Fabiola Santiago

On visits to Cuba, Congressman Rivera needs to get a grip

I don’t remember his name or his movie, but I remember the misguided words of the visiting Cuban filmmaker showing his film at the Tower Theater in Little Havana.

Pondering his future, he told me that if he stayed in the United States — which he could readily do given the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 that gives Cubans that privilege — he was moving to New York.

There was nothing unusual about that desire. Many Cubans before him have chosen to pursue their dreams elsewhere, but then the young man felt compelled to add, disdain oozing from his voice: “Miami is a cemetery of Cuban artists.”

At the moment, I wanted to use the jargon of his contemporaries and respond: “ Ubícate, compadre.”

That nifty u-word is akin to “get a grip on reality,” and it’s used by Cubans on the island to bring down to earth someone who doesn’t quite grasp his situation, or get the big picture.

It’s a useful addition to the Miami lexicon, brought by the latest generations to flee from Cuba in the past couple of decades. Theirs is the language of survival, and verbs are crude and to the point: resolver (to make do), desmayar (literally to faint, but used to signal to someone that it’s time to get off a problematic topic).

I bring up all this to illustrate the cultural and political divide between generations of Cuban exiles that has led to the move, once unthinkable, by Miami Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera to sponsor a bill aimed at curtailing the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The adjustment act was enacted to ensure legal status, after one year of living here, to Cubans fleeing the Castro regime. Rivera’s bill would keep Cubans from visiting the island during the first five years of arrival, or risk losing residency.

The change doesn’t sound that ominous, but at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment in this country runs at an all-time high, Rivera is playing a dangerous political game. The entire adjustment act could end up reformed or revoked and the victims of the dictatorship left unprotected.

Recent arrivals don’t want to suffer the family separation that the early exiles endured, so they travel to Cuba to see their relatives as soon as they can, and take with them all the goods and supplies they can legally carry. Whether it helps the regime or not, their motivation is to help family, and that’s not a crime.

Certainly not enough reason to reform a unique protection Cubans obtained to assuage some of the damage U.S. intervention (or lack thereof) caused. Neither is the new arrivals’ lack of political sophistication.

That afternoon with the Cuban filmmaker, I was stunned that someone whose artistry is supposed to enlighten could be that frivolous, but I also understand the displaced.

I’ve reported on every Cuban exodus since Mariel, and listened for three decades to people struggle with old ideas and a new reality, witnessed the internal dialogue to decide whether to stay and wrestle the system from inside or flee and save their families. I’ve also seen views mature, shaped by life in an open society, but only when people like Rivera don’t make them feel like pariahs and enact polices that drive them underground.

My advice to the congressman: Ubícate, compadre.