The Cracks in the Chain: The Immigration Story of Cuban Americans

“A few months later, they were ready to rent a house in a nice neighborhood in Jersey. The government had helped them out with some emergency funds… Instead of being cramped up in someone else’s apartment with rattling pipes and damp plaster walls that seemed ready to fall in, they had a three-story house with a little yard and lived near many Cubans.” [1]

In Oscar Hijuelos’ short story, “Visitors, 1965,” a young Cuban immigrant named Hector struggles to come to terms with his family’s status in the United States in contrast to his extended family’s. Hector’s father, Alejo, always maintained a certain sense of pride about being the first of his family to make the journey to the United States in the 1920’s, even if that meant working the same job at the same pay for twenty years. Hector’s cousin, Pedro, was able to obtain a job that allowed for him to buy his own home, eventually move to Miami, and acquire the small luxuries that always seemed to evade Hector’s family. While Alejo remained oblivious, his wife Mercedes was all too aware of what her sister gained in the United States that she did not: financial stability, a three-story house, and even a color television. She bemoans, “This country’s wonderful to new Cubans. They’re going to have everything, and we… what will we have?” [2]

Cuban Revolution leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Cuban Revolution leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Cubans have been coming to the United States since at least 1823 and major increases in immigration coincided with political unrest and rebellion in their homeland. While an escape from violence is not unusual for those who immigrated to the United States, the Cuban immigration story is unique because of the hot and cold relationship between the United States and Cuba. This constant fluctuation caused the three main waves of Cuban immigrants to experience differing degrees of hardship and for some to have resentment for those who were successful in the United States. In the 1920’s, only twenty years after independence from Spain, the country was controlled by a repressive dictatorship. Cuban exiles gathered in New York and Miami, just ninety miles away, to find jobs and plot a rebellion. [3] While there was opportunity for upward mobility, many immigrants worked laborious, low-paying jobs regardless of prior experience or education. The next wave occurred in the early 1960’s. Fidel Castro gained power and targeted wealthy businessmen and landowners as political enemies, so they fled to the United States. The class disparity between the first and second waves of Cuban immigration and the welcoming reception put on by the United States government for those escaping Castro allowed greater opportunities for the second wave of immigrants. We see this in Hector’s family in “Vistiors, 1965” as the two waves of immigrants are living together yet experiencing a different America. The third major wave of immigration took place from 1965 to 1973, when Castro allowed those with relatives in the United States to join them via the “Freedom Airlift.” [4] Similar to those who came to the United States in the early sixties, they were somewhat familiar with the American ways of life and they had a large support network among those who had arrived twenty years earlier. Each group of Cubans brought their own emotional baggage and struggles to the United States, but some fared better than others in their new home.

Mercedes and Hector in “Visitors, 1965” both feel a sense of frustration and inferiority when they are forced to face the success of their family, friends, and countrymen who are have followed them to the United States. With these three chains of immigration there were generations of families that were separated for years and united once again in the United States, such as Hector’s family, but it wasn’t always a blissfully happy reunion. The first wave often had to pave the way for their followers in the way of jobs, acceptance from Americans, and how to balance their Cuban heritage with their new way of life. The three waves of Cuban immigrants were not treated equally by the American people or by the Cuban government, thus making it difficult for these compatriots to bond over shared experiences and live the same quality of life in the United States.

143696532_d53bc0d920_mIn 2011, 30,000 Cubans were allowed into the United States under the Cuban Family Reunification Program. [6] Knowing the struggles of their predecessors, can family ties and a shared homeland finally overcome the different immigration stories that have created strife between the generations of Cuban immigrants? With the acceptance of the United States government, how will these new immigrants fare in comparison to their relatives who escaped from Cuba on handmaid rafts in the 1980’s?

[1] Hijuelos, Oscar, “Visitors, 1965,” Face to Face: Readings on Confrontation and Accommodation in America, ed. Joseph Zaitchik, et al. (Houghton Mifflin Company), 235.

[2] Hijuelos, Oscar, “Visitors, 1965,” Face to Face: Readings on Confrontation and Accommodation in America, ed. Joseph Zaitchik, et al. (Houghton Mifflin Company), 236.

[3] “Cuban Immigration,” last modified March 9, 2011, http://immigrationinamerica.org/453-cuban-immigrants.html.

[4] Ibid.

[6] “Immigrant Visas and Cuban Family Reunification Program,” http://havana.usint.gov/immigrant_visas.html.

