Cuban-Jewish Journeys
Searching for Identity, Home, and History in Miami

in Spanish

CAROLINE BETTINGER-LOPEZ

By Ron Beasley

Caroline Bettinger-Lopez decided to take a close look at Miami's Cuban Jewish community as part of her college senior thesis. The project evolved into a book that will be released in October and set her on a career path to become an immigration lawyer.

Bettinger-Lopez, a Pinecrest native and 1994 graduate of Palmetto Senior High School, said the idea for her book -- Cuban Jewish Journeys: Searching for Identity, Home and History in Miami materialized near the end of her junior year at the University of Michigan.

"I was an anthropology major and in my junior year I became interested in looking at issues of identity, community and culture," she said. "I decided that an interesting place to look at this would be the Cuban community of Miami.

"The Cuban Jewish community for me had personal significance," she continued. "I grew up Jewish and I found it fascinating that there was this community that I had never heard of. Growing up in South Miami, the Pinecrest area, I never knew that there were Cuban Jews and that there were two Cuban synagogues on Miami Beach, really three."

Bettinger-Lopez began canvassing Little Havana and Miami Beach, interviewing people, sampling opinion, and gathering information. She says she talked with hundreds of people representing a broad, diverse cross-section of the community.

"What this project became for me was an ethnographic portrait of a community which is at most about 40 years old," she explained, "a community that I never knew about, but one that was right in my back yard. I wanted to reflect the different perspectives of different members within the community.

"I wanted to show perspectives on women's roles and how traditional Jewish culture or Cuban culture might influence something such as women's roles or the role of the child; how these influences come into somebody's life and how they might influence you, especially depending on age and when you came to this country, if you were born here or what generation American you are. These issues became the overriding framework of this book."

As a college thesis, Bettinger-Lopez' work won two honors awards and her professors encouraged her to publish it as a book. She says several publishers expressed an interest, but she decided on University of Tennessee Press, which will release the 300-plus-page book in October.

As a result of her work on the book, Bettinger-Lopez became intensely interested in immigration issues. Upon finishing college, she worked for a year with AmeriCorps as a student victim advocate at Miami Beach Senior High, then worked with the Miami-Dade guardian ad litum program for abused children and last year taught school in Haiti.

"I taught kids who came from the poorest areas of Haiti, but who were academically gifted," she said. "From that I developed an attitude that we really need to reach out and I felt the necessity to be a part of human rights, the community and really try to be helping."

Bettinger-Lopez and her husband Sean will move to New York this month where she will enroll in Columbia Law School.

"Really, because of this book I became interested in human rights and immigration issues, the rights of immigrants when they reach American soil," she said. "So, I'm going to law school."