Ignoring Political (and Natural) Disasters the Miami Way

Jennine Capó Crucet on Life in South Florida as Storm Clouds Gather

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.

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.

In Miami-Dade County, building codes were strengthened after entire communities were literally blown away by Hurricane Andrew.

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 USA. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Jennine Capó Crucet
Jennine Capó Crucet
Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of two previous books and is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Her novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice book, the winner of the 2016 International Latino Book Award, and was cited as a best book of the year by NBC Latino, the Guardian, and the Miami Herald; it has been adopted as an all-campus read at over 25 American universities. Her short stories have been honored with the Iowa Short Fiction Award, an O. Henry Prize, and other awards. Raised in Miami, Florida, she is an associate professor in the Department of English and the Institute for Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska.





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