Cuban-Americans in relation to Cuban and U.S. societies

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HAVANA – According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 1 million 884 thousand people of Cuban origin live in the United States. They are usually called “Cuban-Americans” regardless of their legal status or place of birth, although 59 percent of them are immigrants and 775,000 (41 percent) were born in that country. [1]

The concept of Cuban-American transcends what might be considered a more or less arbitrary appellation. Its importance lies in that it reflects a criterion of ethnic identity that resulted from the process of integration of Cuban immigrants to the U.S. society and its reproduction through their descendants.

As Cuban-American researcher Gustavo Pérez Firmat has said, “Being a Cuban in the United States is one thing; being a Cuban-American is something else […] Cuban-American culture has reached a unique configuration that distinguishes it from the Cuban culture on the island and the North American [United States] culture.” [2]

According to studies made early this century by sociologists Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Cuban immigrants and their descendants show a great degree of filiation with the term “Cuban-American,” exceeding even the term “Cuban.” This view is greater among the younger immigrants, which confirms the validity and eventual preservation of the former term. [3]

With respect to U.S. society, Cuban-Americans have gone beyond the stage where it was enough to consider them “émigrés” or “Cuban exiles,” as still defined occasionally by the official discourse. Today they are an integral part of that society and act basically in line with the requirements imposed upon them by that condition.

We are in the presence of a new category of American citizen: the “[North] American of Cuban origin.” In effect, a specific type of American but as American as any other, in accord with the characteristics of a society as diverse and segmented as the U.S. society.

Facing the Cuban society, the Cuban-American presents a new problem for the history of the nation: the existence of Cuban culture at a social scale outside the national territory, expressed through individuals who have adopted another nationality and are formed by the patterns of another culture.

Can a North American be considered a Cuban?

To this question there are no simple answers, primarily because the construction of the Cuban nation has been permeated for the past two centuries by the hegemonic and antinationalist efforts of the United States.

In reality, the transnationalization of the migratory processes has globalized the phenomenon (very common, historically speaking) of the existence of national cultures outside the national territory and their imbrication with the cultures of the host countries, without losing the basic qualities that distinguish them.

However, this is strange for the Cuban society, where the existence of another form of expressing the Cuban culture is inconceivable, as is the presence of a Cuban who is culturally different from those who live in the homeland.

Most Cuban-Americans also reject the view that they are carriers of a different Cuban culture and people on both sides insist that “Cuban culture is only one,” as if diversity were a defect. What’s worst is that this often leads to a sterile struggle regarding the legitimacy of either side, where culture is mistaken for politics. These two phenomena are undoubtedly related but act in different fields.

The defense of Cuban culture against influences that tend to adulterate it does not exclude the appropriation of legitimate contributions from other cultures, much less from those that share roots, as is the case of Cuban-Americans.

The Cuban cultural matrix continues to characterize the Cuban-American individual inside the North American society. It defines his identity as an individual. Therein lies the “Cubanness” of his condition, even if that culture develops in a medium different from Cuba and incorporates attributes that distinguish it from the Cuban culture as it is expressed in the national territory.

Culture is also what brings us together, inasmuch as it keeps Cuban-Americans unavoidably connected with the Cuban society, whatever may be their filial links in the country, the political ideas they profess, or the priorities that result from their conditions of existence.

The Cuban-American identity is a social process in formation, as happens with the Hispanic or Latino identity, and is subject to the mutations imposed upon it by life itself. At present, 21 percent of Cuban-Americans are 18 years old or younger, and 28 percent range in age from 19 to 40, so it is possible to say that almost half of the Cuban-American population is composed of young people whose existential experience is different from that of their elders and their links with Cuba are more diffuse than those of their parents and grandparents.

Some people opine that this must lead to a greater lack of interest in Cuban issues, but this is not what the research reflects, nor does it correspond to the political conduct of these sectors in recent years.

Since 1991, the Cuban Research Institute (CRI) of Florida International University has been conducting surveys about the political inclinations of the Cuban-American community, with an emphasis on the importance they attribute to U.S. relations with Cuba.

According to the latest poll, conducted in 2011, 57 percent of Cuban-Americans backed the possibility that all Americans could travel to Cuba without restrictions; 61 percent opposed the legislative bills aimed at limiting this possibility. This was a majority attitude among those who emigrated after 1994 (76 percent), those between 18 and 44 (74 percent), and U.S.-born descendants of Cubans (72 percent.)

If Obama won about 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote in the last election, it was due to the emergence of these generations in the public arena.

Lacking other explanations, we must assume that the interest in Cuba among the youngest people basically responds to cultural needs related to the very identity of Cuban-Americans, which implies a strategic link with the Cuban society that transcends political junctures and stands as one of the most important problems for the future of our nation.

Because of history’s imperatives and the country’s own needs, Cuba will increasingly need to coexist with the Cubans who populate the world and identify themselves as Cubans, even though many of them can hardly speak any Spanish.

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about the topic of migration that Progreso Semanal/Weekly will publish in the following weeks.]

Progreso Semanal/Weekly authorizes the total or partial reproduction of the articles by our journalists, so long as source and author are identified.

[1] Unless stated otherwise, the data were obtained from the Pew Hispanic Center: “Hispanics of Cuban Origin in the United States,” Washington, D.C., June 27, 2012.

[2] Pérez Firmat, Gustavo: “Vidas en vilo: La cultura cubanoamericana.” [Lives on Hold: Cuban-American Culture] Colibrí Publishers, Spain, 1994, p. 17.

[3] Portes, Alejandro and Rubén G. Rumbaut: Immigrant America, Third edition, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006, Chart 19.

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