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Transnationalism at Work in Two Southern Cities
Paul A. Levengood
As the South becomes increasingly integrated into the global economy, migration to the region from around the world has become the subject of significant comment, and some controversy as well. The rising tide of Latino migration to the South is perhaps the most striking of these transnational movements of people. Although this is a relatively new phenomenon in the heart of the South, on its southern and western edges, the "rim South," this influx has been occurring for decades. Not coincidentally, it is these parts of the South that have long been players in the interconnected framework of modern trade and cultural exchange. This study examines two major metropolitan centers of the rim South-Houston, Texas, and Miami, Florida-and asks several questions: What has Latino migration looked like in each city? How has the Latino presence changed the two cities? What challenges have faced Latinos in integrating into southern society? What role has this migration played in Miami and Houston becoming global cities?
Even by the standards of a young nation, Miami is a young city. Founded in 1896, it grew quickly in the early part of the twentieth century as a winter tourist destination. To meet the needs of the growing construction and tourist industries, thousands of migrants, mostly poor whites and blacks from other parts of the South, streamed into south Florida. As might be expected with such a population, Miami developed in a southern manner. Racial segregation was absolute, and black residence was initially confined by law to two small areas. Violators of Jim Crow law or practice could expect harsh retribution from either law enforcement authorities or the strong local branch of the Ku Klux Klan (Mohl 1991, 124). The only members of an ethnic group that migrated to Miami in any numbers from outside the South in the early twentieth century were northern Jews.
Miami had virtually no Latino population for the first forty years of its existence. The only notable concentrations of Cubans in Florida were in Key West and Tampa. Not until Miami reached a more advanced level of urban maturity in the 1920s and 1930s did it begin to attract even a modest number of immigrants from Cuba. Lured by the increased urbanity and amenities that Miami offered, many Cuban leaders found exile in the city, waiting for the chance to return to Havana when the political climate changed.
In addition to the small core of political exiles who took up residence, middle- and upper-class tourists from Cuba and other Latin American countries made Miami their primary destination throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Cuban customs estimated that in 1948 alone 40,000 Cubans visited Miami and spent more than $70 million dollars in Florida. This familiarity with Miami would be exceedingly important when exile of a more permanent sort forced many Cubans to settle in the United States beginning a decade later. Although tourism brought large numbers of Cubans and other Latinos to Miami to visit, by the end of the 1950s few had settled there. Events in Cuba would soon change that entirely.
The impact on Miami of Fidel Castro's revolution was immediate. Even before Fulgencio Batista was toppled, numerous members of the dictator's inner circle along with a few of the wealthiest members of Cuban society began to transfer capital, movable property, and in some cases themselves to Miami. Soon after Castro seized power, mass migration began in earnest. This first wave of refugees included many of the most skilled and affluent members of Cuban society. A 1968 study of this early wave of migrants found that those Cubans who arrived in Miami between 1958 and 1962 came disproportionately from the professional, semiprofessional, managerial, or clerical categories and had attained a significantly higher level of education than had the bulk of Cuba's population.
The so-called Golden Exiles of 1958 to 1962 have achieved a mythic status in both southern Florida and American popular consciousness. A far larger number of exiles arrived between 1965 and 1973. However, the Golden Exiles provided a symbol of Cuba transplanted in foreign soil, and among them were many of the stalwarts who ensured that their new community retained its "Cubanness" and rallied to the cause of anti-Castroism.
The success of these Golden Exiles was in many ways extraordinary. Legion are the stories of Cuban doctors busing tables and former lawyers digging ditches, only later to become wealthy in Miami. Though some of these tales might be fictional, by any measurement, Miami Cubans have been one of the most successful groups in U.S. immigration history. A very small but important number of Cubans transferred wealth to the United States either before the revolution or shortly thereafter. Combined with an uncommonly strong spirit of ethnic mutual aid, this allowed a sizable number of Cuban-owned businesses to emerge at an early date. As mentioned earlier, this group brought with it a high degree of education and what might be called cultural capital (professional, financial, and entrepreneurial skills). In some cases it was not long before this professional and business experience allowed Cubans to move out of menial labor and into more lucrative positions. Cubans' own efforts are only part of the story. Credit is also due to an unprecedented program of federal government aid, the Cuban Refugee Program. To ensure a black eye to the Castro regime, an estimated $2 billion was poured into the Cuban community in grants and loans, an unprecedented step by the federal government (Parks and Bush 1996, 136; Croucher 1997, 108-9).
