Next weekend marks the 15th anniversary of the Cuba Nostalgia Fair, a three-day event that seeks to bring pre-Castro Cuba to life through a lively combination of art, performances, food and a strong emphasis on Cuba’s pre-revolutionary achievements.
Old stories are swapped, Cuban memorabilia is sold, and younger generations with little or no personal memory of the island are given a crash-course in a feeling that has served as an emotional cornerstone in the history of the Cuban exile community, nostalgia. In fact, the fair is as much a monument to nostalgia and the community that feels it than it is about pre-Castro Cuba.
The reason monuments exist is to pay tribute to that which is past or fading away, to memorialize loss. In the case of Cuba, loss has been a constant in the way that exiles have articulated their relationship to the revolution: the loss of family, homeland, property, and perhaps even innocence. But the fair also functions as a monument to the feeling of loss, a nostalgia for nostalgia, that has historically united the community but has, in recent years, lost traction in an ever-evolving Cuban Miami.
While the Cuban community in Miami has never been a homogenous bloc, drastic demographic, political, and cultural changes have been particularly evident in the last two decades. Those who came to the United States in the early years after the revolution as adults and have the deepest connection to pre-Castro Cuba are fading away. In their place, newer arrivals from the island and U.S.-born Cuban Americans now constitute the majority of the Cuban community in the United States. For these generations, nostalgia for pre-Castro Cuba is less pronounced, if it exists at all.
This generational shift manifests itself in how conversations around Cuba have continued to change in Miami. Polls show that hardline stances toward Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations continue to lose popularity, especially among younger Cubans. Recent political contests have demonstrated an erosion of the once dependable Cuban-American Republican vote. Turn on the television or radio in Miami and you’ll find that while Cuba remains a central topic, the tone has moderated considerably.
I do not, of course, mean to suggest that nostalgia will disappear. In fact, one of the primary missions of the Cuba Nostalgia Fair is to educate younger generations and preserve nostalgia in the face of generational shifts.
On the surface, that education explicitly signals teaching a history of pre-revolutionary Cuba that most academics would agree leaves out some of the less than rosy details of this period in Cuban history. But underneath the history communicated by vendors selling memorabilia, exhibitions by knowledgeable docents, and colorful posters covered with fun facts about Cuba, there is an education about how to feel about Cuba, a sense of nostalgic pride communicated not only in what is being said but how these stories are packaged.
A proud grandfather uses his cane to point out the street he lived on to his grandchildren while standing on a massive map of 1943 Havana that covers the convention center floor. A grandmother in a wheelchair gushes as she reminisces about the magnificence of El Encanto—a department store in Havana represented at the fair by ex-employees. Nimble octogenarians show off their dance moves while songs of their youth fill the air.
Nostalgia, then, is not only for those who lived in Cuba before Castro. It is a kind of Cuban exile patrimony that the fair seeks to pass on to younger generations. On this, the 15th year of the Cuba Nostalgia Fair, we have the opportunity to reflect not only on the past — nostalgia’s obvious reference point — but the future of nostalgia in a Cuban Miami at a cultural and political crossroads.
Albert Laguna is assistant professor of ethnicity, race & migration and American Studies at Yale University. Cuba Nostalgia will be held Friday-Sunday at the Miami-Dade County Fair-Expo Center, Coral Way & 112th Avenue.