Don’t erase the history of the Cuban American

Ana Villafañe stars as singer Gloria Estefan, who tells her story of being a Cuban immigrant in the Broadway musical On Your Feet!
Ana Villafañe stars as singer Gloria Estefan, who tells her story of being a Cuban immigrant in the Broadway musical On Your Feet! AP

Damnatio memoriae, or the official condemnation of memory, was the punishment that the ancient Roman Senate imposed on rulers or important leaders whom they decided to dishonor. The “condemned” would be erased from portraits, murals, statues or any other object in which his memory was preserved. This punished the behavior or rebellion of the condemned, allowing a new ruler to consolidate power.

This destruction of memory has occurred throughout history. Stalin, for example, erased from photos those who fell out of favor and eliminated any reference to them in any documents. Trotsky is one example. Dictators such as the Castro brothers in Cuba create an “official” version of history and wipe out any trace of accomplishments of those who oppose them.

Many Cubans and Cuban Americans are treated as “nonpersons” by the Castro government, which demonizes, abuses and, in many cases, erases them from history.

Outstanding Cubans such as award-winning journalist Yoani Sanchez and brilliant dissident Antonio Rodiles are not only abused; they are ignored. It is common to hear those who visit Cuba often, say, “No one knows Yoani in Cuba,” which is precisely what the government wants to communicate. Cuban exiles opposed to the Castro dictatorship have been “erased” through censorship or portrayed as the “right-wing Cuban Mafia.” This constant disparagement of Cuban Americans is what made it possible for Carnival to initially “forget” or treat Cuban-born U.S. citizens as “nonpersons” when it planned to accept the Cuban government’s discriminatory policies.

Many Cuban Americans worry that Raúl Castro is trying to erase their history. Also, since Americans are anxious to taste the formerly forbidden fruit of exotic Cuba, it is now fashionable and acceptable to ignore the culture and contributions of Cuban Americans to U.S. society. An example of the results was the Miami-based “dialogue” of Cuban artists and art experts at PAMM, a symposium in which many of the most prominent Miami-based Cuban-American artists and experts who openly oppose the Castro government were not guest speakers.

It is also unlikely that Cuban-American organizations and intellectuals who criticize the Cuban dictatorship will benefit from grants to foment exchange with Cuban artists and cultural leaders. The Cuban government would not even allow them to participate in the exchanges. These Cuban Americans are “nonpersons” not only to the Cuban government but, even worse, to our own government and foundations.

A free media must play a role in ensuring that the history and contributions of Cuban Americans, especially to Miami, are not erased from history. As newspapers and magazines lose circulation, cut expenses, eliminate local journalists, the story of Cuban Americans will be told by those who shaped it. Facts About Cuban Exiles published Cubans: The Epic Journey in English and Spanish. Its editors and authors include former Miami News editor, Howard Kleinberg and other respected journalists and experts.

This book preserves and analyzes the history of Cuban Americans. The University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection, the UM Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and the upcoming Cuban Museum will also continue to make significant contributions. They deserve our support.

Cuban Americans have been instrumental in transforming Miami into an international city. They continue to serve this country, pay taxes, create successful businesses, employ people, donate to museums, lead colleges, build architecturally renowned buildings, edit newspapers, transform Miami into a technology center, write books, run banks, inspire a successful Broadway play, lead governments, make movies, write poetry, win Grammys and more.

It is also up to local mainstream museums and organizations that receive public funds and donations from Cuban Americans to prominently and more frequently feature their culture and history in exhibitions and conferences. The History Miami museum’s Pedro Pan and PAMM’s Carlos Alfonzo ceramic artwork exhibitions are great examples of why these stories are worth telling.

Aida Levitan is president of The Levitan Group, Inc., a Miami-based consulting firm.