12 thoughts on “The Cracks in the Chain: The Immigration Story of Cuban Americans

  1. Sammy, this is a really interesting issue that you address. Not only do Cuban immigrants have to face the uncertainty of starting a new life here, they have the added challenge of their family and friends not necessarily welcoming them with open arms. While the government is reforming immigration, I am not confident that the new wave of Cuban immigrants will have an easier time establishing their lives in the US than the waves of the past. Yes, technology is different and can make things better, but it seems like the struggle between the groups still exists. Additionally, the conditions for immigrants are still not ideal so it seems like they may continue to face many of the same challenges of the past.

  2. Sammy and Melissa, you both raise interesting points. From the readings and from your post I get the sense that each generation seems slightly isolated from the rest. Without a deep well of shared experiences to pull from, each immigrant generation needs to create their own path that fits the time and sentiment.

  3. I find the three waves of Cuban immigrants to be so interesting. They all had pretty different reasons for immigrating and were given different opportunities upon arrival. The fact that those who came in later waves were given more support would definitely foster some resentment within the first wave of immigrants, even if they were happy to be reunited with family. This variation in acceptance of various waves of Cubans is also present in the extremes in ways that the US government treated immigrants from all over the world. It seems so dependent on what the political goals of the US are, and what nations we support, as to which immigrant groups are welcomed and assisted and which groups must struggle to find a place here.

  4. This reminds me a lot of “Caroline’s Wedding”. In that story, there were divisions within the same generation, based on where they were born and grew up, while in “Visitors, 1965” there are divisions both between and within generations. Even when people immigrate from the same place, their experiences can be widely different depending on when they arrived. It really shows how the reasons for coming, the political and economic climate, and what assistance they received really affect each individual experience.

    I think the only way to overcome these divisions is a sharing of stories. If people talk openly and honestly about their experiences in a respectful environment, maybe they can start to understand each other and some of the cracks in the chain can be repaired.

    1. I was instantly reminded of Caroline Wedding as well. I think this issue of difference shows the reality of immigration. The effect of the “American dream” are different to every person.

      How can we encourage sharing stories? Should we as museum have an outlet for stories? Can they be anonymous? More stories might show up if they are allowed to be anonymous but might lose the impact.

      1. Matt, your point about sharing stories in a museum setting reminded me a lot of Sarah Pharaon’s talk in Research & Fieldwork. She talked about how sharing stories in museum settings can be really powerful, cathartic experiences and create productive dialogue about topics such as immigration.

    2. This is a really interesting point Emily, and I think this idea of tension between generations of immigrants is somewhat a universal immigrant experience that is manifested in different ways and is a result of different factors. I liked learning about the different waves of Cuban immigrants and how their lives were affected by politics in both their home country and here in the United States.

  5. Sammy, thank you for bringing to light the dynamic between different generations of immigrants. Like some others, this reading reminded me of Caroline’s Wedding. I’m wondering if it also reminded others of “America” from West Side Story? (I love that movie and that song highlights the differing opinions of Puerto Rican immigrants on the U.S.) In this case it is not an intergenerational divide but a gender divide. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy6wo2wpT2k

  6. This is a fascinating look into Cuban immigration. It just reminds me that the “immigrant experience” is not monolithic even within the same culture. My all my college roommates, two of whom were Cuban, often talked about the differences in their immigration stories, which varied greatly depending on when they came and the economic situation of their families. Economic factors are also hugely influential in determining one’s experience in the U.S.. I think the readings really brought that to light this week.

    1. Tori I was thinking a lot of the same things. The immigrant experience while being shared by many people coming from the same geographical space, definitely do not all come with the same experiences. This reminds me a lot of what we talked about regarding Black Feminism and how many African Americans have shared experiences, it is impossible to treat African Americans as a single entity just as it is impossible to treat Cuban Immigrants the same way.

    2. I agree Tori, and I think that economic factors continue to plague several immigrants who make the U.S their home today.

    3. Tori and others who have made the point that immigration is not ubiquitous, hear hear! I think this is one of the main issues surrounding immigration in this country that doesn’t get addressed. The word immigration is used as a catch-all and does not properly express different generations of people moving from all different parts of the world. The only thing they truly share is the search for something new. I saw this firsthand when there was a large wave of Russian Jewish immigrants to Detroit in the early 90’s, including cousins of mine that had been trying to come for decades. While I’ve gotten to see my family’s experience up close, I also had many classmates throughout grade school who arrived at the same time, but other than that and learning English did not have these assumed common experiences, due to their particular family situations.

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