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Life on the Hyphen

Life on the Hyphen
The Cuban-American Way (Revised Edition)

With fascinating insights into how both ordinary and famous Cuban-Americans, including Desi Arnaz, Oscar Hijuelos, Gloria Estefan, and José Kozer, have lived “life on the hyphen,” this is an expanded, updated edition of the classic, award-winning study of Cuban-American culture.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

May 2012
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254 pages | 6 x 9 | 19 b&w photos |

An expanded, updated edition of the classic study of Cuban-American culture, this engaging book, which mixes the author’s own story with his reflections as a trained observer, explores how both famous and ordinary members of the “1.5 Generation” (Cubans who came to the United States as children or teens) have lived “life on the hyphen”—neither fully Cuban nor fully American, but a fertile hybrid of both. Offering an in-depth look at Cuban-Americans who have become icons of popular and literary culture—including Desi Arnaz, Oscar Hijuelos, musician Pérez Prado, and crossover pop star Gloria Estefan, as well as poets José Kozer and Orlando González Esteva, performers Willy Chirino and Carlos Oliva, painter Humberto Calzada, and others—Gustavo Pérez Firmat chronicles what it means to be Cuban in America.

The first edition of Life on the Hyphen won the Eugene M. Kayden National University Press Book Award and received honorable mentions for the Modern Language Association’s Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize and the Latin American Studies Association’s Bryce Wood Book Award.


Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize, Honorable Mention MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION

  • Preface to the Second Edition. The Facts of Life on the Hyphen
  • Introduction. The Desi Chain
    • Mambo No. 1: Lost in Translation
  • Chapter One. I Love Ricky
    • Mambo No. 2: Spic 'n' Spanish
  • Chapter Two. The Man Who Loved Lucy
    • Mambo No. 3: Desi Does It
  • Chapter Three. A Brief History of Mambo Time
    • Mambo No. 4: The Barber of Little Havana
  • Chapter Four. Salsa for All Seasons
    • Mambo No. 5: Mirror, Mirror
  • Chapter Five. Rum, Rump, and Rumba
    • Mambo No. 6: English Is Broken Here
  • Chapter Six. No Man's Language
    • Mambo No. 7: El mago de la ñ y el acento
  • Chapter Seven. The Spell of the Hyphen
  • Epilogue. My Repeating Island
  • Notes
  • Index

Gustavo Pérez Firmat is the David Feinson Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. Coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, he is also the author of numerous books of literary and cultural criticism, including The Havana Habit, Tongue Ties, and The Cuban Condition. Newsweek included him among "100 Americans to watch for in the 21st century" and Hispanic Business Magazine selected him as one of the "100 most influential Hispanics" in the United States.


The Facts of Life on the Hyphen

I knew I was on to something when, shortly after this book's original publication, Newsweek used the title of one of the chapters, "The Desi Chain," for an article on the increasing impact of Latinos on Anglo-American culture. In the years since, Life on the Hyphen has been quoted, imitated, praised, and attacked. It is the criticisms that have interested me most of all, because I agree with some of them, particularly the objection that the book was too sanguine in its description of the dynamics of cultural contact. Playing with words, I say in the introduction that Cuban-American culture is defined by collusion rather than collision. I know now—and I knew then—that my celebration of cultural and linguistic hybridity gave short shrift to the human costs of collusion (hyphens hurt). Although I hinted at these costs by closing the book with a somber poem whose original title had been "Bilingual Blues," at the time I was content to look the other way and keep my mind on the mambo: abre cuta güiri mambo, as the Cuban soneros used to say. And I still am.

Even the driest, most lifeless s cholarly monograph has a personal backstory. Mine is this: Life on the Hyphen was a two-hundred-page valentine to Mary Anne Pérez Firmat, whom I had just married when I was beginning to research the book. The idea for the title we came up with together during an afternoon of sunbathing and brainstorming at the Duke University faculty club. I wrote the book for her and for me, to make sense of our life together. Hence the pride of place given to the I Love Lucy show, the great Cuban-American love story. Almost two decades later, still married to Mary Anne, I continue to believe that the healthiest way to deal with the puzzles and adversities of a divided life is, in the words of Irving Berlin, to face the music and dance. Not as young as I used to be, there are times when my meneíto feels more like a limp. But I am still dancing. Cuban wisdom: "A mí que me quiten lo bailao." Which, roughly but gently translated into the words of another American songwriter, means: "They can't take that away from me."

This is not to say, however, that the costs of a life on the hyphen do not become more evident with the passing of time. For many Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits, the death of Celia Cruz in July 2003 signaled the end of an era, and not just musically. Before and after becoming the Queen of Salsa, Celia was La Guarachera de Oriente, probably the most recognizable Cuban exile in the world. When Celia left Cuba in 1959, she was in her mid-thirties; by the time she died in her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, she had lived more than half of her life in exile. In one of the last songs she recorded, "Por si acaso no regreso" (In Case I Don't Return), she spoke about the sorrow of dying far from her homeland. When she left Cuba, she says, she was certain that she would return at any moment; as the end of her life approaches, she realizes that she's never going to.

Celia Cruz is one of several hundred thousand Cuban exiles who staked their lives on a return that didn't take place, among them the musicians who were kind enough to share with me their knowledge of Cuban music: Rolando Laserie, René Touzet, Rosendo Rosell, Cachao. Their death—the passing of the first generation—not only has diminished those of us who remain but has changed our place in the community of exiles. Although one tends to think of generational location as fixed—once a one-and-a-halfer, always a one-and-a-halfer—this is not entirely true. When the first generation moves on, one-and-a-halfers move up; we become first generation—if not chronologically, existentially. Having spent our lives wedged between vintage Cubans and recent Americans—our parents and our children—we realize that we are now the only Cubans in the room, the only ones who remember. Having inherited our elders' recollections of Cuba, we have now to perpetuate their memories as well as their memory. Having built a bridge to America—the hyphen—we have now the obligation to walk it back to its origins in old Cuba. A hyphen signifies connection, continuity. When I was writing this book, it seemed crucial to extend the hyphen in the direction of America. Now it seems more important to make sure it still reaches back to Cuba.