This seed money for Cuban exiles found fertile ground in Miami. By the 1960s the city was in an economic slump, brought on by competition for tourist dollars from Las Vegas and the Caribbean. In what would come to be called Little Havana-an area just southwest of downtown-Cubans found a down-at-heel but centrally located area in which to settle and work. Within less than a decade, a thriving business district would exist in this enclave that included numerous businesses established in Miami that had existed, with the same name and specialty, before the revolution in Havana or Santiago. Residents of this Cuban community re-created their homeland in South Florida in other ways. Some schools were refounded, employing the same teachers they had in Cuba. Similarly the Municipios de Cuba en Exilio was created to hold elections for the offices of the municipios back in Cuba. As Cuban American academic Gustavo Perez-Firmat wrote of this phenomenon of exile life, "'Exiles live by substitution. If you can't have it in Havana, make it in Miami.... Life in exile: memory enhanced by imagination'" (qtd. in Parks and Bush 1996, 146).
The lure of exile in Miami proved strong. The first wave, lasting from January 1959 until regular air traffic was halted by the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, saw 200,000 immigrants land in the United States, the lion's share ending up in Miami (Perez 1986, 129). Between November 1962 and November 1965 immigration slowed dramatically and included some 74,000 persons. Another upsurge occurred from late 1965 to April 1973 via twice-daily "freedom flights" between Miami and Havana that brought more than 340,000 Cubans to the United States. The only dramatic increase in Cuban migration since the flights ended in 1973 occurred in May 1980, when the northern Cuban port of Mariel was opened to U.S. vessels. The five-month Mariel boatlift resulted in the arrival of 125,000 "Marielitos" in Miami. Since Mariel, migration has been limited to those few willing to brave the crossing from Cuba in small boats (Croucher 1997, 50).
For most of the 1960s, Cuban exile politics was largely waged at the national level in an attempt to push Washington into ending Castro's rule. Not until the 1970s, when they realized that return to Cuba was not imminent, did significant numbers of exiles begin to become citizens and use the ballot box to affect events at the local level. The first Cuban city commissioner of Miami was elected in 1972, and with significant Cuban support Miami elected its first Latino mayor in 1973 (Croucher 1997, 36). In 1985 Cuban-born Xavier Suarez was elected mayor, and in 1989 Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Cuban to be elected to Congress. The trend continued in the 1990s with Cubans winning most of Dade County's state house and state senate seats, majorities in the Miami city council and county commission, and the office of county manager (Perez 1992, 102-3).
As Cuban American politics has broadened, the theme of el exilio has grown slightly less prominent. Dissenting views are no longer punished by assassination as they occasionally used to be, but as the Elian Gonzalez furor indicates, intense feelings lurk just below the surface of the Cuban community. Despite stereotypes, all of Miami's Cubans are not virulent anti-Marxists. The community encompasses a broad range of politics, from reactionary right to the far left. However, a powerful and unifying sense of loss and anger seems to cut across political lines. Their degree of personal enmity for Castro notwithstanding, most Cubans agree that he is guilty of denying them their lives in Cuba and is responsible for the loss of a special "birthright" (Didion 1987, 17).
As the exile enters its sixth decade, the future of Cuban American politics is unclear. In a 1995 National Review poll, participants were asked if they would return to Cuba permanently if given the chance. Twenty-four percent answered yes; 64 percent said no; and 12 percent were undecided (Falcoff 1995, 43). Anecdotal evidence suggests that a change in attitude clearly falls along generational lines. Older and middle-aged Cubans retain personal bonds with Cuba; many under thirty-five do not. Miami architect Raul Rodriguez's family is illustrative. When the travel ban was lifted in the mid-1980s, the Rodriguez family took several trips to Cuba. Eventually Raul's twelve-year-old son Ruly told him that he "hated Cuba, that he never wanted to go there again." As author David Rieff puts it, even on the island, "Ruly had never left the United States, at least in his head" (1993, 205-6). The comparisons to the exiles in Miami who had long imagined themselves in Cuba are striking.
It would be surprising if Ruly Rodriguez or many of his generation would ever return to the island to live. Frankly, why would they? And should their reticence be a surprise? Ironically, the success of older Cuban exiles has inadvertently ensured that younger generations will probably lose interest in la lucha, "the struggle."
