Over the past several election cycles, whenever discussion turns to Florida, talking heads can’t help but drift to the topic of the Cuban American vote in Miami. I used to be part of this vote, but my out-of-state move has me playing a new role in every election: that of an unofficial Get-Out-the-Vote advocate to a dozen or so very disillusioned Cuban voters, the two of most immediate concern being my parents.
Months before Donald Trump secured the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, signs dotted lawns all over Miami-Dade County proclaiming “This is Rubio Country.” These signs might as well have just said, “A Cuban American family lives here.” Even if they weren’t exactly fans of Rubio, for many Miami Cubans the prospect raised in the Republican primary of having an American president of Cuban descent was too inspiring not to embrace. (Ted Cruz, of course, didn’t count.) Let Puerto Ricans have the first Latinx Supreme Court Justice; us Cubans would go down in history as being the first Latinx Americans to make it all the way to the White House.
Because they rarely leave Miami, people like my parents took the literal signs in support of Rubio as a figurative one that he would win the Republican primary. As early primary states started coming in for Trump, my parents kept saying, How is this happening? Who are these people voting for this clown? Trump’s robocalls saying, quite literally, “Don’t vote for a Cuban,” were working. Then it was Florida’s turn.
The electoral map of the Florida primary results showed the peninsula as a solid Trump red, punctuated by a big blue dot at its end—Miami-Dade County, self-proclaimed Rubio Country. (The image of that spot of blue at the bottom of the state prompted a slew of jokes on social media about Rubio getting “just the tip.”) Gone was one version of a historical run at the presidency—one many Cubans were hoping to see.
For years I’d bemoaned the fact that my parents were largely one-issue voters: the issue being a candidate’s stance on Cuba and the embargo, since anything directly or indirectly supporting the Castro government was out of the question. But I embraced this tendency once Trump locked down the nomination, urging them to please vote for one reason and one reason only: to prevent a Trump presidency. This urging, though, began before we knew for sure who I’d have to beg them to vote for.
Brave is the daughter who tries to convince her Cuban parents to vote for any Clinton. “I can’t vote for that man’s wife,” my mother told me after saying she was considering not voting at all. Many Cubans (my parents included) hate Bill Clinton for several reasons, the most relevant one in this instance being that he was president when the Elián González deportation saga occurred. The Clinton administration is, in the minds of many Cuban Americans of my parents’ generation, solely to blame for the decision to send six-year-old González back to Cuba several months after he was rescued from a broken raft floating in the Florida Straits.
Many speculate it cost Al Gore the election. In March 2000, then mayor Alex Penelas described Gore’s connection to the decisions surrounding Elián as “guilt by association” and warned that Miami’s Cuban population would hold the Clinton Administration responsible should González be sent back. He was right: 81 percent of the Cubans in Florida voted for Bush in 2000. Many of those Cubans saw themselves in Elián, in his story, in his mother’s wish to build what she hoped would be a better life for them in the United States. She drowned in the crossing.As 2016 wore on I heard from more and more friends back home that their parents weren’t voting. We were afraid their apathy would translate into a Trump win.
Historically, much of this hatred originated with the Kennedy Administration, which many Cubans blame for the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. This blame eventually translated into a general distrust of the Democratic Party—a feeling that was fading with voters my parents’ age until Elián’s deportation reinvigorated it, spawning a new generation of one-issue voters. (In December 2000, during my annual checkup while I was home from college, my doctor—a Cuban man in his early fifties—showed me a framed photo of a banner he and other men had hung off a Miami expressway overpass. It read, Thank you, Elián. We remembered in November.)
Elián’s deportation reignited that grudge, mobilizing Cuban Americans to go out and vote against Gore. This grudge, I learned from my mom and others, now extended to Hillary. Over the phone, I told her, “Mom, you have to vote for her, you can’t not vote, it’s too dangerous.”
