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.