That success in Miami has been remarkable. By the 1970s, Cuban entrepreneurship had been largely responsible for revitalizing the city's economy focusing it on intrahemispheric trade. Cuban business leaders played to their centuries-old strength as merchants and used the extensive network of transnational contacts that existed among Cuban diasporic communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. As early as 1967 Miami was being recognized as "the gateway city to Latin America." In the 1970s the city became a leading center of U.S. trade with the nations of the Western Hemisphere. The heavy Cuban presence lent the city a "Latino accent" that made it a comfortable location for Latin Americans to visit and do business, earning Miami the nickname "the capital of Latin America" (Croucher 1997, 35).
The upward growth of international trade and finance in Miami continued in the 1980s with the establishment of dozens of businesses oriented toward commerce with Central and South America, including the branches of more than fifty foreign banks (Croucher 1997, 42-43). By the 1990s the city was clearly the leading U.S. center of export trade to the Western Hemisphere. According to 1998 Department of Commerce statistics, Dade County businesses accounted for exports of more than $11 billion to the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean-next was Detroit with less than $8 billion. In stark contrast, Miami exported only $854 million to Europe, $250 million to Asia, and $83 million to Africa. The 1998 breakdown of destinations of Miami exports to Latin America and the Caribbean was as follows: Mexico: $720,387,000; Caribbean and Central America: $3,731,312.000; and South America: $6,764,313,000. Interestingly, it seems that Brazil was the single largest trading partner of Miami exporters, signifying that Miami is not the capital of only Spanish-speaking Latin America. For interesting comparisons, table 1 contains the dollar values of other leading U.S. export centers to Latin America and the Caribbean. It is hard to imagine that this sort of trade would have been possible without the impact of Cuban exiles.
The strong ties to Latin America have made Miami a magnet for non-Cuban migration from the region. In 1960 there were approximately 50,000 Hispanic residents in Dade County, and they made up some 5 percent of the populace. In the 2000 census, that number mushroomed to 1.3 million, 57 percent of the entire population of Miami/Dade County. Cubans were trailed in numbers, in order, by Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Hondurans, Peruvians, Guatemalans, and Ecuadorians. Although none can challenge the Cuban political and social hegemony in Miami, each nationality group fiercely defends its individual identity and bristles at being subsumed under a single heading. Many reject inclusive terms such as "Latino" or "Hispanic." Bumper stickers around Miami bear the legend, No Me Digas Hispano, Soy Cubano (Don't Call Me Hispanic, I'm Cuban) (Croucher 1997, 56). As one study asserted quite earnestly, "Miami is more a pluralistic society than an ethnic melting pot" (Cuban American Policy Center 1992, 35).
In contrast to Miami, Houston owes little of its existence as a global city to the contributions of a specific ethnic group; a converse relationship can, in fact, be postulated. Houston's role as a world center of materials processing, manufacturing, commerce, and medicine has, along with its location, served as a magnet for migration. On the other hand, the increased presence of Latinos, Asians, Europeans, and other immigrant groups has helped transform what was, a few decades ago, a traditional southern city. Today, with established ethnic and national communities that lend their customs, cuisines, religions, and cultures to the fabric of the city, Houston is an eminently more cosmopolitan and interesting place.
Founded in 1836, Houston proved no great attraction to migrants from outside the United States for the first eight decades of its existence.
Excerpted from The American South in a Global World Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction : globalization with a southern face||1|
|Latino migration to Miami and Houston : transnationalism at work in two southern cities||9|
|The world on time : flexible labor, new immigrants, and global logistics||23|
|Media and racialization among young, working-class, Latina immigrants||39|
|Federally sponsored Mexican migrants in the transnational south||59|
|Entrepreneurial governance in the transnational south : the case of Durham, North Carolina||83|
|Global forces, local worlds : mountaintop removal and Appalachian communities||99|
|Nonlocal forces in the historical evolution and current transformation of North Carolina's furniture industry||113|
|Voices of southern mill workers : responses to border crossers in American factories and jobs crossing borders||138|
|We're all Mexicans here : poultry processing, Latino migration, and the transformation of class in the south||152|
|Gatokaca Drive : global relations between souths in Mobile, Alabama||166|
|The South meets the East : Japanese professionals in North Carolina's research triangle||175|
|North Carolina's Indians : erasing race to make the citizen||192|
|Monolingualism and racialism as curable diseases : Nuestra America in the transnational south||205|
|The Latinization of Rome, Georgia : undergraduate research and community activism||223|
|Civil rights, immigration, and the prospects for social justice collaboration||235|
|Critique : creating the transnational south||247|
|The south and grounded globalism||265|
|Southern history, southern future : some reflections and a cautious forecast||277|