Susan Jacoby
Susan Jacoby

Fellowship Title:

The Cubans

Susan Jacoby
April 8, 1974

Fellowship Year

MIAMI, Fla. — “The American melting pot is no longer a melting pot,” says Rolando Amador, “but a stew in which you can taste all of the ingredients.”

Amador, a Cuban refugee in his mid-forties, runs a neighborhood evening school in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana section. “Little” Havana now sprawls across more than 600 square blocks, and it is only one of the communities dominated by several hundred thousand Cubans who live in Miami and its surrounding suburbs. In many ways, Amador’s school typifies the two-way process of cultural accommodation that has developed in southern Florida during the 15 years of a massive refugee exodus from Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Two cuban girls sittingCubans come to the school to acquire many of the skills they need to survive and prosper in the United States. Women who have put in a full day’s work in garment factories arrive for English lessons after they fix dinner for their husbands and children. Blue-collar workers come for special courses in which they learn how to pass the Dade County licensing examinations for electrical contractors and air conditioner repairmen. Community leaders meet for sessions where they talk about organizing Cubans to meet their own social needs — and to exert more influence on the local power structure.

But the school is much more than a center for teaching skills that facilitate entry into the American economy. Like Miami itself, it is one center of a fiercely proud Cuban culture — a culture which, as Amador points out, resists attempts to blend it into an all-American pabulum. Small boys learn to play Latin music on the guitar. Teenagers practice dances under the watchful eyes of older relatives who are unwilling to abandon the time-honored institution of the chaperone. Next fall the first opera written by a Cuban in exile will be produced at the school. “I know it sounds wild,” Amador says, “but we have the people here with the energy for a culture that takes in everything from opera to Latin rock.”

No area of the United States has been so profoundly affected by recent immigration as southern Florida. The first Cuban refugees began trickling into the United States shortly after Castro seized power on Jan. 1, 1959, and the trickle swelled to a flood until the 1962 Cuban missile crisis out off direct immigration for more than three years. In late 1965, the Cuban government began allowing people to leave again through “freedom flights” from Havana to Miami. The flights brought an average of 3,500 Cubans a month into the country until Castro suspended them a year ago (April, 1973). More than 650,000 Cubans entered the United States between 1959 and 1974; between 350,000 and 400,000 of them now live in the Miami area. Spanish-speaking residents make up more than half the population of Miami and nearly one-third of the population of Dade County (the greater metropolitan area). The Latin population continues to grow as Cubans who originally settled in other areas of the country return to what they have come to regard as “the new Cuba” on American soil.

Recent American history offers no parallel for such a concentrated influx of political refugees. The open-door policy for Cuban refugees is in line with the brighter side of America’s historic attitudes toward victims of political oppression, but it is not a typical example of American policy in this century. In the 1930’s, for example, immigrants admitted to the United States totaled slightly over 528,000 — the smallest number allowed into the country during any decade in this century despite the fact that refugees from fascism were clamoring for visas. (Of these, only 114,000 came from Nazi Germany. In Miami, a visitor frequently meets Jews who settled in Cuba during the 30’s because they could not obtain American entry visas. They finally made it here as refugees from Castro’s government.) Even today, in an era of more liberal immigration policies, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service frequently denies visas to people requesting political asylum. The usual rationale is that many of the applicants are motivated not by political but by economic considerations.

Many Miami Cubans were indignant over a recent incident in which a Haitian awaiting deportation committed suicide in a local jail. He had said he feared torture if he returned to his native land, but immigration authorities took the position that he was an economic refugee. “Everyone should get as good treatment as we got,” said a Cuban priest. “How do you tell a political refugee from an economic refugee? If a government establishes a system under which a man can’t make a living, is he a political or an economic refugee?” The contradiction between the American tradition of hospitality to the politically oppressed and the ambivalent attitudes of many Americans when they are confronted with refugees in the flesh made itself felt early in the Cuban migration.

Fifteen years ago, Miami was suited to absorb the unexpected migration only by virtue of its warm climate and location 90 miles from Cuba. With tourism as its only important industry, Miami was an economically depressed area with an unemployment rate of 10.5 per cent. The southern Florida real estate boom was still in the future, and Miami had the highest rate of FHA and VA mortgage foreclosures in the nation. Central Miami, like most core cities throughout the country, was decaying as the white middle-class fled to the suburbs.

When the first refugees arrived, it was clear that the city did not envision the full-scale migration that eventually materialized. On July 30, 1959, The Miami Herald ran a story about the arrival of prominent former officials in the government of the right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista. Its headline read:



At the time, Miami was also a center for earlier refugees who fled the Batista regime but had not returned to Castro’s Cuba. Local residents were alarmed by prominently displayed reports of occasional clashes on the streets between pro-Castro and anti-Castro Cubans. The Herald described the “pinch” caused by problems with refugees in Miami: “Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Colombians and others are feeling a different kind of ‘pinch’ caused by the trouble. ‘It is hurting our professional and personal relations here,’ one said. ‘Miamians look at every Latin American, never knowing his nationality, and say, ‘There’s another of those trouble-making Cubans.'”