In some respects, we find ourselves in the situation of people who, in the striking phrase of poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa, have outlived their nation. Twenty years ago, it still made some sense to speak of La Cuba de ayer, yesterday's Cuba. Today it doesn't, since the phrase refers to Cuba before 1959, a country that fewer and fewer Cubans and Cuban-Americans have lived in (about two-thirds of Cubans on the island were born after January 1, 1959). Hyphenation can mean different things: having American-born children; marrying an American man or woman; using the English language. But fundamentally it names a spiritual bilocation, the sense of being in two places at once, or of living in one while residing in another. That one of those places no longer exists only intensifies the desire to inhabit it; the demon of discontinuity must be exorcised.

Some time ago, when I was translating into Spanish something that I had written originally in English, I came across the phrase, "the facts of life." After scrolling my mental thesaurus for a while and not coming up with anything that sounded like Spanish, I googled around until I found the phrase. It turns out that in Spanish the facts of life are called los misterios de la vida, the mysteries of life. Think about it: the same biological drives that for the English-speaking world are plain and simple facts, for Spanish speakers are nothing less than enigmas, conundrums, mysteries. It seems to me that for those of us who grow up and grow old straddling two cultures, those of us who regard both English and Spanish as native languages, the world often appears as an odd coupling of mystery and fact, of things that reassure us and things that rattle us, of events that make us settle and events that make us sink, of destino, which means destiny, and desatino, which means mistake. The merging of destino and desatino, of vocation and equivocation, is what Life on the Hyphen—book and title—attempts to convey.

Although I have endeavored to preserve the integrity of the first edition, I have updated or supplemented the text when not doing so seemed misleading. I have also included new material. In the first edition, the analysis of Cuban-American literature was limited to a discussion of Oscar Hijuelos and José Kozer, who set the outer borders of the one-and-a-half-generation. Except in passing, I did not discuss writers whose work illustrates more directly the one-and-a-halfer's outlook. I have corrected this omission with an additional chapter, "The Spell of the Hyphen," which discusses writers and artists who create from the hyphen, even if it sometimes resembles a scar or a stretch mark. The chapter is preceded by an additional mambo, "El mago de la ñ y el acento" (The magician of the ñ and the accent), an homage to the man who made it possible for me to keep my accent (if not lose my stress), and followed by an epilogue in bolero time.

The Desi Chain

Some years ago the cover story of an issue of People magazine was devoted to Gloria Estefan, who began her career as one of the moving parts of the Miami Sound Machine. At the time, Estefan was recovering from a serious traffic accident that had left her partially paralyzed. Gloria herself was upbeat about her prospects, and the point of the story was to reassure all of the rhythm nation that little Gloria would conga again.

I begin with this anecdote for two reasons: the first is that Estefan's celebrity gives a fair indication of the prominent role that Cuban-Americans are playing in the increasing—and inexorable—latinization of the United States; by now, few Americans will deny that, sooner or later, for better or for worse, the rhythm is going to get them. The other reason for bringing up the People story has to do with the photograph on the cover, which showed Gloria holding two dalmations whose names happened to be Lucy and Ricky. Like one of the Miami Sound Machine's albums, the photograph cuts both ways: it suggests not only the prominence but also the pedigree of Cuban-American pop culture. After all, if Gloria Estefan is the most prominent Cuban-American performer in this country today—a "one woman Latin boom," as the New York Times put it—Ricky Ricardo is certainly her strong precursor. Surprising as it may seem, Desi Arnaz's TV character has been the single most visible Hispanic presence in the United States over the last forty years. Indeed, several generations of Americans have acquired many of their notions of how Cubans behave, talk, lose their temper, and treat or mistreat their wives by watching Ricky love Lucy. I once had a Cuban-American student who claimed he had learned to be a Cuban male by watching I Love Lucy reruns from his home in Hialeah.

But the connection between Estefan and Ricky goes further than this. The Miami Sound Machine's first crossover hit was "Conga"—the 1986 song that contained the memorable refrain,

Come on shake your body, baby, do the conga,
I know you can't control yourself any longer.

Well, the person who led the first conga ever danced on American soil was none other than Desi Arnaz, who performed this singular feat in a Miami Beach nightclub in 1937. Alluding to this historic event, Walter Winchell later said, in a wonderful phrase, that a conga line should be called instead a Desi chain. It is well to remember, then, that when Gloria Estefan entered the Guinness Book of World Records for having led the longest conga line ever, she was following in Desi's footsteps, adding another kinky link to the Desi chain.

The photograph from People illustrates the two forces that shape Cuban-American culture, which I will call traditional and translational. As a work of tradition, the photograph points to the genealogy of Cuban-American culture; it reminds us that Gloria Estefan is only the latest in a long line of Cuban-American artists who have come, seen, and conga'd in the United States. As a work of translation, it reminds us of the sorts of adjustments that have to occur for us to be able to rhyme "conga" and "longer." In this the photograph is typical, for ethnic cultures are constantly trying to negotiate between the contradictory imperatives of tradition and translation.

"Tradition," a term that derives from the same root as the Spanish traer, to bring, designates convergence and continuity, a gathering together of elements according to underlying affinities or shared concerns. By contrast, "translation" is not a homing device but a distancing mechanism. In its topographical meaning, translation is displacement, in Spanish, traslación. This notion has been codified in the truism that to translate is to traduce (traduttore, traditore); implicit in the concept is the suggestion that to move is to transmute, that any linguistic or cultural displacement necessarily entails some mutilation of the original. In fact, in classical rhetoric traductio—which is of course Spanish for translation—was the term used to refer to the repetition of a word with a changed meaning. Translation/traslación, traduction/traducción—the misleading translation of these cognates is a powerful reminder of the intricacies of the concept.

