Miami turns the world into the local

Divisions: Miami wants to lead the way to multinational harmony as the city of the future, but now foreign policy is overshadowing the common ground.

May 07, 2000|By Yves Colon

MIAMI - Miami likes to call itself America's city of the future because of its ethnic diversity. Minorities are the majority, with Anglos - as whites are called down here - making up less than a third of the population. Cuban-Americans rise to the top of this ethnic mix, firmly in control of the city's political, economic and cultural life.

That promise of the model city crumbled right before the eyes of the rest of the country after federal marshals snatched Elian Gonzalez from the Little Havana home of his Miami relatives to reunite him with his father.

Instead of a community where minorities coexist peacefully and productively, the world saw a deeply divided city where Cuban-Americans fought to keep the 6-year-old boy in the United States while a majority of whites and African-Americans believe he should be with his father.

It's not the first time this city's voices have produced such dissonance.

Miami is like a cake whose ingredients don't mix, each group a layer joined only by the sweet, thin frosting. There is no common story all Miamians can refer to, no touchstone.

There is the myth that Cuba was perfect 40 years ago, that Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the savior of Haiti after years under the Duvaliers' dictatorship. There is nothing like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. The myths, whether of Toussaint L' Ouverture or Jose Marti, were born elsewhere, then brought to Miami, where they continue to live in the minds of the people who came with them.

In those minds, Miami has always been a stopover, a place to plot and scheme until things are right back home.

Older Cubans talk of the day communism falls and they can return. Similar conversations are taking place on Creole-language radio stations and among Colombians who have settled in Miami after fleeing war in their homeland. In the past, the same sentiments were heard among Nicaraguans waiting out the Sandinista regime.

In that great cake baked in the sun and sand, Haitians are the bottom layer, black and poor, uneducated and Creole speaking. Coming from a country with a shameful record on education, they don't understand Cuban-Americans' visceral hatred of Castro's Cuba, where everyone gets access to education and health care.

They wish Haiti had Cuba's problems.

Like many Haitian-Americans in this town, I favored reuniting Elian with his father. But I don't dismiss Cubans' pain and anger.

It was with a heavy heart that I watched this city and the people I've come to care for torn in such a way. The images of violent clashes between street demonstrators and police were the most disturbing. Certainly, they made great television footage.

What the cameras failed to show, though, are the fractures that are showing up all over the city, inside families, among friends and neighbors.

The Hispanic mayor fired the Jewish city manager for not giving him a heads-up about the raid. The Anglo police chief resigned in protest. Labels of Miami as a "banana republic" are popping up everywhere. People are actually driving by city hall and tossing out bananas.

"We're the laughingstock of the world," City Commissioner Arthur Teele told his colleagues.

It's those "crazy Cubans" down there, America shrugs as it watches a massive protest against the federal government, with thousands waving Cuban flags. Anglos mounted their own demonstration, with some protesters flying the Confederate flag. Given the choice that Saturday, I'd prefer to be with the crazy Cubans.

As a Haitian-American, I belong to a minority within the minorities. The city's promise of diversity is what attracted my family from the heartland seven years ago. The parents of racially mixed boys, we wanted our children to grow up in a place where they would be among people who look like them, a place where they could experience life beyond the boundaries of just black and white.

What we found is a place that is constantly reinventing itself, from America's playground in the 1950s to the new Casablanca in the 1980s, to America's Riviera now. It's an exciting city where foreign policy is a local issue.

In Baltimore, as in other parts of the country, people rally around local issues such as trash in the streets, crime fighting and test scores.

In Miami, it's the embargo against Cuba and immigration policy that heat people up.

The world lands at our doorstep. This week, for example, three men accused of running guns from south Florida to the Irish Republican Army are on trial in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom. In 1998, the first suspected Basque terrorist captured in the United States turned out to be a mild-mannered car salesman for Toyota of Homestead in Dade County.

What one thinks about Cuba, of course, is the great litmus test. A decade ago, Hispanic leaders snubbed former South African President Nelson Mandela during a visit to Miami because he had never repudiated Castro, still a raw nerve 40 years later. Miami Beach ended up paying the price when African-Americans led a tourism boycott.

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