As light-skinned Cuban Americans based in Miami, we’d always had the privilege of being able to vote, perhaps in part because my parents’ demographic historically tended to vote with the party currently most interested in voter suppression. My parents have never struggled to vote or to register to vote in all the time they’ve been American citizens—a privilege denied darker Americans since this country’s beginnings, and which continues to this day. My own difficulties registering to vote only occurred when I moved to Tallahassee (where some supposed mix up with my social security number got me temporarily kicked off the voter rolls), but this administrative hurdle was nothing compared to the extent of voter suppression impacting black and brown Americans. We had the privilege of not (yet) doubting whether or not we’d be allowed to vote, should we choose to do so.
“I can’t believe Marco Rubio actually endorsed what’s-his-face,” my mom said, Trump having taken on Voldemort status for us. “I hate Marco Rubio now. He didn’t show up for things because he was too busy running for president and then he gave that up. He didn’t do his job.”
“But you have to do your job,” I said, skirting the cheesiness of that segue. She caught it, though, and made a farting sound with her mouth. When Obama was running for president, my sister and I both made calls on his behalf using the tools he provided on his website; we were using those skills, however rusty, on her, and she knew it.
I told her to think of a vote for Hillary Clinton as a vote for herself, for all the times in her life when a man with less experience or training ended up as her boss. I asked her to think of it as a vote for me, or for my sister—two women whose commitment to their careers had sometimes caused conflict with the men in their lives. I told her a story about my old job, how a more qualified woman had been passed over for department chair in favor of a man who’d once referred to her as “the old girl” in a department meeting—this happening while she was serving as assistant chair.
I kept stories like this coming (any woman reading this and/or that you know has tons of them). I even asked her to think of a vote for Hillary as a vote for her forthcoming granddaughter (my sister was pregnant with her first kid, who we’d learned would be a girl). Imagine her being born while a woman was president, I said. I didn’t care if this tactic was cheap; short of anything illegal, I did or said whatever it took to get her to go out and vote against Trump. I had no qualms about playing the gender card with her; besides, hadn’t she been willing to vote for Marco Rubio out of similar allegiances? Isn’t that the truest explanation as to how Rubio got just the tip?
As 2016 wore on I heard from more and more friends back home that their parents weren’t voting. We were afraid their apathy would translate into a Trump win. Our families didn’t seem to recognize all the times in history—as recently as 2000—that their own votes against a candidate have been a crucial deciding factor. They didn’t realize that not voting—the ultimate gesture of complacency—was a privilege they didn’t actually have: it only felt that way because they lived in Miami, a place where it was easy to think, if you were Cuban, that you were white and therefore not part of the immigrant groups Trump was making a campaign out of promising to deport.
It was a complacency that went against their very presence in the United States, a complacency they sometimes incorrectly attribute to Cubans still in Cuba or Cubans who left the island long after they did. All my friends and I did between then and that November was urge our parents not to stay home in protest on election day. That staying home was no protest at all, but a relinquishing of the very freedom their families had left Cuba hoping to restore. All we did was urge them to do what they already knew how to do in moments like that: make their disgust for a candidate known by voting instead for whichever candidate had the best shot at beating them.
Less than a week after Trump won the 2016 election—including Florida, by a very slim margin—my sister gave birth to her daughter at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. I’d booked a flight that had me in Miami seven days before and seven days after her due date, the hope being I’d be there even if the baby was early or late. She arrived nine days early, which means she was three days old when I met her. I spoke with my sister over the phone her first night as a mom, while she was still in the hospital. She was whispering because the baby was in the room with her. She told me the whole birth story and said that just after the all-women staff helped her deliver a healthy baby girl, before they’d even cut the cord, the first thing my sister said to her daughter was, “Go back inside, Trump’s the president.”
Three days later, I met the girl whose impending arrival had helped me convince my mom that Hillary Clinton was the better role model for her new granddaughter. My timing was off for the official arrival of my niece, but I was home in Miami for another life-shifting event late that November: the death of Fidel Castro.