The subject of this book is how tradition and translation have shaped Cuban-American culture, which is built on the tradition of translation, in both the topographical and linguistic senses of the word. My name for this tradition will be the Desi Chain, since Desi Arnaz is its initial link. To be sure, the Cuban presence on the North American continent is at least as old as the Florida city of St. Augustine, which was founded in 1565. But it is one thing to be Cuban in America, and quite another to be Cuban-American. My subject is the latter, a contemporary development. The scope of this book is limited, therefore, to the last half-century, for it is during this period that Cuban-American culture has evolved into a recognizable and coherent cluster of attitudes and achievements.

Another thing that Desi Arnaz and Gloria Estefan have in common is that both left Cuba before they reached adulthood. Born in Cuba but made in the USA, they belong to an intermediate immigrant generation whose members spent their childhood or adolescence abroad but grew into adults in America. Because this group falls somewhere between the first and second immigrant generations, the Cuban sociologist Rubén Rumbaut has labeled it the "1.5" or "one-and-a-half" generation.

Children who were born abroad but are being educated and come of age in the United States form what may be called the "1.5" generation. These refugee youth must cope with two crisis-producing and identity-defining transitions: (1) adolescence and the task of managing the transition from childhood to adulthood, and (2) acculturation and the task of managing the transition from one sociocultural environment to another. The "first" generation of their parents, who are fully part of the "old" world, face only the latter; the "second" generation of children now being born and reared in the United States, who as such become fully part of the "new" world, will need to confront only the former. But members of the "1.5" generation form a distinctive cohort in that in many ways they are marginal to both the old and the new worlds, and are fully part of neither of them.

One of the theses of this book is that Cuban-American culture has been an achievement of the 1.5 generation. The links in the Desi Chain are made up of one-and-a-halfers, for their intercultural placement makes them more likely to undertake the negotiations and compromises that produce ethnic culture. Life on the hyphen can be anyone's prerogative, but it is the one-and-a-halfer's destiny. I diverge from Rumbaut, though, in stressing the beneficial consequences of this situation. Although it is true enough that the 1.5 generation is "marginal" to both its native and its adopted cultures, the inverse may be equally accurate: only the 1.5 generation is marginal to neither culture. The 1.5 individual is unique in that, unlike younger and older compatriots, he or she may actually find it possible to circulate within and through both the old and the new cultures. While one-and-a-halfers may never feel entirely at ease in either one, they are capable of availing themselves of the resources—linguistic, artistic, commercial—that both cultures have to offer. In some ways they are both first and second generations. Unlike their older and younger cohorts, they may actually be able to choose cultural habitats. The one-and-a-halfer's incompleteness—more than one, less than two—is something that I will have occasion to discuss later on; but for now I want to highlight the opportunities for distinctive achievement created by this fractional existence.

One-and-a-halfers are translation artists. Tradition bound but translation bent, they are sufficiently immersed in each culture to give both ends of the hyphen their due. As a one-and-a-halfer myself, I realize that this view is self-serving; but it does not seem unusual that hyphenated cultures should emerge from a sensibility that is not universally shared within an immigrant group. Only those immigrants who arrived here between infancy and adulthood share both the atavism of their parents and the Americanness of their children. I see it in my own family. My parents, who are now in their early seventies, have no choice but to be Cuban. No matter how many years they have resided away from the island—and if they live long enough soon there will come a time when they will have lived longer in Miami than they did in Havana—they are as Cuban today as they were when they got off the ferry in October 1960. My children, who were born in this country of Cuban parents and in whom I have tried to inculcate some sort of cubanía, are American through and through. They can be "saved" from their Americanness no more than my parents can be "saved" from their Cubanness. Although technically they belong to the so-called ABC generation (American-Born Cubans), they are Cubans in name only, in last name. A better acronym would be the reverse, CBA (Cuban-Bred Americans). Like other second-generation immigrants, they do maintain a connection to their parents' homeland, but it is a bond forged by my experiences rather than their own. For my children Cuba is an enduring, perhaps an endearing, fiction. Cuba is for them as ethereal as the smoke and as persistent as the smell of their grandfather's cigars (which are not even Cuban but Dominican).

To describe the blending of cultures that has taken place in many parts of the world, and particularly in the Americas, anthropologists have employed the terms "acculturation" and "transculturation." Acculturation stresses the acquisition of culture; transculturation calls attention to the passage from one culture to another. Drawing on these two notions, I will use the term "biculturation" to designate the type of blending that is specific, or at least characteristic, of the one-and-a-half generation. In my usage, biculturation designates not only contact of cultures; in addition, it describes a situation where the two cultures achieve a balance that makes it difficult to distinguish between the dominant and the subordinate culture. Unlike acculturation or transculturation, biculturation implies an equilibrium, however tense, precarious, or short-lived, between the two contributing cultures. Cuban-American culture is a balancing act. One-and-a-halfers are no more American than they are Cuban—and vice versa. Their hyphen is a see-saw: it tilts first one way, then the other. The game ends at some point (the one-and-a-half generation passeth away), and the board then comes to rest on one side. But in the meantime it stays in the air, uneasily balancing one weight against the other.

I realize that mine is not a fashionable view of relations between "majority" and "minority" cultures. Contemporary models of culture contact tend to be oppositional: one culture, say white American, vanquishes another, say Native American. But the oppositional model, accurate as it may be in other situations, does not do justice to the balance of power in Cuban America. I like to think of Cuban-American culture as "appositional" rather than "oppositional," for the relation between the two terms is defined more by contiguity than by conflict. I am not talking here about the political relations between Cuba and the United States, to which this statement, obviously and sadly, does not apply. And neither do I want to discount the persistent anti-Americanism that has loomed so large in the island's history. My context of reference is the experience of Cubans in this country, lives lived in collusion rather than collision. Over the last several decades, in the United States, Cuba and America have been on a collusion course. The best products of this collaboration display an intricate equilibrium between the claims of each culture. Equilibrium does not necessarily mean stasis, however, and I am not talking about dull, motionless coexistence. Fractions are fractious, and one-and-a-halfers are restless and uppity.

