In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: In international spotlight, Miami begs definition

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself....” – Joan Didion in The White Album, a portrait of 1970s California.

One of the shrewdest observers of our times, writer Joan Didion may have belonged to California, but she went on to become a New Yorker — and that road inevitably led her to Miami.

It has been almost three decades since Didion came to town, and with the meticulousness of an anthropologist, examined our changing demographics, our tense community relations, and what was then the growth story of the day — the overdevelopment of Kendall.

But when Didion wrote her bestseller, Miami, she honed in on one story: the effervescence of Cuban Miami.

With so many new plot lines now and a Cuban-American establishment that’s mainstream and as dispersed and entrenched as the Irish in Boston, the question is: To whom does/will Miami belong?

I’m not trying to stir up trouble in our civic waters. But a convergence of events made me return to Didion and the meticulousness with which she dissected that Miami.

It feels as if this too is a moment that begs some definition, like those heady times in the late 1980s when the nation’s top writers came to take our temperature.

Not then — and certainly not now — are we an easy measure, but something’s afoot.

Old and new friends announce that they’re leaving the assured blizzards of the northeast for the hyped-but-seldom-arriving hurricanes of South Florida.

They belong to that desirable intellectual, creative class that’s driving our newfound cachet and part of the growth.

“We’re dreaming of coming home….” the old friend writes.

The phrase sticks with me. She’s not originally from here, but she lived and worked in Miami during that heady time Didion captured.

“Havana vanities come to dust in Miami,” Didion famously began our tale.

White flight was in full swing, but my friend learned Spanish, got to know Cubans in a deeper way than most. She has lived expansively in New York and abroad — yet she calls Miami home.

Same week, a French journalist calls.

The French are publishing Tom Wolfe’s book about Miami and he wants to know what Miami’s art world thinks about Wolfe’s Miami of Russian mafia goons, forged artworks and hot Cuban lovers.

I tell him I love Wolfe’s other work, but I’ve only read a few pages of Back to Blood and I blame the obnoxious voice of the newspaper editor in the beginning.

I deliver what has become my standard line: “Miami is complex.”

But my tongue gets the best of me: “This city will swallow even the finest out-of-towners and make them churn out caricature.”

Joan Didion got Miami because she knew how to own a place, how to capture the pathos of a historic moment, one that merits revisiting any day.

Her Miami, our Miami, is ever-changing, and for the time being, the moment feels like the proverbial pregnant pause.

It may not matter to whom Miami belongs. What matters is that we’re here, hellbent on loving it.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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