The first phase of the migration during the early months of 1959 consisted primarily of extremely wealthy officials who had been associated in some way with the Batista government. Unlike the bulk of the refugees who came later, the first exiles usually had substantial bank accounts outside of Cuba and were protected against the financial pain of expatriation. After May 1959, the refugees began to include upper middle class people whose property had been expropriated by the Castro government. A significant percentage of these refugees — especially those in their twenties and thirties — had opposed Batista and supported Castro until they began to suspect he planned to establish a communist state in Cuba. By the end of 1960, the exodus included small businessmen, middle-level civil servants, teachers, technicians, urban factory workers — the middle and urban lower middle class. After 1962, the migration took in representatives of all social and economic classes, including peasants, fishermen and unskilled urban workers.

With the exception of the first wealthy refugees associated with Batista, most of the Cubans had one thing in common: they left their country with no money and no property. When the Cubans began looking for employment in Miami’s depressed job market, many local officials feared they would become permanent welfare cases. Instead, the Cubans pumped new economic energy into the Miami area; it is now estimated that the Cuban migration created 100,000 jobs that did not exist before 1959. To take advantage of the large pool of bi-lingual workers, at least 80 major American corporations have moved their headquarters for dealings with Latin America to Miami. There are more than 6,000 Cuban-owned businesses in Miami, and over half of all new construction loans are made to Cuban contractors. The 1970 census showed Cuban families with a median income of $8,091 per year, compared with a median income of $10,563 for American whites and $5,979 for blacks. (Cubans made far greater economic gains than blacks did during the 1960’s — a fact that elicits considerable resentment from blacks who feel the Cuban migration prevented them from moving into upwardly mobile jobs that had previously been the province of white Americans.)

Government aid played a significant role in giving the Cubans a start in the United States, but the energy and industry of the refugees themselves has been a more important factor in the long-term economic success of the Cuban population. In Dade County, an individual refugee received $50 a month and a family a maximum of $100 a month, regardless of the number of children. “Not exactly a huge sum,” says Howard H. Palmatier, director of the Cuban Refugee Program funded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. “I still get letters asking why the government is giving away $100 a week to every Cuban who comes here — the amount of misinformation about what the Cubans actually got was incredible.” Only 10 per cent of the Cuban refugees are still on welfare today, and Palmatier says most of the recipients are people in their sixties and seventies. Most Cuban refugees stopped receiving government money within 18 months to 2 years after their arrival. For Cubans of all ages, a more important program was a government-guaranteed student loan for those who wanted to obtain a college education. The loans were valuable both to middle-aged refugees who needed professional retraining and to children of families who were too poor to put them through college.

The size of the Cuban migration, once regarded as a heavy burden on the resources of Dade County, proved to be one of the main factors enabling the Cubans to pull their own weight in the American economy. Those who left Cuba in the early 1960’s were able to help relatives and friends who came via the airlift in the latter half of the decade. When the airlift began in 1965, many Cubans who had made money in other parts of the country returned to Miami to invest in real estate. Their investments, made when real estate values were low in decaying areas of the central city, have been responsible for large-scale residential and commercial redevelopment. Southwest Eight Street, the main shopping center of Little Havana, was being abandoned by businessmen when the Cubans began buying small lots and buildings. It is now a lively strip with every conceivable type of store, open-air vegetable markets, nightclubs for the tourists, excellent restaurants for the natives and omnipresent cafes that serve Cuban coffee — a sweet, heady brew with such a jolt of energy that one Cuban minister calls the custom “a way of becoming a drug addict with distinction.” Like the rest of Cuban Miami, Eighth Street was originally developed on a piecemeal scale — the first modest real estate deals helped finance the more ambitious projects that have made the Cubans a power in the construction business.

Banks with Cuban executives and/or owners played a particularly important role in the development of small Cuban-owned businesses. The Republic National Bank of Miami, for example, was bought out by Cuban stockholders in 1965. “We made a decision to build our bank on Cuban business,” says Roberto Gonzalez Blanco, Republic’s senior vice president and cashier. “We took character references instead of credit references. Ten years ago, many Cubans couldn’t get loans from American banks because they didn’t have any business record in the United States. We would give a $5000 loan to a man who wasn’t worth $500 on paper. We knew we were dealing with people who had ability but no money and that they shouldn’t fall into the usual categories.”

The story of how the Cubans managed to surmount the language barrier and their own poverty on arrival is essentially one of individuals rather than of financial or government institutions.

