Exiles become the insiders in the Cubanization of Miami

January 16, 1994|By Melita Marie Garza | Melita Marie Garza,Chicago Tribune

Title: "City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami"

Authors: Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick

Publisher: University of California Press

Length, price: 282 pages, $35

The sign outside the Caballero Woodlawn funeral home in Miami says the business was founded in 1857, almost 40 years before Miami was a city. The sign is, nonetheless, accurate. The funeral home was founded 136 years ago -- 90 miles away, in Cuba.

The mortuary sign, pictured in "City on the Edge," is but one example of the Cubanization of a U.S. city that, until the 1960s, was little more than a sleepy retirement and tourist community, its economy based chiefly on sunshine, but since has been transformed into the "Capital of the Caribbean."

The sociologist authors, Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick, professors at Johns Hopkins University and Florida International University, respectively, take readers on a journey that begins in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon met American Indians at the mouth of the Miami River. The story continues on to attempts in the early 20th century to build an agriculture and tourist trade.

Miami's development had little to do with the economic geography of railroad hubs and water routes and a great deal to do with political geography -- the area's old Spanish influence, its long tradition as a backdrop for political events in Cuba and its suitability as a staging area for U.S. intervention in Central America.

This is primarily a story of assimilation and power as the immigrant Cubans tried to build a community alongside U.S.-born blacks, newly arrived Haitians and Nicaraguans, and the established white elite.

The Cuban exiles were privileged because the U.S. government viewed them not as an "ethnic" group but as a foreign policy tool in the battle against Castro and communism in Latin America.

Although they were viewed as allies in Washington's battle for hemispherical hegemony, in Miami they were viewed as a threat to domesticwhite hegemony.

In fact, the authors contend, it was the Anglos' drive for control of Miami, resulting in Dade County's 1980 English-only law, that catalyzed the Cuban-American community and directly led to its development as a domestic political force.

The law, which Hispanics widely viewed as a hate ordinance, was repealed in 1993.

This turn of events, the authors say, follows the pattern of immigrant assimilation outlined by political scientist Robert A. Dahl.

His study of immigrant Irish, Jews and Italians in New Haven, Conn., found that ethnic solidarity was the driving force for their political mobilization. But after successfully elbowing their way into the American political fold to take their place among the ruling WASP society, these ethnic voices gradually joined the mainstream.

Unfortunately, the authors say, the common view of assimilation, promoted by former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm in his book "The Immigration Time Bomb," reverses the order, placing acculturation before social acceptance.

Mr. Lamm says immigrants must lose their cultural diversity and ethnic pride before they can participate in the institutions of U.S. society, but the opposite has often been the case, and not only in New Haven.

The pattern has been repeated among the Irish of Boston, the Italians and Jews of New York, the Poles of Chicago and now, thanks to the English-only movement, the Cubans of Miami.

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