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Immigration Puerto Rican / Cuban
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Transforming a City

When they finally arrived in the U.S., Cuban immigrants transformed it in lasting and unprecedented ways. Many Cubans, especially among the earliest groups of immigrants, at first only expected to stay in the U.S. for a short while before the new government was overthrown. With the passing of time, however, some Cuban Americans came to face the possibility that they would not be returning home in the near future, and went about building a new life in their new home.
For the vast majority of Cuban immigrants, that new home was in Florida. Although some Cubans moved to other parts of the U.S., including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Jersey, most stayed in Florida, and most settled in the southernmost large city in the state—Miami. In 1960, the Hispanic population of Miami was 50,000; in 1980, it was 580,000. The new Miamians formed a very close and cohesive community, and they quickly began founding businesses, banks, and Cuban American institutions, as well as finding jobs for later arrivals. By 1970, 50% of Miami hotel staff members were Cuban American, and in 1980 half of all Miami-area construction companies were Cuban-owned.
Cuban immigrants soon gained a reputation for success, in part because of the relative affluence of the first, “golden,” generation. However, most Cuban immigrants faced the same struggles as all other immigrant groups. The arrival of the Marielitos in the 1980s led to a backlash from non-Cuban Miamians, as well as by some more established Cuban Americans. Even the most successful Cubans had to overcome language discrimination and religious intolerance in their time in the U.S.

Today, Miami is not only the capital of Cuban America—it has become a major capital of the Latin American world. Much of the city is bilingual in practice if not by law, boasting major Spanish-language newspapers, television and radio stations, as well as studios that create movies and TV programs for Spanish speakers worldwide. Caribbean and South American nations do business with Cuban American banks and businesses, and Spanish-speaking tourists can feel culturally at home on the streets of Miami. Every year the Calle Ocho festival brings hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world into the streets of the traditional Cuban quarter for a celebration of Cuban heritage.

In the nation overall, Cuban Americans have made a significant impact both politically and culturally. In Florida especially, Cuban immigrants and their descendents have become known for their political activism, whether fighting for better working conditions for farm workers or advocating political change in Cuba. In 1985 Xavier Suárez became the first Cuban American to be elected mayor of Miami, and three years later Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the U.S. Congress.

Cuban artists have also had a profound influence on U.S. culture, as musicians like Celia Cruz and Chano Pozo have brought Cuban dances, from the rumba to the mambo to the conga, onto North America dance floors. One Cuban American bandleader, Desi Arnaz, went on to become the first Latin American to found a television studio, and with his production of “I Love Lucy” helped define the situation comedy as we know it today. Meanwhile, writers such as Cristina Garcia, Reinaldo Arenas, and Oscar Hijuelos have become critical and popular favorites, exploring the richness and complexity of the Cuban American experience as it moves into the next century.

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