea on rafts and boats.

During the six-day journey, Ms. Garcia ran out of food and water, until another group tossed the Cubans supplies. The salt rubbed their feet raw. Sharks circled incessantly. Ms. Garcia, a Christian, prayed and prayed. The group spotted other rafts. One boat was sinking. A mother on board handed over her baby, and Ms. Garcia strapped the girl to her own chest, where she stayed until Brothers to the Rescue, a team of Cuban pilots who helped spot balseros, radioed in their location.

Seven hours later, they were on a military ship headed for Guantánamo, where the baby’s mother was also taken. Ms. Garcia stayed nearly five months while the government debated what to do with the thousands of balseros. In the end, most were brought to Miami. But United States policy tightened: To receive asylum, Cubans now would need to set foot on American soil.

In Miami, Cubans had organized to help the balseros and pressured the United States to bring them here from Guantánamo. But the balseros had a harder time adapting to Miami than their predecessors. Culturally different, they were a generation that had grown up surreptitiously skirting the law to survive back home. They even spoke differently. But they, too, persevered, adding to the diversity of the Cuban experience in Miami.

“It took 20 years for the word ‘balsero’ to not signify something bad here,” said Ms. Garcia, a writer and an advocate for domestic violence victims. “We had the courage to leave the way we did and announce to the world that things were horrible in Cuba.”

A Simple Life

Elsa Riverón’s memories of Cuba could not be more different from Isabel De Lara’s final years there.

Looking back on her life on the island, Ms. Riverón, who arrived in Miami three years ago, said her life in Cuba had felt “simple and normal.” Her family was middle class. She was a lawyer in Havana. In many ways, she was more privileged than most others in Cuba.

What she did not like was Cuba’s education system, which had declined. She worried for her teenage son, Manuel. In 2008, Spain instituted a law giving some descendants of Spanish immigrants in Cuba the right to become Spanish citizens. Ms. Riverón, whose grandparents were Spanish, was one of them.

She sold her house — something recently permitted in Cuba — and flew to Madrid with her son. Her husband had to stay behind. Six months later, she flew to Kennedy International Airport in New York, where she asked for asylum, and from there flew to Miami.

Her three years here have not been as easy as she imagined. She said she has had little guidance from more seasoned Cubans on how to adjust to the capitalist bustle of Miami. Her law degree is collecting dust. She is caring for an elderly woman and trying to improve her modest English skills.

Unlike the old guard from Cuba, the tens of thousands of recently arrived Cubans routinely come and go from the island under more liberal travel and visa rules. They do not view the island with hostility. They want change in American laws in the hope of eroding the Fidel and Raúl Castro’s hold on the island. They lean toward voting for Democrats, not Republicans.

The good news is that Ms. Riverón’s son, a high school junior, has a 4.7 grade-point average. “That is what makes it worthwhile,” she said.

No one knows for sure what comes next, including how far Raúl Castro will push change, such as expanding access to the Internet. One thing seems clear: The gulf between the experiences of the first generation of Cuban exiles and those of each succeeding generation continues to widen. What is less certain is how far Mr. Obama’s changes and the passage of time will go toward coaxing Cubans here and Cubans there toward finding common ground.

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