Thursday, March 2, 2017
March 2, 2017: CubanAmericanStudying: Desi Arnaz
[On March 2nd, the great Cuban-American actor and entertainer Desi Arnaz would have celebrated his 100th birthday. So for Arnaz’s centennial, a series on a handful of Cuban-American figures and histories!]
How the pioneering entertainer helps us remember a different side to Cuban American history, and why that matters.
For understandable reasons, including the sheer percentage of the current Cuban American population that have entered the United States since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution (as well as the numerous, prominent historical events over that time, from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs through the Mariel boatlift and Castro’s death late last year), many of our contemporary narratives and collective memories of the Cuban American community focus largely if not entirely on the last half-century. Yet as Monday’s subject José Martí (among many other figures and histories, including the 1854 Ostend Manifesto) reflects, Cuban American history goes back much, much further than that. Moreover, better remembering those longstanding histories isn’t just a matter of gaining a more accurate sense of both this particular ethnic community and the United States as a whole; it also helps us think about what particular histories and stories each stage and era of Cuban American identity featured, and how each of those stages likewise contributed distinctly to our collective society and culture.
Desi Arnaz, born (100 years ago today) Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III in Santiago de Cuba, experienced a very particular such stage and history. As Arnaz details in his autobiography A Book (1976), he was born into a multi-generational family that was very prominent in both the region and nation: his maternal grandfather Alberto de Acha was one of the three founders of Bacardi Rum and thus one of Cuba’s wealthiest citizens, and his father Desiderio Alberto Arnaz de Alberni II was a rising political leader and the youngest mayor in Santiago’s history. When military officer (and future strongman dictator) Fulgencio Batista led a 1933 revolution (backed by the United States) to overthrow President Gerardo Machado, however, Desi’s father was jailed for six months; upon his release, the family (including 16 year old Desi) fled to Miami, where Desi finished high school and then began his career in show business (with the 1939 musical Too Many Girls; the 1940 film adaptation of which also starred Lucille Ball, with whom Arnaz would elope). While that family exile of course foreshadows and parallels in many ways the Cuban families who would similarly flee the island after Castro’s revolution (which overthrew Batista), it also includes a number of distinct elements, many focused on a 1930s Miami and Florida that were both far less defined by a Cuban American community and in the midst of the Great Depression when Desi and his family arrived.
While these will be of course speculative points, I certainly think it’s possible to see how such specific details influenced Arnaz’s life and career. To cite one example, when he and Ball proposed the initial idea for the sitcom I Love Lucy in 1950, studio executives balked at featuring this interracial couple on television; so Arnaz and Ball organized a summer vaudeville tour (with the help of the clown Pepito Pérez), proving that this cross-cultural comic combination could work and work well (much of the sitcom’s pilot episode was drawn from the vaudeville show). Later, with the show already one of the first true TV mega-hits, Arnaz had the idea of re-airing episodes; he is credited as the inventor of the concept of the rerun, and this strategy for capitalizing and building on success seems to me quite possibly related to the experience of entering the U.S. and show business in the midst of the Depression. Another CubanAmericanStudier might, of course, interpret the influence of Arnaz’s particular personal and family and cultural experiences differently—but in any case, we’d be remembering not only one man’s life and career, but a far different moment in Cuban-American history and community. Sounds like a good way to honor Desi’s centennial to me!
Last CubanAmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban American stories or histories you’d highlight?