For exiled Cubans, a mix of pain, nostalgia, hope

 

fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

For Cuban exiles, people who left it all behind and started their lives anew, el exilio is a foster fatherland, a waiting room and safe haven to collectively yearn for a free Cuba.

The wait for the end of Fidel Castro's regime stretched into a half century in which Cuban exiles built a city with the blueprint of their transplanted memories. They couldn't carry Havana, Varadero or Pinar del Río in their sparse luggage, but they could replicate their essence in virtually every corner of a sleepy tourist town ripe for the makeover.

El exilio became synonymous with Miami, the undisputed capital of the Cuban exile, the largest Cuban enclave outside of Havana. It's a bittersweet story of sorrow and triumph, a catalog of obstacles and accomplishments in the shadow of a homeland that is only about a 30-minute plane ride from Miami, yet so far from reach. It makes the Cuban exodus an immigrant experience like no other in America.

Nearly two million Cubans have fled the island since Castro's revolution triumphed in 1959. More than 850,000 Cubans now live in Greater Miami and Broward County. About 250,000 live in the New Jersey/New York area, the second largest U.S. enclave. Thousands more are scattered throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The rest settled in Latin America and Europe.

For most, el exilio has been a never-ending chain of family separation and reunion, a symphony of pain, nostalgia and esperanza, hope.

Every exodus -- Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s, the Camarioca boatlift in 1965, the Freedom Flights from 1965 through 1973, the Mariel boatlift of 1980, the thousands of rafters who risked their lives on the Florida Straits in the summer of 1994, the defectors, the artists and intellectuals and the visiting relatives who stayed, the immigration agreements and lottery that provided visas, the cigarette boats overloaded by smugglers so prevalent today -- set in motion the next wave.

One relative brought another and another in a sequence of tearful goodbyes on one side of the Florida Straits and tearful reunions on the other.

Industrial and entrepreneurial, the early exiles began to set down roots after the defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. From their efforts to rebuild rose Calle Ocho and southwest Miami, nicknamed la sagüesera, a Cuban flair that later extended throughout South Florida. Their economic success was unprecedented, and today, Cuban Americans are among the wealthiest Hispanics in the United States.

''Most of the Cuban exiles who came to the United States in the 1960s had skills and qualifications, which made it easier for them to adapt economically,'' says Lisandro Pérez, a Cuban-American sociologist at Florida International University.

``It was a migration of the country's elite. Those who left were already very successful; they had experience with the capitalist system in prerevolutionary Cuba and had already conducted trade with the United States. Also, the dynamics of Miami played an important role in the Cuban immigrant experience. It was a relatively small town, and there were plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs.''

MARIEL EXODUS

Other waves of exiles built upon that success.

Although at first the more than 125,000 refugees who arrived during the five-month Mariel boatlift of 1980 sent an already beleaguered Miami into a social and economic crisis, they also adapted and infused the region with an added layer of Cuban culture.

So did the 35,000 balseros -- rafters -- who left Cuba during the 1990s, and the scores of intellectuals who fled in more recent years with work contracts via Madrid, Mexico, Paris and Buenos Aires and eventually ended up here.

Out of the exiles' sense of loss, a tapestry of all things Cuban was draped over Greater Miami. Cuban culture is thickest in municipalities like Hialeah, where West 46th Place is Cuban Cultural Heritage Boulevard and West 47th Place proclaims ''Añorada Cuba Boulevard,'' Cuba of Our Yearning Boulevard.

It's shared over a cup of café cubano in places like the restaurant Versailles, where the Castro regime is scorned by the knots of Cubans who mill there well into the dawn hours. The restaurant is a hub of cubanía where you find shoulder-to-shoulder former batistianos -- who once supported dictator Fulgencia Batista -- disenchanted fidelistas and recently arrived dissidents.

''El exilio is a land that exists in Miami. The rest of us live as Cubans in the United States,'' says Silvia Pedraza, a Michigan sociologist who left Cuba as a child in 1961. She spends some summers in Miami, nurturing her intellectual interest in exile as well as getting ''my dose of culture,'' which remains fresh because every wave brings to Miami new art, new literature, new slang, an updated version of cubanía.

Through it all, there has been but one hope -- a free Cuba. Each New Year's Eve, while in Havana the government hailed another year of the Castros in power, in Miami's Cuban-exile homes a toast was made, a pledge renewed: ``El año que viene en Cuba.''

Next year in Cuba.

The next year often brought new upheaval on the island -- but not its democratization. More often than not, after an economic crisis threatened the end of the Castros' regime, the new year brought another exodus.

`OUR DAY IS COMING'

After the fall of communism in Europe in 1989, singer Willy Chirino summed up the exiles' euphoric hopes in a song that trumpeted ``nuestro día viene llegando'' -- our day is coming.

Some exiles packed their bags; some even put their houses up for sale. But the years passed and brought not the end of Castro's rule, but more refugees, another wave of people who left it all behind to start all over again -- in Miami, city of exiles, city of one dream, one longing.

Today, another Castro is in power. Still, Miami's Cubans never give up their stubborn hope. Chirino's song never goes out of style, and to this day, Miami sings: ``Ya viene llegando'' -- the day is coming.

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