Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Saturday, 3 January 2009

What Cubans brought to Miami

By Emilio San Pedro
BBC News

Like me, all the Cuban children who were born in Miami were taught from the start that we were only here by accident.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel approach a boat of Cuban refugees off the coast of Miami in 1999
The exodus of Cubans to Miami began in 1959 and continues to this day
We were exiles, not emigrants, and we were only going to be here for a brief period.

We were told that, with the help of the United States, Fidel Castro would be taken out of power and things would soon return to normal, whatever that meant in the island's turbulent political reality.

As budding Cuban exiles, it would therefore be our duty to make learning Spanish and adhering to the culture and customs of our parents, a priority. There would be no melting pot for us.

Instead, we lived a very insular life, a Cuban life in the heart of the US. Americans - or los Americanos as we called them in Spanish - were those people we occasionally came into contact with on the street: the teacher in school, the man at the bank or the colourful characters on television.

I remember quite clearly, for example, how at the Cuban-run kindergarten I attended, we would sing the Cuban national anthem every single day and how we spoke much more of Jose Marti - the Cuban national hero - than we ever spoke of the father of the US, George Washington. Even Santa Claus spoke in Spanish when he came to our annual Christmas party.

Taught to question

My life was dominated by Cuba and my father's nemesis: Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro shouting slogans during a ceremony on 26/07/2006 - his last public appearance to date
Fidel Castro retired from official public life in February 2008
He and his friends would spend days on end organising protests and other actions calling for the fall of communism in Cuba.

I can remember watching my father putting the final touches to the homemade layout of the political newspaper he edited, El Nacionalista. I guess you could say he was the old-school version of a modern-day activist blogger.

I have come to the conclusion, decades later, that it was the heated and intense conversations - and the disagreements my father would have with relatives who advocated a different approach towards Cuba - that best prepared me for my future professional career in journalism.

From a very early age I would hear both sides of an argument and then ask questions... and lots of them.

For every Cuban like my father, who was preparing and working for the big day when Cuba would be rid of the "scourge of communism", there were five or six like my mother who worked tirelessly to help put a roof over the family's head and food on our table.

The lofty ideals could not be pursued without someone to do the hard work and earn the much-needed money to help the family get ahead.

Fighting spirit

I spoke to my mother, Amalia, about this intense work ethic that was so integral to her character and to so many of the early generation of exiles. She told me it had been extremely difficult to get used to at first. After all, she had lived a comfortable life in Cuba.

Like most young private school girls, she had learned to sew and knit as a hobby. Little had she imagined back then that her childhood hobby would be the lifeblood of our family during our first decade in the US.

A man crosses the street in Miami holding a painting of Cuban President Fidel Castro that reads: 'Assassin terrorist'.
Beyond the intense politics and the international headlines... lies the story of a proud immigrant community

She told me how she and my father, along with my older brother and sister, had arrived in Miami in 1960 with nothing more than $300-$400 (208-277) and a few suitcases full of clothes and other essentials.

Months later it became clear that the toppling of Fidel Castro would not happen overnight.

With the family's money running out, my mother went out to work in a clothing factory and with that began her life as a working woman.

Today, at the age of 81, she continues to work full-time and has what appears to be an endless reserve of energy.

The blow she suffered with having to flee her homeland and face a much harder new reality as a virtual nobody in a foreign land seems to have brought out in her that fighting spirit that persists to this day.

Proud community

A great deal - much of it negative - has been said about the intensity of Cuban exile politics and the hard anti-Castro line the Cubans in Miami have pursued in their 50 years in the US.

Truth be told, some in the community have carried out questionable actions - including acts of violence - which have helped perpetuate that view of Cubans as intransigent hardliners.

But what I have learned, as someone with a special bird's-eye view into this often complex city, is that beyond the intense politics and the international headlines they have garnered, lies the story of a proud immigrant community.

Over the last 50 years, it has not only made its own huge strides and new life for itself in the US.

In the process, it has helped make Miami the cosmopolitan, international city that it has become.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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