I am always somehow back in Miami when something monumental happens in our community: the first time Fidel supposedly died; Celia Cruz’s death; Obama’s 2015 visit to Cuba; the Elián González chaos. The events of the González ordeal all coincided with my breaks when I was home from college, a year of events that I had to turn into a novel in order to write through the media’s inaccurate and incomplete portrayal of frenzied Cubans throwing themselves at the feet of a young boy-turned-symbol.
The first time Fidel Castro died was on my birthday in 2006. I was living in Minnesota but was in Miami when the announcement went out that Castro had had an operation and was temporarily ceding power to his brother. This being the first time ever that Castro had voluntarily stepped away from his dictatorship, speculation ran wild, and Miami Cubans took to the streets to celebrate the death of a tyrant, a symbol of terror and loss for exiled Cubans of all races and faiths. What better birthday present, my parents joked.
The morning after his latest death was confirmed, my sister texted, “Fidel is dead . . . again,” one of 26 messages from friends and relatives sharing the news. But I’d already heard—around midnight, Cubans of every age poured into the streets of Miami to celebrate the death of a dictator who’d had a profound effect on our lives, who was, in many ways, the reason we were here in the first place. I was in Westchester, a south Miami neighborhood that’s arguably the heart of Miami’s Cuban community (and as a Hialeah native, I’d be the first one to argue).
The news reports surrounding Castro’s official final death showed you loud Cubans parading through the streets. It showed you shots of us hitting pots and pans and making much noise and yelling and crying and honking horns. It gave you familiar rehashed images of old men sipping café out of tiny cups outside Versailles. That was all part of it, yes, almost as if we’d rehearsed these predictable roles, the scripts all but handed to us.
But the news didn’t show you the more prevalent scenes: the tearful conversations happening between generations around café con leche that first morning without Fidel, the sun setting on one populist tyrant while rising over the specter of another, this one in the country we now called home. It didn’t show you how, at a dinner with other Miami-based Latinx writers a couple of nights after the Miami Book Fair, we joked that Castro would never die because he is protected by powerful Santería. (The joke was also that reporters would take such a statement from us as fact because of our heritage.)
It didn’t show you how we bemoaned the inaccuracies and misinformation perpetuated by American writers and reporters who see Cuba as “material,” how their vague efforts to bring attention to the island and its people are in actuality silencing them, because by telling their version of Cuba—a version white American audiences are receptive toward because the messenger often looks and sounds like them—they are replacing the island’s true voices with their own. Those conversations weren’t sexy and didn’t involve us banging on pots and pans. Those conversations didn’t make for good sound bites. Those conversations—like many of our current ones, which these days are more often than not triggered by our dictator-in-the-making’s deranged tweets, a form that literally limits character count and thus traffics in sound bites—are hard to have, and so they have an equally hard time finding their way into the immediate coverage of the aftermaths of events.Many of us out on the streets the night Castro died and the morning after were there as symbols, too. We were there as witnesses, as bearers of memory.
Plus, it doesn’t sell papers, it doesn’t get clicks, and those of us who want to write these harder, thornier responses are told by those in charge that there isn’t room for nuance. From one night to the next, we learned that the dictator who’d served as a symbol of oppression our entire lives was finally gone. How do you sum up what this change might come to mean for a whole nation in a sound bite? The news cycle had long moved on by the time the new reality of this shift and all its complexities had sunk in.
Many of us out on the streets the night Castro died and the morning after were there as symbols, too. We were there as witnesses, as bearers of memory. Many of us were out because we had family that couldn’t be there—mothers, abuelos, cousins who died at the hands of the Castro regime or who haven’t been allowed to leave. We were there to comfort each other and to honor the sacrifices these family members made. The morning after Castro died, in the house in Westchester, I awoke to stories I’d heard a thousand times being told with more verve and energy than they’d been told in a long while.