I am also not talking about anything that a given individual or community actually elects. Before becoming a prerogative, biculturation is a fate—the fate typical of individuals who reach this country too young to be Cuban and too old to be American. But this fate, once it is accepted and assumed, becomes a prerogative. It's an election after the fact. You choose what you cannot avoid. You elect what you cannot elude. You rearrange fate into feat (not to mention feet, as in the conga). A Cuban and American proverb says: "Si del cielo te caen limones, aprende a hacer limonada." If God gives you lemons, learn to make lemonade. In some ways the interstitial placement of the one-and-a-half generation is a lemon, since you do not feel entirely at home in either setting. Spiritually and psychologically you are neither aquí nor allá, neither Cuban nor Anglo. You're "cubanglo," a word that has the advantage of imprecision, since one can't tell where the "Cuban" ends and the "Anglo" begins. Having two cultures, you belong wholly to neither one. You are both, you are neither: cuba-no/america-no. What is more, you can actually choose the language you want to work, live, and pun in. For myself, there have been many times I wish I didn't have this option, for choosing can be painful and complicated—those lemons were really limes, weren't they? Nonetheless, the equipment that comes with the option creates the conditions for distinctive cultural achievement. One-and-a-halfers gain in translation. One-and-a-halfers feed on what they lack. Their position as equilibrists gives them the freedom to mix and match pieces from each culture: they are "equi-libre."


An immigrant group, especially if the expatriation has been involuntary, passes through three stages in its adaptation to a new homeland. Initially the immigrant tries to deny the fact of displacement. I will call this first stage "substitutive," for it consists of an effort to create substitutes or copies of the home culture. This is translation in the topographical sense only, an undertaking that engenders all of those faint doubles of foreign places that speckle the American urban landscape—the little Italies and little Haitis and little Havanas with which we are all familiar. But the adjective "little" here is equivocal, for it says not only that these enclaves are smaller than their models but that they are diminished in ways more important than square miles or population. What's "little" about little Havana is not only its size (Miami is actually the second most populous Cuban city) but also its diminished status as a deficient or incomplete copy of the original. No matter how great the effort, substitution is always partial. In Miami one can find stores and restaurants that claim lifespans much in excess of the duration of the Castro regime. These claims rest on a particular kind of historical elision that overlooks personal, historical, and geographical discontinuities. The Miami version of a restaurant called El Carmelo does not have a whole lot in common with its Havana homonym; it's not the same place, and it's not even the same food, for the Miami menu includes such offerings as the Nicaraguan dessert tres leches. Yet the substitutive impulse of newly arrived exiles makes them ignore the evidence of the senses, including their taste buds. Because the reality of exile may be too costly to accept, the exile aspires to reproduce, rather than recast, native traditions. No immigrant ever arrives with only the clothes on his or her back. Even those Cubans who arrived penniless brought with them all kinds of cultural wealth. Willy Chirino, the popular Cuban-American singer and composer, says in one of his songs that he left Cuba with the following: Beny Moré, the Trío Matamoros, Miguelito Cuní, a colibrí, a palm tree, a bohío, and a book by José Martí. He even "relocalized" in Miami his native province of Pinar del Río. Chirino did not bring much luggage, but he arrived with a lot of baggage, a houseful of Cuban icons. Most revealing about the list is that several of the people it mentions, like Beny Moré and the surviving members of the Matamoros Trio, never did leave Cuba. Typically, his bill of cultural goods denies political and geographical ruptures. The speaker of Chirino's song inhabits, or would like to inhabit, a Cuba of the mind, a kind of fantasy island untouched by time or history.

The compensatory theme of the substitutive stage is "we are (still) there." This is why, even after more than thirty years of exile, it sometimes seems that Little Havana exists in a time warp. This phenomenon is related to what the sociologist Lisandro Pérez has termed "institutional completeness." An "ethnic enclave" like Miami provides for all of its members' needs. As Pérez points out, your life begins in the hands of a Cuban obstetrician and it ends in the hands of a Cuban undertaker. In between, you have little need of contact with the outside, non-Cuban world. The completeness of the enclave has enabled the reproduction in Miami or in Union City, New Jersey, of what many still call, ever more whimsically, La Cuba de ayer (yesterday's Cuba). I find this effort to recreate yesterday's Cuba in today's America both heroic and sad. Heroic because it tries to rise above history and geography. Sad because it is doomed to fail. No matter how intense and persistent, substitution cannot go on forever. At some point—after months or years or maybe decades—the immigrant begins to find it impossible to sustain, even precariously, the fiction of rootedness. Unsettling events reimpose a sense of reality. Someone dies and has to be buried outside the Cuban family plot; your children bring home friends (or worse: spouses!) who cannot trill their r's; the old radio stations switch to music that follows a different beat. The enclave is no longer en clave.

When events like these become habitual, the substitutive fantasy collapses. No amount of duplicate landmarks can cover up the fact that you are no longer there, and what's more, that you may never return. This is the clever point of Arturo Cuenca's This Isn't Havana, where the colloquial English-language phrase is placed over a photograph of the Little Havana restaurant La Esquina de Tejas, which was modeled after the one in Cuba. Barely visible, the overlaid text is a ghostly presence, a geographical reality-principle that says, "You're not there." The name of the restaurant, "The Corner of Tiles," refers to a street corner in Havana, not Miami; and the fact that "Tejas" is also Spanish for Texas adds to the equivocal geography of this uncommon place. Tile Corner or Texas Corner—either way, it isn't Havana. If Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe underscores that the copy is not the thing, Cuenca's This Isn't Havana—whose title perhaps alludes to Magritte's painting—makes the related point that the exile needs to live and reside in the same place. You can't have your coquito in Cuba and eat it in Miami too.