Marino Lopez-Blanco, a 44-year-old psychiatric social worker, is an example of the early upper class immigrant. He was a lawyer in Havana at the time of the revolution, and he had attended the same Jesuit high school as Fidel Castro. He arrived in the United States in 1959 with $4000 — soon eaten up by living expenses — and some knowledge of English. Like most of the Cubans who came here before 1965, he thought his stay would only be temporary.

“I told my wife why should I try to build a profession here, when we were going back? So I worked as a liquor store delivery man, a supermarket clerk, in a factory — every job there was, I had it.” Lopez-Blanco’s orientation was changed by two events that had a profound effect on the entire refugee community — the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the missile crisis the following year. Both events convinced many Cubans that there would be no American invasion of Cuba and that the Castro government was likely to remain in power a long time. At that point, Lopez-Blanco reluctantly sought help from the Cuban Refugee Program. “Friends had been telling me to go there for a long time, but I said there was no reason, that I didn’t need any welfare. They said there won’t be any welfare, but they can help you find a better job. They looked over my educational background in Cuba and said I could be two things — a teacher or a social worker. They told me there were too many teachers in the area, so I asked, ‘what is a social worker?”‘

Lopez-Blanco took his first job as a social worker with Spanish-speaking welfare recipients. Like most Cubans who were young enough to adapt to the new society, he was extremely pragmatic about finding work. “There was a job for me in this field and I took it. Afterward, I began to like it. I came in at a time when there were new concepts in social work — the idea not of charity but of helping people to stand on their own feet. Social work gave me the opportunity to regain something very valuable to every human being — a sense of identity. I am very proud of my origins, but I have a new way of looking at things. The same thing happened to my wife from a different perspective. When I took advantage of the student loan to get a master’s degree in social work, she took a job to support the family. She had never worked before, but a doctor told her if she was willing to try, he was willing to train her. Now she is a medical assistant to a famous surgeon. Even if my economic position improved, she would want to do volunteer work. She has found that she can do many things she wouldn’t have done in Cuba.”

Lopez-Blanco’s story is not over, because he went back to law school and expects to graduate next year. He hopes to practice law by combining his experience as a psychiatric social worker with his legal training. “We know now that this isn’t a perfect democracy here,” he says. “Some of us were under many illusions about America before we arrived. But at the same time, I don’t think there is any other country where I could have moved from being a delivery boy to being a lawyer in just a little over ten years. Certainly not in Europe and not, honestly, in the old Cuba.” For Lopez-Blanco, as for many Cubans, the image of a return to his native land grows dimmer. “One of my children was 2 1/2 when we came here — the other was born here. The fact must be faced — they wouldn’t want to return even if the government changed. Those of us who are middle-aged live with two contradictory things — the bitter-sweet nostalgia for our own country, the need to establish an identity and give our children an identity here.”

Manuel and Julia Garcia, both 29, are typical of the large numbers of refugees who arrived with only the clothes on their backs. When Manuel arrived in 1963, he was a 17-year-old with no job experience of any kind. “I thought I would study here, but there was the need to make money. So I quit when I was 18 and took a job in a gas station. Then in 1963 I went to work as a bus boy for Harbor Island Spa on Miami Beach. They had a hotel up north — I’d work the winters here and follow the trade north in the summer. Eventually, I worked my way up to be the maitre d’hotel, and that job enabled me to save money from tips.” By working 18-hour days, Manuel Garcia managed to save enough money to open his own clothing factory in 1971. He and his wife began the business with $5,000 and eight sewing machines.

The factory now has 42 employees, and Julia and Manuel Garcia frequently work until 2 a.m. to fill their orders on time. “We figure two more years of a hard pull,” he says, “and then maybe we can make a little profit beyond what we need to live. The year we started was a great year, but this year has been bad because of material shortages. If we were starting this year, we would have gone under.” Julia Garcia is philosophical about the double burden of caring for her household and eight-year-old son while she helps run a factory. “What doesn’t get done in the house today, gets done tomorrow. I also get help from my husband sometimes — that wouldn’t have happened in Cuba.” Manuel Garcia laughs and says he believes men would have learned to push vacuum cleaners “even if we had stayed in Cuba. More women were going to work, more women were talking back to the men.”

Like most Cubans their age, the Garcias do not spend much time thinking about the return to Cuba. “If the country were normal,” Manuel says, “I like to think of opening a business in Havana. But you don’t know what you’d do — it might mean starting over again. And we have a son who is American as well as Cuban.”

Carlos Rivera is still another type of refugee. Unable to obtain an exit visa, he made the dangerous illegal trip from Cuba to Miami in a homemade boat in 1970. (Rivera is not his real name; he asked that it be withheld because he has close relatives in Cuba.) He came from a peasant family that had never owned land and had serious hopes for social reform when Castro came to power. “We were not politically opposed to Castro,” he said. “My parents were illiterate — all they hoped for was their own piece of land. When all the farms were taken over by the government, it seemed to them that they were just working for another landlord. I went to the city, but I came back to the countryside because there was more food.”

