Jews of the Carribean

An Article by Enrique Fernández

culturefront online, winter 1997

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.

The loathing 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.

Enrique Fernández 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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