The Cuban-American poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa once wrote, "The exile knows his place, and that place is the imagination." I would add that the exile is someone who thinks imagination is a place. Although Pau-Llosa was referring to the creative imagination, to the imagined world of the exile artist, the problem is that imagination is not a place. You can't live there, you can't buy a house there, you can't raise your children there. Grounded in compensatory substitutions, the re-creation of Havana in Miami is an act of imagination. But imaginings cannot sustain one indefinitely. Sooner or later reality crashes through, and the exile loses a place that never was. His or her reaction to the collapse of substitution is vertigo, disorientation. If La Esquina de Tejas is not Havana, what is it? If you aren't there, where are you? I do not mean that exiled individuals literally do not know where they are, but that emotionally they have gotten used to believing otherwise. The painful knowledge that they live in exile has been attenuated by the comforting feeling that they never left. You walk into a restaurant on Eighth Street in Miami and not only does it have the same name as one in Cuba, but it probably has a map of Havana on the wall and a Cuban flag over the counter. You know you're in Miami, but still you feel at home.

But as exile lengthens, these feelings begin to fray. Gradually the awareness of displacement crushes the fantasy of rootedness. This ushers in the second stage, for which I will use the term "destitution." In its common usage a destitute person is someone bereft of wealth or possessions; but since destitution derives from stare, to stand, it literally means not having a place to stand on. This is what second-stage exiles feel: that the ground has been taken out from under them, that they no longer know their place, that they have in fact lost their place. Rather than nostalgic, they now feel estranged and disconnected. The provisional comforts of substitution have vanished. Now, every time you drive by La Esquina de Tejas, in your mind's eye you see a sign that says instead, "This Isn't Havana." If the theme of the first moment was "we are there," the theme of the second moment is "we are nowhere." (Later in this book we will come across several examples of destitution, expressed in the images of displacement and itinerancy that haunt Cuban-American music.)

Mercifully, time passes and "nowhere" begins to feel like home. While the ground under your feet may be unfamiliar, it's still ground, a place to stand on. As the years go by the foreign country loses its foreignness and "nowhere" breaks down into a "now" and a "here," into a concrete time and place. If this isn't Havana, it must be someplace else. Destitution gives way to institution, to the establishment of a new relation between person and place. To institute is to stand one's ground, to dig in and endure. Thus, the theme of the third stage is not "we are there" or "we are nowhere," but rather, "here we are." I take this phrase from Emerson, for this is an Emersonian moment, a moment to lay foundations. For many years there has been a popular Cuban-American band in Miami called Clouds; in 1984 the band changed its named to Clouds of Miami. The addition of the locative phrase signals the transition from destitution to institution. Whereas the band's original name signified uprootedness, the feeling of being up in the air, the revised name brings Clouds down to earth by anchoring them in a specific locale. The cover of Clouds' first album after the name change showed cumuli drifting against the Miami skyline. Although the sensation of rootlessness does not dissipate altogether, it acquires a name and an address.

Since these three moments or stages chart an individual's or a community's slow acceptance of life in a new country, they tend to succeed each other. In Miami the three moments have roughly corresponded to the three decades since the Cuban Revolution. The sixties was a time of nostalgia and substitution; by the seventies, when it had become evident that Castro was there to stay, the prevailing attitude was destitution; and in the eighties, with the maturation of a younger generation of Cuban Americans, destitution gave way to institution. But this chronological progression belies the crucial fact that these attitudes commingle and alternate. For one thing, not everybody reaches exile at the same time or at the same age; for another, individuals as well as communities swing back and forth from one moment to another. It may be, in fact, that all three attitudes are present from the moment one steps on foreign soil. Even then, feelings of nostalgia and disorientation are probably tempered by a sense of emplacement. Nonetheless, there has been a discernible evolution in the attitudes of Cubans in the United States. Once an exile, always an exile; but it doesn't follow that once an exile, always only an exile. What changes is the relative prominence of these attitudes. To this day Cuban Miami is by turns nostalgic, estranged, and foundational; but it used to be far more nostalgic than it is now.

Although I will be discussing all three stages, I will pay most attention to the institutional moment. I am especially interested in locative gestures, in Cuban America's creation of a sense of place inside (but not entirely inside) and outside (but not entirely outside) U.S. culture. What I'm after is a cultural map of Cuban America, that hybrid "now-here" whose spiritual center is materialistic Miami. At the same time, I want to show that Cuban America is larger and older than Little Havana, and so I have striven to locate and study cultural expressions that antedate the massive exodus that began in 1959.

The first three chapters of the book, thus, are devoted to pre-Castro figures. The subject of Chapter 1 is Ricky Ricardo, the television character from the I Love Lucy show. As I hope to show through a discussion of one of the most popular programs in the history of American television, Ricky Ricardo is embodies an openness to otherness, a liking for unlikeness that defines Cuban America as a whole. By loving Lucy, Desi renounces regression, using the word in both the sense of regreso and regresión. As Ricky himself stated, to love Lucy is to embrace the unfamiliar in the form of an americana who stands, more generally, for Americana. I draw similar lessons from Desi Arnaz's career in the years before and after he loved Lucy, which forms the subject of Chapter 2. Arnaz was not only a successful actor and a shrewd businessman; he is also the author of A Book (1976), which I regard as a significant work of Cuban-American literature. Desi Arnaz may not be Oscar Hijuelos, but it is enough to read A Book and to go through the notes and papers Arnaz left behind after his death to realize that the stereotype of him as a mindless conga-playing lothario who made a living by sponging off his wife is far from the truth. Chapter 3 reconstructs the biography of the mambo in order to show its receptivity to heterogeneous musical traditions. Born in Cuba but made in the USA, the mambo is itself a one-and-a-halfer. I do not mean that the mambo was invented by a one-and-a-halfer—no one individual "invented" the mambo—but that its hybrid, hyphenated musical form allies it with other 1.5 creations. Like Cuban-American culture itself, the mambo is a music of acceptance, not resistance.