Rivera did not speak any English when he arrived in Miami, but he started attending night school immediately and found a job on an American-owned fishing boat. He now works as a fisherman by day and a waiter by night in order to save enough money to buy his own boat. His wife Maria was one of the few working-class Cuban women I met who were outspoken on the subject of women’s rights. “I want to fish with my husband on the boat, but the Americans say it no woman’s job. Now I work in a beauty shop. When we buy a boat, I be fisherwoman. The sea, I love her. I only weigh 120, but I can land any kind of fish.”

Unlike many of the Cubans, the Riveras no longer consider themselves refugees. “America is my country now,” Carlos Rivera says. “When I have children, I want them to speak Spanish and English, I want them to be proud of where they came from, but America is my choice. I will own my boat here. My family owned nothing in the old Cuba and nothing in the new Cuba.”

The growing economic influence of the Cubans is not a cause for unbounded rejoicing in either the white or the black American community in Miami. Blacks feel the Cubans undercut their position first by working for lower wages than Americans and then by moving into skilled blue-collar and low-level white collar jobs that would normally have gone to underrepresented American minorities. Both whites and blacks resent the clannishness of Cubans — their tendency to spend their money within the Cuban community and to hire only Cuban workers. “The Cubans didn’t take away jobs,” says Robert Simms, the black director of the Dade County Human Relations Board. “They just moved into jobs that blacks didn’t get. The white worries are on a somewhat different level — they’re worried because Cubans are moving into financial areas that have been dominated by whites up till now.”

A visit to any bank in the Miami area shows why educated Cubans now have an advantage over Americans looking for jobs. Approximately one-third the of bank employees in Miami are Cubans, and they are found both in executive suites and tellers’ cages. An American bank executive explained that “if you’re looking for a secretary or a loan officer, you’re going to prefer a bi-lingual person to one who only speaks English. The Cubans are bi-lingual. Most Americans are not. Considering the nature of this community, it’s very advisable for Americans to learn Spanish if they want to compete in the job market.”

More American adults are now attending evening Spanish classes, and a small but growing number of parents are pushing to improve Spanish instruction in elementary schools. However, the American community has been slow to realize the nature of the changes taking place within the Cuban community. Many Miamians see that the Cubans conduct their daily lives in Spanish and therefore assume that they do not speak English. They do not realize that the Cuban bank officer who speaks English during the business day goes home at night and talks to his family and friends in Spanish. Many Miamians were astonished when a visitor commented on the large number of Cubans who speak English.

The underlying envy of Cuban economic success does not necessarily translate into open antagonism — partly because the Cubans do have some interests in common with other minorities and partly because they are not yet as active politically as they are economically. There are approximately 110,000 citizens of Cuban origin in the Miami area, but the figure includes children who were born here as well as refugees born in Cuba. The refugees are now becoming citizens at a rate of approximately 1,000 a month, but many find the step psychologically difficult because it implies an acceptance of the fact that they may never return to their native land. There are only 36,000 registered Cuban voters.

Nevertheless, recent elections indicate that a Cuban can attract votes from both white and black Americans. Manolo Reboso, the Cuban vice-mayor of Miami, carried 71 out of 82 precincts in his last bid for election to the City Commission. Only 36 of the precincts were predominantly Cuban. He ran with a black candidate for the Commission, and both won handily. The Commission elections are non-partisan but Reboso, who was Gov. Reuben Askew’s campaign manager for the Latin community, is an acknowledged liberal Democrat. He is also a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion–a fact that may have helped his standing among more conservative Cubans who blame President Kennedy and the Democratic Party for allowing Castro’s government to survive in Cuba.

“There are so many things the Cubans and blacks have in common if you can only break down the isolation between the two groups,” Reboso says. “Schools, for example. The Cuban dropout rate is enormous, just as the black dropout rate is, but it doesn’t translate into unemployment because the Cuban kids can go to work in businesses owned by their relatives or friends. But the problem in the schools has to be solved for both groups. Cubans don’t have much experience of working with other groups in a democratic political process, and I would say the Americans in Miami are very fragmented too. We’re behind other areas of America in community organization to attack social problems.

“Cubans have an important role to play in this process as they emerge from refugee status. Many Cubans still call themselves refugees, because we cannot forget why we came here. But how can you call people ‘refugees’ who have been this successful economically? We keep our identity, but that identity is now an inseparable part of this community.”

— Susan Jacoby April 8, 1974

Received in New York on April 10, 1974

©1974 Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby, a freelance writer, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. This article may be published with credit to Ms. Jacoby and the Alicia Patterson Foundation.