Microhistory and Cuba

Wade's World

Pearl River      Cuba holds a complicated place in the domestic and international space.  It’s food and beaches are huge attractions for Canadians and Europeans, but for more than fifty years the island has existed as contested ground in the United States.  Even now with one Cold War over and one seeming to advance rapidly, Cuba, when it comes to mind outside of south Florida, and perhaps even increasingly there, is part of the ongoing legacy of fifty years gone by.  President Obama came closest to opening the doors.  Midwestern farmers support the market there for their grain.  More families can visit.  Visits are less impossible.  Still, the sanctions continue, and the embargo is enforced.  Once upon a time, change seemed possible to some once Fidel Castro, revolutionary leader and long-time governmental power, passed on, but that didn’t happen.  Republican or Democratic presidents come and go, but no one wants to spend any political capital on an island neighbor, out of sight, out of mind.

For an exile, memories and dreams still persist.  Lisandro Perez has been a professor at City University of New York (CUNY) for decades, but still remembers his family’s move to the US when he was 11 in the 1950s, as an early part of the exodus of many middle- and upper-class Cubans who fled the clouds forming around the revolution.  Talking to him recently on Wade’s World, he clearly debated at length whether to record his memories of the time even now when writing The House on G Street:  A Cuban Family Saga He went forward because he believed there is an intrinsic value is something he calls “microhistory,” which allowed him to embed family history in the context of contemporary events to amplify and explain them more fully, even personally.  That’s interesting to me.

Normally, reading about the grand family house and the weekly dinners that gathered the clan, the times at the club, the private school, the trips to the US, and the importance of learning English would feel offensive when juxtaposed against the poverty and exploitation of the people by US and other colonial interests, but Perez presents it all with an even, even critical, hand, even as he cherishes his memories.  That’s not an easy trick to pull off.  The House on G Street helps.  As much as he loves that house, he also is unabashedly happy that it has survived as a public daycare center, especially since so many other properties have deteriorated or been demolished.

I can also remember the times of Cuban exile.  Miami and south Florida were the epicenter certainly, but New Orleans also had a wave of Cubans arrive.  As a port city, we were often a waystation for exiles and immigrants from around Latin American, though not Mexico until after Katrina.  The city had been a center of some of the historic revolutionary anti-colonial intrigue though in Cuba and Mexico, but didn’t end up polarized on the issue in the way it has been a third rail in Miami politics over these decades.

Families aren’t historic per se, even though they are so deeply our history and shape us in ways large and small forever.  Perez brings humility and grace to a hard story to tell, and should make us all wonder about our own families and how they have navigated the change and turmoil of our times.