Beginning with Chapter 4, my argument moves from Hollywood to Little Havana and from the 1950s to the 1960s and beyond. The last episode of I Love Lucy (which by then was called The Lucille Ball–Desi Arnaz Show) was first broadcast in April of 1960, the year before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. These two events may serve to separate the contemporary history of Cuban America into two periods. Even though reruns of I Love Lucy continue to be popular to this day, it is difficult to imagine a character as innocent as Ricky Ricardo in the Castro era. The Cuba occasionally evoked in I Love Lucy is a place without history; watching the episodes, one has no idea of the turbulence of Cuban political life during the 1950s. In I Love Lucy Cuba remained that paradise next door depicted in the so-called maraca musicals. But after the much-publicized revolution, the image of Cubans surely changed: the stereotype of the Latin lover was supplemented by that of the guerrilla fighter and, somewhat later, by that of the drug dealer.

The subject of Chapter 4 is the "sound of Miami," Cuban America's contemporary answer to the musical question of biculturation. In this chapter I have tried to tell the story of Cuban Miami through an examination of its song lines. I will look especially closely at Gloria Estefan and Willy Chirino, two performers whose careers are to me exemplary, in order to draw attention to the way in which Cuban one-and-a-halfers negotiate the contradictory imperatives of tradition and translation. Chapters 5 and 6 offer contrasting case studies of two Cuban-American writers, novelist Oscar Hijuelos and poet José Kozer, who fall just outside the one-and-a-half generation. Arguably the two most important Cuban-American writers, Kozer and Hijuelos will take us to the outer limits of the 1.5 generational spectrum. Oscar Hijuelos, who is contemporary with the one-and-a-halfers, is much closer in outlook to the second generation. Born in 1950 in New York of Cuban parents, Hijuelos was never an exile, and he writes from the point of view of a hyphenated but anglophone American. His work is a complex and moving valedictory to Cuban culture. By contrast, for José

Kozer (born in Havana in 1940), Cuban-Jewish essence precedes American residence. Although he was a young man when he arrived in the United States in 1960, his poetry remains decidedly exilic. Yet Kozer's prolonged residence in New York has inflected his poems in striking ways, with the result that he is a Cuban-American writer in spite of himself. Unlike the discussions of Hijuelos and Kozer, the last chapter addresses the work of three poets—Orlando González Esteva, Richard Blanco, and (at the risk of self-indulgence) Gustavo Pérez Firmat—who are all one-and-a-halfers, although they occupy different points along the generational continuum.

These eight chapters are supplemented by short interchapters that I have called "mambos." In a salsa arrangement, a mambo has two functions: first, it serves as a bridge between sections; second, it provides brief and brassy variations on the themes of the song. The verbal mambos also have these two aims. On the one hand, they facilitate transitions; on the other, they expand or qualify some of the arguments in the book.

In both chapters and interchapters my argument draws heavily on forms of popular culture. Cuban-American culture is shamelessly materialistic and resolutely middle-brow. As a fascinating mixture of class and crass, of kitsch and caché, it honors consumers over creators; or rather, it treats consumption like a creative act. You will find Cuban America not only in museums, concerts, and book fairs, but also, and perhaps primarily, in shopping malls, restaurants, and discotheques. Cuban America defines itself by a way of dressing and dancing and driving; it expresses itself not only in novels and plays, but in fashion and food, in jewelry and jacuzzis, in advertising slogans and in popular music. For this reason, I have not hesitated to take my texts and examples from wherever I could find them: malls as well as museums, boutiques as well as bookstores.


I hope it is clear from the foregoing that I write neither from nostalgia nor from estrangement, though these attitudes are certainly not foreign to me. The institutional moment carries within it the memory of the first two stages, and I do not want to overplay generational differences among Cubans in this country. The founding of Cuban America is by no means an adamic undertaking; the kind of cultural landscape that I am talking about is fought for, agonized over, and achieved in response to nostalgia and disorientation. Whatever the "American Adam" may think, the Cuban-American Adam knows that history is his (or hers) to assume, not shed. To say "here we are" is in some sense to begin anew; but this beginning is driven and riven by a past that does not go away. This book is written from the perspective of someone who is neither old enough to be Cuban nor young enough to be American, but who is exactly old and young enough to be Cuban-American. In this sense the pages that follow are themselves part of the landscape that they describe. Early on I realized that I could not keep myself out of this book no matter how hard I tried, so I didn't try. The book's map of Cuban America certainly reflects what one calls a personal agenda. At least it is not a hidden agenda. I have tried to fashion a narrative that allows me to make sense of the general circumstances of my own life. But since I share these circumstances with other Cuban-American baby boomers, the story I tell may be personal, but it is not idiosyncratic.

In order to explain Cuban America to myself, I have endeavored to explain it to others who are not like me. Whatever the book's real audience, I have for the most part assumed that its fictive audience is not Cuban or Cuban American. The advantage of proceeding this way is that fewer things go without saying. Addressing an audience of strangers, one takes fewer shortcuts, for the fund of shared values and information is smaller. While working on this book, I often found that you cannot explain the obvious without first exploring the subtle. Translation attempts to explain the obvious, and it also is full of subtleties and ambiguities.

But I also write with another audience in mind. Fundamentally this book is a community-building enterprise, and in this respect my primary audience is made up of Cuban-Americans like myself. Like myself? I'm not really sure; but I hope my discussion does strike a generational chord. I do not claim for Cuban America a fixed habitation or a permanent address, for I am fully and painfully aware that, in this era of mobile homes and shifting borders, one's sense of place is provisional at best. Like other borders, those of Cuban America are makeshift and moveable. It cannot be otherwise for a domain built upon acts of translation. But it is a domain, a cultural abode, and by now it has its own history and customs.

