We were calling each other around the city and the country and saying, “I am thinking of you.” I wondered what it would be like for my niece to grow up with Castro dead; she would only have his specter tugging at her sense of Cubanidad. She would never know him as a living, breathing force. What would she come to think of him, what would she be taught, and what would she ignore? When I look to history, it seems that whatever legacy Castro might hold for my niece will almost certainly be overshadowed by the inevitable legacy made by the man elected president the week before she was born an American.
I cannot speak for every Cuban or Cuban American and have never embraced the chance to do so. I can only tell you my reaction when I heard the news about Castro. I was already asleep when my partner, who is also Cuban, woke me up and after he told me that Fidel Castro was dead, before I was even fully awake, my eyes still closed, the first thing I said was, “That’s impossible, he’ll never die.” My reaction came not from a place of rational thought, but instead was grounded in a trained complacency regarding the state of Cuban politics: The rhetoric in the United States surrounding the country of my parents’ birth was essentially always the same, and it had trained me from a young age to expect nothing, not even the most inevitable thing—Castro’s death—even as we hoped its occurrence could someday bring about real change in our relations with the island.
I just didn’t believe, deep in my half-asleep heart, that he could die. Our collective half-asleep heart is the same place from which sprang the confidence many other Americans felt that Donald Trump would never be president. No need to worry, my friends living on the coasts told me before the primaries, he’s not a real threat. Even the weekend before the election, sitting in an Indianapolis hotel lounge eating free appetizers with a friend who works in New York publishing and who’d flown out for the same conference—even then, when I told him we should prepare for the worst, he insisted there was nothing to worry about, that I was being alarmist. He was phenomenally confident. He ordered another drink.
We came in from the airport at different times, but we’d passed the same messages on the same billboards: This is Trump country!
The message was huge and unmissable from the freeway. It was extremely red. It instantly reminded me of the propaganda all over Cuba that I’ve only seen in photos: murals of a dictator that were designed to convince citizens that the coming regime was an inevitability. Murals that still stand as proof of how the fabric of any nation can be disastrously altered.
But it’s just a billboard, my friend seemed to be telling me, already ignoring its meaning. It’s not like it’s a sign.
When it comes to ignoring legitimate warnings, no one is better at it than the born-and-raised residents of Miami-Dade County when faced with the threat of a hurricane—one of several natural disasters we’ll be seeing more and more of in the decades to come, whether we believe the signs or not.
My personal litmus test for whether or not someone is a legit Miamian is based almost entirely on their response to a hurricane warning. If they evacuate any sooner than when the water is waist deep, Miami might be where they live, but it’s not where they’re from. Sincere and complete disbelief in a hurricane’s ability to hit your neighborhood is as Miami as getting your cafecito and croquetas from a ventanita: The former is a mind-set that can’t be appropriated the way the latter has, because we are raised not to take a storm’s threat seriously.
I have fallen for and perpetuated the hype that when it comes to hurricanes, we are as invincible as Fidel once seemed. It’ll turn at the last minute, there’s no reason to cancel school, this is just a way for supermarkets to make money—all things I’ve heard and even said, waiting for hurricanes in Miami.
We wait to put up the shutters until the last minute because it’s a pain to take them off later once the storm makes that last-minute turn away from us, so we don’t take them off—not all of them—and that means one room in the house will be dark for weeks, maybe months. We watch from our still-electrified homes as the storm instead devastates the countries our families are from and maybe still live in, our batteries and bottles of water all suddenly in the wrong place.
We wonder how much warning they had, if somehow the condition of being warned—even when ignored—is in any way the key to avoiding disaster, as if the National Hurricane Center were casting protective spells instead of predicting possible storm paths. The bigger the warning, the more powerful the privileges behind it, the more powerful the forcefield, and so the more radical the inevitable turn the storm takes away from us. In our faulty memories, it happens that way every time.
Hurricane Andrew did not turn. Our shutters went up at the last minute, my father putting them on only after having done the same at the houses of both sets of grandparents. None of us evacuated because no one told us we needed to evacuate. We wouldn’t have anyway. My parents’ pride in our home meant they would go down with it. They didn’t want to ride out the storm in the closest shelter—the local middle school—because really, how bad could it be? It’s just rain and wind. We had plastic jugs of water. We’d filled up the bathtub, put the freezer on the highest setting. We were extra prepared—my dad was an electrician and so we even had a portable generator.
We spent the whole storm huddled in our bathroom, hearing branches and carports snap and tumble outside, hearing thunder but not seeing any lightning flashes because of the shutters. Rain so hard it didn’t sound like rain, but like someone continuously raking something metal—I imagined the bottom of a giant bucket—against the roof. I remember darkness and my mother trying to convince my father not to go outside to see what was happening. I don’t remember if he did or not. After, I remember the mess, the way every leaf and palm frond for miles plastered the streets and driveways. I remember how the cleaning and repairing felt impossible and like it would last forever. We didn’t know where to start, but it almost didn’t matter, as long as we started somewhere.
