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My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February 28, 2017: CubanAmericanStudying: The Mariel Boatlift

[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!]
Three ways to contextualize and analyze the 1980 exodus of some 125,000 Cubans (known as Marielitos) from Mariel Harbor to the United States.
1)      Refugee policy: Donald Trump’s recent Executive Orders on refugees and immigration have of course brought debates over refugee policy back into the news, but in a particularly oversimplified—and fearful and paranoid and factually challenged—way. The situation and issues facing President Jimmy Carter in 1980, on the other hand, illustrate just how complex and multi-layered national decisions about refugee policy are (even for those of us, like me and I believe Carter, who feel strongly that the U.S. should always try to welcome refugees). There are the perspectives and realities of a sovereign nation like Cuba, and of our own evolving relationship with that nation (Carter and Castro had worked to alleviate some tensions between the two nations over the years leading up to Mariel). There are the humanitarian and practical questions of where and how the refugees will be resettled in the United States, and what that will mean for the communities to which they arrive (Miami was most definitely and profoundly changed by the Marielitos). And there are the thorny but inevitable comparative questions—what do our decisions in response to this particular refugee community mean for the millions of others seeking and waiting for the chance to asylum? All difficult issues, and all raised with clarity by the Mariel boatlift.
2)      The boatlift in art: Refugee and immigration histories aren’t just about governments and policies, though—they’re also and most importantly about communities and stories, about identities and lives. Artistic and cultural texts are particularly good at portraying those latter sides to histories, and I would highlight three very distinct such texts about the Mariel boatlift. The Brian De Palma film Scarface (1983) uses the story of one fictional Marielito, Tony Montana (Al Pacino in one of his most famous performances), to consider some of our most overarching national narratives, from the ideals of the American Dream to the most sordid nightmares of violence and crime. Christine Bell’s novel The Pérez Family (1991; adapted into a 1995 film) focuses more fully on themes of community, both among the Marielitos (the protagonists are characters who share the same last name and decide to pass as a family) and in relationship to the Cuban-American community (Juan Pérez is looking for his wife, who has already been in the United States for decades by the time he arrives). And Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography Before Night Falls (1992; adapted into a 2000 film) tells the harrowing story of one individual writer before, during, and after the boatlift. Each text is different in medium and genre as well as story and theme, but taken together they offer a powerful artistic portrayal of the boatlift.
3)      Pedro Zamora: For better or for worse, the fictional gangster Tony Montana is probably the most famous individual Marielito. But I believe a close second would be Pedro Zamora, who came to the United States with his family in the boatlift when he was only 8 years old, and came to prominence 14 years later as the breakout star of The Real World: San Francisco, the 1994 third season of MTV’s ground-breaking reality TV show. Zamora broke multiple cultural barriers during his time on television: he was one of the first openly gay stars of a TV show, and his commitment ceremony with boyfriend Sean Sasser the first such same-sex ceremony in TV history; and he was also living with HIV/AIDS throughout the show, bringing a profoundly intimate and human face to a disease that was, at the time, still deeply controversial and feared. Zamora’s tragic death later that year, and his widely broadcast memorial service, offered one more level to that prominence and its effects. None of those events or effects are limited to Marielitos or Cuban Americans, of course; but we can’t understand and analyze Zamora’s identity, nor perhaps appreciate his commitment to public advocacy and activism, without remembering the foundational role of the Mariel boatlift in his life.
Next CubanAmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban American stories or histories you’d highlight?

Monday, February 27, 2017

February 27, 2017: CubanAmericanStudying: José Martí

[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!]

On the cross-cultural experiences, ideas, and meanings of the legendary activist.

As best I can tell, José Martí (1853-1895) could be accurately described as at one and the same time the George Washington, Tom Paine, and Phillis Wheatley of Cuba: equal parts revolutionary activist and leader, political journalist and philosopher, and poetic and artistic genius. Although he died far too young, fighting in the revolution against Spain that he had so fully helped bring about, he had already done and achieved and influenced more in his forty-two years, in all those different arenas and many others as well, than most of us can dream of in a lifetime twice that long. And just as another legendary Caribbean and world revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, belongs centrally to his native Haiti for which he lived and died so inspiringly, so too do Martí’s inspiring life and work clearly belong to his beloved Cuba, and I would never try to argue for a defining national or communal identity other than that for him.