When pondering the shakiness of my foundations, the mobility of my cultural home, I take consolation and courage from the knowledge that insular Cuban culture rests on similarly shifting grounds. La Esquina de Tejas certainly isn't Miami, but it isn't quite Havana either. This is the other point of Cuenca's photograph: given that "Tejas" is also a toponym, the Cuban corner itself has an uncertain geography. How did "Texas" end up deep in the heart of Havana? The mixing and matching that creates misleading names and incongruous displacements has been a part of Cuban history almost from its inception. The reasons for this are complex, but the principal ones have to do, on the one hand, with the extermination of Cuba's aboriginal population, and on the other, with the island's strategic location at the entrance to the Americas. This has meant that Cuban culture has always lacked a stable core or essence, a situation that Jorge Mañach summarized with the aphorism that Cuba is a "patria sin nación," a homeland without nationhood. Like the United States, Cuba is a country of immigrants; unlike the United States, it is a country of immigrants many of whom reached the island on the way to other places (including the United States). As the great Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz pointed out many years ago, Cuba is a culture of migratory birds, aves de paso. Ortiz's famous metaphor for Cuba was that of the ajiaco—an indefinitely renewable stew that accepts the most diverse ingredients. This is why atavistic calls for cultural and linguistic purity on the part of some Cuban exiles have always struck me as singularly inappropriate. Cubans have always been hyphenated Americans. Stretched across the Caribbean, Cuba itself looks like a hyphen on the way to becoming a question mark. Life on the Hyphen could also have been the title of a book about the Cuban condition.

For this reason, I do not find only discontinuity between "Cuban" and "Cuban-American." The Cuban-American, and in particular the one-and-a-halfer, is one of the possible forms that the Cuban talent for hyphenation can assume. Cuban America is also an ajiaco, except that in some Miami restaurants the name is now "tropical soup." The evolution from Cuban to Cuban American, from ajiaco to tropical soup, and from Cuban Spanish to Cuban English, does not involve the denaturing of a putative "essence." For Cubans residence precedes essence, and essence is aroma. In our case, the hyphen is not a minus sign but a plus; perhaps we should call ourselves "Cuban + Americans."

I realize that my views will probably strike some as unpatriotic and even assimilationist, but it is not assimilation that I am talking about. Cuban-American culture heightens and draws out certain tendencies inherent in mainland island culture—most prominently, the tendency toward hyphenation. We Cubans have a peculiar relationship to our roots: we eat them. What is the ajiaco if not a root roast, a kind of funeral pyrex? You take your favorite aboriginal roots—malanga, ñame, yuca, boniato—and you cook them until they are soft and savory. In keeping with your roots' roots, you might even cook them in a hole in the ground. But then you consume them. You don't freeze them. You don't preserve them. You don't put them in a root museum. You don't float them down a root canal. You eat them in the knowledge that such conspicuous consumption will let you remain faithful to—what else?—your roots.

This is why the acronym YUCA (for Young Urban Cuban American) is both ironic and apt. A YUCA is a self-consuming vegetable. An English-speaking YUCA who parks his beamer, hooks a beeper into his belt (or slings a cellular phone into her purse), and goes into a pricey Coral Gables restaurant also called Yuca to eat nouvelle cuisine ajiaco is not less Cuban but more American. Again, it is a question of addition not subtraction: Cuban + American. The agria cultura, the acrid culture of the YUCA, consists of uprootings and reroutings. I don't believe in assimilation, but I live by translation. Life on the hyphen: the one-and-a-half generation is also the one-and-a-hyphen generation. Paraphrasing José Ortega y Gasset: you are you plus your rayita, your hyphen. A few years ago I met a Spanish-American man who wanted to know where I was from. I replied that I was cubano (when I'm asked the same question by Americans I always reply that I am American). "Pero ¿cubano de dónde?" he said, "Cuban from where?"—as if being Cuban did not mean hailing from a certain island in the Caribbean. I said that I was "cubano de North Carolina," Carolina Cuban, and he was satisfied with that rather bizarre answer. For this man—who was himself a Nicuaraguan from Coral Gables—Cuba is less a place on a map than the label for a certain ethnic or cultural group. Just as there are Cubans from Havana, there are Cubans from Miami or New Jersey or North Carolina. I have mentioned Ortiz's view of Cubans as aves de paso, birds of passage, which is also the title of Michael Piore's well-known book on American immigrants. It may be that the criteria that define Cubanness are those of ethnicity rather than of nationhood.


The occasional urgency of my tone in the following chapters stems from my conviction that, precisely because of its link to a specific generation, the varieties of Cuban-American culture that I will discuss here have limited life expectancy, what Lisandro Pérez calls an "expiration date." As the name already indicates, the one-and-a-half generation is something of a novelty; and its culture is a novelty culture. Like other sorts of novelties—"novelty songs" and "novelty acts" come to mind—it is clever, entertaining, original, but in the end ephemeral. At the level of community, the three-stage evolution I outlined previously contains a fourth stage, embodied in the second immigrant generation and its sequels. Considerable evidence suggests that second-generation Cuban Americans have been fairly resilient in retaining their parents' and grandparents' culture. Nonetheless, with the graying of the one-and-a-halfers, Cuban America will undoubtedly change complexion and lose some of its Cuban color. What has happened to other ethnic groups will happen to us: we will have a sentimental, rather than a vital, link to our culture of origin. Cubanness will be something we acquire, not something we absorb. It is at this point that one starts inventing holidays, digging for roots, and signing up for mambo classes. For better and for worse, one-and-a-halfers do not need to look far in search of their origins. They carry their roots wherever they go. They were to the mambo born.

