Jews of the Carribean
Article by Enrique Fernández
Sometime in the sixties,
after the first big wave of Cuban immigrants had settled whole
neighborhoods in Miami, my family traveled there from our home
in Tampa to visit old friends. One of the Cuban families we know
was Jewish; they had owned a jewelery store in a street that was
Havana's equivalent of New York's diamond district. Unlike the
other Cuban exiles we knew, however, this family lived not in
Miami but in Miami Beach, in the low-rent zone that has since
become trendy South Beach but until the mid-eighties was populated
by Jewish retirees from the Northeast. I suppose it was their
Jewishness that made them choose (Jewish) Miami Beach rather than
(gentile) Miami. However, when we, uncertain of the address, began
to inquire about them in the neighborhood, one of the old ladies
sunning themselves outside told us, in a thick New York accent,
"Oh, yes, the Cuban family."
Jewish in Miami, Cuban
in Miami Beach, our friends were not the only Cuban Jews who would
make their home in South Florida. Today the Miami Cuban Jews,
the "Jewbans" in local slang, are
a majority in some areas of Miami Beach, just as gentile Cubans
are a majority in many Miami neighborhoods. Quite a few Jewbans
are prosperous, as are many of the gentile Cubans across the water.
They form a tightly knit community, and this provokes the comment
that is applied not only to Jews of all nationalities but also
to Cubans of all religious or racial background: they are clannish.
Cubans, most Latinos will tell you when they do not have to be
politically correct, are "the Jews of the Caribbean."
What is meant by this
is a mixture of admiration and loathing. Cuban Americans are the
most prosperous and successful Latino group in America. The neighborhoods
they inhabit in Miami include some of the priciest real estate
in town. The mayor of the City of Miami is a Cuban American, as
is the mayor of Dade County. Two Cuban Americans represent the
city in the U.S. House of Representatives. The presidents of Florida
International University and Miami-Dade Community College -- both
of them vast, multi-campus complexes -- are Cuban Americans. Miami
bank presidents, real estate moguls, newspaper publishers, and,
yes, doctors and lawyers are Cuban.
The U. S. government
did deploy a massive assistance program to benefit Cuban exiles
who were fleeing a Communist country during the peak of the cold
war. But the Cuban-American success story is also the result of
a tough work ethic that, contrary to the status consciousness
embodied in the aristocratic Spanish tradition of hidalguia,
pushed members of Cuba's dispossessed professional classes to
take the most menial jobs, study at night to recover their professional
standing, and save money. This is the admirable part of
the Jews-of-the-Caribbean reputation, which is quite parallel
to the rise of Jewish Americans from impoverished immigrants to
affluent and influential members of society.
comes in part from envy. Some view the reception Cuban exiles
received from the U.S. government as a form of special treatment.
They believe (perhaps fairly) that the Cubans were accorded this
welcome, among other reasons, because they -- unlike other Caribbean
immigrants -- were mostly white. But primarily the loathing comes
from the perception that Cubans are, as I said, clannish.
There is some truth
in this, as there is when the term is applied to Jews. Beleagured,
a people turn toward one another for help. And, in spite of the
welcome mat spread by Uncle Sam, Cuban exiles felt beleagured;
after all, they had just lost everything. Also, Miami in the early
sixties, although far more tolerant than most of the American
South at the time, was still the South. White Cubans, for the
first time in their lives, had to confront people who did not
think they were white, or at least white enough. Anti-Cuban discrimination
was mild compared to what was experienced by other Latino groups
in places like, say, Texas, where Mexican-American children were
summarily beaten for speaking Spanish in school. But there was
discrimination, and this prompted many Cuban exiles to distrust
anyone other than their own.
is a columnist at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
His essay "Our Mirror, Ourselves: Latino-Made Latino Images
in the Media" appeared in the Summer 1994 isssue of culturefront.
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