We were north of the worst damage from that storm. Two weeks after the academic year was supposed to have started, I walked into middle school for the first time to find our classes overcrowded with kids from “down south,” as we said, kids from maybe 15 miles away, their own schools completely destroyed so they’d been reassigned to ours for the whole year while theirs got rebuilt. These kids hated us and our teachers and our still-standing school buildings, so we hated them back. We were all too young to understand the magnitude of what had been lost, so we took it out on each other. We fought over who did or didn’t belong there instead of moving in the same general direction toward healing. This was how we started sixth grade.
In Miami-Dade County, building codes were strengthened after entire communities were literally blown away by Hurricane Andrew. We learned good lessons too late. Shutters remained up and rooms in our houses stayed dark as penance. Some of the lessons stuck: The house my sister bought came with impact windows rated up to 150 mph winds. But when a coming storm’s winds reportedly exceed that limit, she still doesn’t put up shutters. She banks on the storm losing strength as it approaches, a real Miami move.
For Hurricane Irma in September 2017—the first storm she’d weather in that house—she didn’t evacuate, despite her home being in a recommended evacuation zone and despite having my niece, who was by then ten months old. She didn’t go to my parents’ house either; they are farther inland, but she told me she didn’t want to ride out Irma there because their house would be dark from the shutters they’d likely put up at the last minute. She wanted to see for herself what was coming.
I watched from across the country as Irma strengthened. I read tweets from the National Hurricane Center saying that the storm’s size and strength left them utterly speechless. New trajectories showed that it didn’t matter which way the storm turned, it would no doubt hit them. I lost my Miami-born-and-bred resolve and sent frantic texts to my sister saying she should reconsider her choice not to evacuate. She assured me that she and her husband were prepared, she just needed to pick up baby yogurt and steak.
The year before, I’d missed her baby shower in October when the threat of a hurricane headed to Florida canceled my connecting flight into Miami. My family thought I should’ve gone for it, that the worst-case scenario was that I’d have to turn back in Atlanta. “No,” I told them when I broke the news I wouldn’t make it, “the worst-case scenario is that I get stuck in Miami as a hurricane hits and I can’t get back to Nebraska, where I actually live now.” This scenario didn’t register for them as a possibility. They said, “You know it’s gonna turn like it always does.” In that case, they were right, and they’re still annoyed I missed the baby shower, that I didn’t make the airline fly me toward the storm. That I let my practicality and realism influence my choices.
In the days before Irma made landfall, I was giving a talk at a liberal arts college in Washington state, the entire campus cloaked in thick smoke from raging wildfires—another disaster. Local authorities asked that we avoid going outside, as the air was hazardous. I went outside anyway, because it was time for the campus tour my hosts had planned for me. I wasn’t taking the threat seriously; I’m just like my sister.Why does the worst have to happen for us to believe it could happen at all?
Hurricane Irma did not turn. And so It’s not really coming morphed into It’s not going to be that bad. In eastern Washington, within hours of landing, I turned off the storm coverage on my hotel’s TV and went to a rally in support of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the reality of its end still sitting like a glacier inside me; then Attorney General Jeff Sessions had announced the Trump regime’s repeal of DACA the day before. Some rally attendees wore face masks or bandanas over their noses and mouths to protect them from the smoke. I had no such protection, didn’t think it was that bad to warrant the search for any.
On the walk there, I texted my sister to start driving to Nebraska, that they could still make it with plenty of time, that I had an awesome basement, so she should bring our mom and dad, too. “Relax, don’t give in to panic,” she wrote back 20 minutes later. Why does the worst have to happen for us to believe it could happen at all? I thought of those Indiana billboards announcing the kind of country we now live in. How big do the signs have to be before we take the warnings seriously? How many years do the murals have to be up before we can see them anew as symbols for what has already been lost? How long before we realize that our own inaction—our own complacency, our own silence—is at the root of every disaster we watch unfold?
These questions are no longer rhetorical. Our answers depend on how immediate the threat to our survival feels, and for many of us, the immediacy of that threat has already mobilized us toward revolutionary action. And then there are those of us who can keep ignoring the signs, for now. Right up until we take our next breath and realize just how long we’ve been inhaling the ash along with the air.
The smoke in Washington state was there for a while; they get less rain than they used to. It’s hotter, too—good for the wine industry, I was told on the tour. A silver lining, the guide said, it’s getting too hot for grapes in California now. I hear in that forecast a different version of It’s not going to be that bad. At least it’s an acknowledgment of our new not-normal, this era brought on by our very denial that the storms were on their way. The very least we can do now is accept that the disaster is here, but the fastest way to guarantee our peril is to do nothing in the face of it. No matter how dark it leaves the house, it’s time to put up the shutters. Take a deep breath, and notice what you taste; no matter how uncomfortable it feels, it’s time to put on the face masks. In fact, it’s already too late.
Excerpted from My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capó Crucet. Copyright 2019 by Jennine Capó Crucet. Published by Picador