But mambos are not forever, and things are already changing. These are the last days of Little Havana. Signs of the transformation are visible all over town. The phenomenon is complex and owes not only to the natural evolution of the Cuban exile community but also to the arrival in the city of significant numbers of other Hispanics. As I write this in 1993, Miami is more Hispanic than ever but less Cuban than ten or fifteen years ago. When I wax nostalgic, it is for the "old" Miami that I mostly long, not for Cuba. Walking around the Kendall suburb of Miami, one gets the distinct feeling that José Vasconcelos's prediction of a raza cósmica, a cosmic race, is going to be realized not in South America but in Southwest Dade. The spawning ground for the cosmic race may well be the Town and Country Mall in Kendall, a marvelous diorama of designer clothes, aerobicized bodies, and tanned tan skin. I do not view this as a bad thing. Whatever is lost in translation will be gained in translation.

The other determinant of the future of Cuban America is, of course, the political situation on the island. Once the current regime disappears, the landscape of Cuban America will be different from what it has been for the last three decades. Those Cubans who decide to stay, probably the large majority, will no longer be able to view the world through the lens of exile. Once the "real" Cubans go back to the island, those of us who remain here will have no choice but to realize that we are Americans, with or without the hyphen. Perhaps then most of the anguish and disorientation of exile will recede definitively into the past.

Or perhaps it will be more acute than ever. Exile is distressing, but actually having the possibility of return may be more distressing still, for it will call into question the comforting fictions that one has lived by for many years. Exiles who can return and do not lose their identity. So what do they become then, Cuban ex-exiles? And what will happen to Cuban-American culture in Miami once there is unrestricted travel to and from Cuba? After Castro Miami may well be more "Cuban" and less "American" than it was during the lifetime of the revolution. With more communication and traffic with the island, Little Havana may well deepen its Cuban roots. Perhaps Kendall will end up as a suburb of Santos Suárez after all. What is certain is that, for all of these reasons, the present borders of Cuban America will not remain fixed for long.

I thus write with the sense that I am describing ways of speaking, writing, acting, and living that will soon undergo a profound transformation. Although I believe that there is a peculiarly Cuban-American way of assuming United States culture, and that this way preceded my generation and will continue beyond it, the phenomena that I will describe in the Miami sections of this book may well have reached their definitive form during the last several years. I chronicle the present with the disquieting awareness that it may quickly become a thing of the past. Hence, I sketch the contours of Cuban America in the hope of keeping my "country" on the map a little longer.

But the primary purpose of these pages is not to defer or deny the transformation but to try to cope with it. After the welcome demise of the Cuban Revolution, the question of what it means to be Cuban in America will become more rather than less urgent. Many years ago Miami Cubans used to group their fellow exiles into two camps, those who would be allowed to return to a free Cuba and those who would not. Of someone in the latter camp, it was said, "ése no tiene regreso," literally, "he has no return." The not-so-wholesome idea behind the labeling (which varied according to your own political persuasion) was to weed out from a future Cuban polity either sympathizers of the Batista regime or former collaborators of the revolution. For myself, I know that I belong in the category of those for whom there is no going back—no tengo regreso—but for personal rather than political reasons. Paradoxically, for someone like myself, returning to Cuba would be tantamount to going into exile a second time. By recovering a long-standing tradition of Cuban-American cultural achievement, I am looking for a way to make sense of my life as a Cuban-American man in the post-Castro era, a time when I will no longer be able to rely on the structures of thought and feeling that I have used for decades.

I should say something here of earlier studies about Cuban Americans. For the most part, books in this area have tended to be scholarly monographs analyzing the economic, demographic, and class profile of the Cuban-American community in the United States. Although these books have been indispensable to my own work, I am less interested in data than in details. One learns a great deal from graphs and statistics, but sometimes stories and impressions can be equally instructive. Closer to what I have in mind are the books about Miami by Joan Didion and David Rieff. I like Rieff's better than Didion's, though it is revealing that both use the protocol of the travel journal, as if visits to Miami were expeditions into a foreign country. Already in the title, Rieff's Going to Miami evokes a formula common in travel writing; but it is Didion's book in particular that resembles nothing so much as a nineteenth-century ethnographer's report on an exotic Amazonian tribe. For Didion, Cuban-Americans are picturesque but fundamentally unintelligible. Cuban-American women, especially, mystify her. She goes to a party and remarks that the women looked like "well-groomed mangoes." Upon reading this, one gets the distinct impression that Didion is no fan of tropical fruits.

This book is not a travel journal but a user's guide. My discussion is shaped by somewhat different tastes, for I write from the perspective of someone who not only grew up among well-groomed mangoes, but who would be pleased to be considered a well-groomed mango himself. (Alternate title: My Life as a Mango.) One of the points I want to get across is that, contrary to most reports from the field, there is nothing particularly zany or exotic about Cuban-Americans. Multicultural pieties aside, the Cuban-American way is not inconsistent with the American way. A well-groomed mango (like a well-crooned mambo) can be just as American as apple pie. The Desi Chain may move to the beat of the conga, but with each step it advances deeper into the American heartland.

Mambo No. 1
Lost in Translation

Take the phrase literally. Turn the commonplace into a place. Try to imagine where one ends up if one gets lost in translation. When I try to visualize such a place, I see myself, on a given Saturday afternoon, in the summer, somewhere in Miami. Since I'm thirsty, I go into a store called Love Juices, which specializes in nothing more salacious or salubrious than milk shakes made from tropical fruits. Having quenched my thirst, I head for a boutique called Mr. Trapus, whose name—trapo—is actually the Spanish word for an old rag. Undaunted by the consumerist frenzy that has possessed me, I enter another store called Cachi Bachi—a name that, in spite of its chichi sound, is a slang word for junk, cachivache. And then for dinner I go to the Versailles of Eighth Street, a restaurant where I feast on something called Tropical Soup, the American version of the traditional Cuban stew ajiaco. My dessert is also tropical, Tropical Snow, which is Miamian for arroz con leche; and to finish off the meal, of course, I sip some Cuban-American espresso (don't go home without it). In this way I spend my entire afternoon lost in translation—and loving every minute. Translation takes you to a place where cultures divide to conga. My effort in this book is to show you the way to such a place. Step lightly, and enter at your own risk. Who knows, you might just end up becoming the missing link in the Desi Chain.


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