To live in the capital of an exile population is a strange experience. The people who belong to that population are here, but a part of each of them is not here. Each has a separate existence in a version of their homeland that exists in their memories, their imaginations, their longings. They are people with two existences, and the world that exists only in their minds and hearts is often much more real to them than the place they happen to live in at the moment. That gives exile capitals an extra layer of life, as if a land of the imagination floats above or next to a real place and there are certain beings who commute between the two.
Miami and its surrounding towns and cities are certainly the capital of the Cuban exile world. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have shown up here in the 63 years since Fidel Castro and his band took over in Cuba. Some flew from the island –with permission or without. Others left on ramshackle rafts and were swept to Florida by the Gulfstream current, while others have been smuggled to Mexico or Central America and then made their way to the U.S. border. Under a law written especially for Cuban exiles, they are legally in the U.S. and allowed to stay the moment they step on U.S. soil. Life changes radically with one stride.
They come but they don’t leave Cuba behind. The older Cubans who have been here for all those decades will still talk about the old Cuba, before Castro. It is as if they are speaking about the mythical island continent of Atlantis, which sank into the ocean and took with it a wondrous civilization that had never been seen before and has not existed since. Atlantis was run by magicians, but still has nothing on the old Cuba, which, according to those Miami accounts, was a rapturous place full of magical musicians, gorgeous dancing girls, sexy casino life, a landscape and beaches right out of heaven, the sweetest of sea breezes, and food and drink that tasted better than anywhere else in the universe, including heaven.
The loss of that paradise has created a sadness and anger that is major element in the air we breathe here in Miami. There is, of course, plenty of Cuban music, and the delicious aroma of Cuban coffee and of Cuban food. We hear outbursts of super-fast, excited, guttural Cuban Spanish and, of course, our share of wicked Cuban laughter.
But we go through moments where the two worlds –real and longed for –collide and that anger and/or sadness is thicker than usual. The most famous such passage was the 2000 controversy surrounding a six-year old boy named Elian Gonzalez. He, his mother and about a dozen other people had tried to reach Florida from Cuba in a small boat. The boat sank, his mother and most the others drowned and the boy was found at sea floating in an inner tube, a bit like the baby Moses floating down the river in the reed basket. In the case of this Cuban boy, he had a father back in Cuba who wanted him and many non-exiles supported the claims of the father. But distant relatives in Miami, backed by many highly emotional members of the Cuban exile community, said his mother had given her life to reach exile and that made her child one of them. Since exile is a whole other state of being, he was like a boy with dual natures and both sides fought for him. Anger and outrage exploded all around you in Miami in those days and at all hours. The two distinct species of Miamians who live here – those who are exiles and everyone else—were speaking two totally different emotional languages and couldn’t understand each other at all. A few months later the boy was returned to his father by the U.S. government, but even today, twelve years later, people can still get into bitter arguments over that outcome and they still speak two different languages.
I thought of that time recently because I saw a picture of Elian, now 18 or so, and still living and going to school in Cuba. Just a kid, he has become a symbol of the dual nature of Miami and of the Cuban people. He always had an elfin quality to him and he still has it now, a light in his amused eyes as if he really is comfortable with both natures, with belonging to both worlds, and is immune to and amused by the controversy.
Seeing him made me think about the fact that the exiles who actually lived in Cuba before coming here will eventually die off. Then the hands-on experience of it will be gone and all that will remain are legends of a magical, imaginary place – just like Atlantis. I wonder if all, or at least most, of that sadness and anger of exile will dissipate too.