Yet one of the more striking facts about that life is that almost exactly a third of it—most of the years between 1880 and 1894—was spent living in the United States; principally New York City, but with extensive time and travel in Florida as well. That Martí was less a voluntary immigrant than a political exile from his homeland interestingly connects him both to many 20th and 21st century Cuban Americans and to the long history of immigrant Americans who fled for political reasons and found a new home in (often) communities like New York. But while those are the some of the main reasons behind Martí’s move to the United States, they can’t possibly capture all that he experienced in that decade and a half here, what (for example) the society and world of Gilded Age New York meant to this still young man from Havana. Not at all coincidentally, Martí did much of his writing and literary work during these years, including (to cite only one telling example) translating Helen Hunt Jackson’s activist novel Ramona (1884) into Spanish.

Toward the end of his time in the U.S., Martí published his seminal essay “Our America” (1892), a breathtakingly original and vital work (to my mind, it’s on the short list for the most unique and significant American texts, from any time and in any genre, that our hemisphere has yet produced) that manages both to capture his specifically Cuban patriotism and goals and to argue for a sweepingly trans-hemispheric vision of American identity and community. The essay is all Martí, reflective of all the different individual roles and talents, ideas and visions, experiences and passions that I tried to highlight in my opening paragraph and that define a truly singular person. But I can’t help but see it as well as profoundly influenced by his cross-cultural experiences, his time in New York and Florida (among many other places), his trans-Caribbean and –Atlantic travels, a life and perspective that had stretched beyond any borders or limiting categorizations. As such, I believe that there’s great value in thinking of Martí as Our Martí—not, again, removing him from his Cuban heritage and impacts, legacies and meanings, but instead in extending his meanings (just as he extended his life and work) into our U.S. histories and narratives as well.
Next CubanAmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban American stories or histories you’d highlight?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

February 25-26, 2017: Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites

[This week it was back—the very popular annual post-Valentine’s non-favorites series, in which I AmericanStudied some of those things that just don’t quite do it for me. Leading up to the annual crowd-sourced airing of grievances, which could always use more griping in comments!]
Other non-favorites:
Matthew Teutsch Tweets, “I would have to say Andrew Jackson &, even though I like the writing, The Great Gatsby.” He adds, “I do find Nick Carraway a fascinating narrator. Wrote this a while back.”
Joe Fruscione goes with, “Henry James. Big ol’ meh.” He adds, “Also: Deadpool. I just don’t get it.” On James, Matthew responds, “Coming back to James, after a few years, I liked him. Granted, I was reading shorter works, such as “Daisy Miller.”
Rachel Weeks Blight nominates, “HMH history/geography textbooks (iBooks and paper). I use them because they are cheap and basic methods for covering info that might appear on a standardized text someday and I get something for the kids' homeschool portfolios, but I hate their over-reliance on History Channel videos. Speaking of which, I also have a love/hate relationship with the History Channel. It's like the Red Lobster of channels: I have high hopes for what could be and am always disappointed.”
Paige Swarbrick writes, “I dislike the ‘memoirs’ that are touted as completely real but turn out to be mostly untrue. Two that come to mind are A Million Little Pieces by James Frey and Smashed: Story of a Drunked Girlhood by Koren Zailckas.”
Matt Chambers votes for, “Current political and social commentary in the US that either draws shallow comparisons to the 1930s/40s or treats events as exceptional (for example, I've been living under a pretty similarly awful regime for over a year now).”
Kisha Tracy adds Catcher in the Rye, noting, “I find it insufferable,” to which Quintin Burks responds, “I completely agree!”
Maggi Smith-Dalton writes, “I have had a strong opinion on this for some time, however I will not annouce it publicly to fellow AmStudies/history folks any more. I've had it with that, frankly. Suffice to say, I feel the mess we're in right now in our country has been seeded, however inadvertently, however unintentionally, by the things I have worried about in our community for some years. Don't forget I have been in the public sphere for most of my professional life.”
Diego Ubiera nominates The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
Tim McCaffrey notes that the phrase “in my heart of hearts” “makes me cringe every time.” He adds, “Also, the work of Joseph Heller never clicked with me.”
Laura Mulligan Thomas goes with two “phrases in education circle these days”: “sharing out” and “have a conversation around it.”
Nicole Sterbinsky writes, “This has never happened to me personally but I hate hearing it, ‘You look good for x-amount of kids.’ Or ‘You look good for a mom.’ It's a backhanded compliment on quite a few levels.
And we’ll end with Jeff Renye’s pitch-perfect nomination: The Art of the Deal.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Responses to these non-favorites? Others you’d share? Join the communal gripe-fest!