Sunday, January 14, 2018

Trump revives memories of my "shithole" country

My trip to Cuba with my husband Stew in 2013 in large part was a pilgrimage to try to reconstruct my childhood, abruptly interrupted in 1962 when, at age fourteen, I had been shipped off to Miami with thousands of other children, presumably to save us from the communist apocalypse about to engulf the island.

What was my hometown of Santa Clara like now, I wondered, the house I grew up in, the school I attended, my grandmother's house where I'd so much enjoyed her fabulous cooking? What did my school chums who stayed behind look like after more than fifty years? How had they dealt with life's struggles and been formed by them?

Even if I'd had tattooed the admonition "You Can't Go Home Again" on my forearm, and recited it like a mantra on my way to Cuba, I wasn't ready for what I encountered.

I expected most of my old friends would be fatter, wrinklier and balder but not to find them leading such static, dead-end existences. One eked out a living transcribing government boilerplate, pecking clean copies on an antique typewriter. Another, who had evolved into a rather scary drag queen, lived off tips playing and singing at Santa Clara's best, and decidedly pathetic, restaurant.

My cousin, also named Alfredo, had become a pathologist and worked at a local hospital but in his home I recognized the battered furniture in his dining room as that of my grandmother, the same on which she had served Christmas Eve dinner for so many years. That's all they could afford on his measly salary.

These tableaux resembled dusty and faded museum dioramas. Some of my friends and relatives had initially embraced the revolution and even volunteered for the some of its hare-brained ideas, such as cutting sugar cane or fighting revolutionary wars abroad. But in the end survival had become everyone's chief preoccupation.

I was prepared to find Havana a city in ruins that once, before Castro, supposedly had glittered. I had been there only once when I was too young to appreciate it.

But I was crushed to visit and walk through my old house in Santa Clara, where I'd grown up, played with our pets, practiced reading and memorized multiplication tables. I knew it was no mansion but I was shocked, even a bit ashamed, when I took Stew there.

The house, a very modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom even in good times, was now home to an elderly couple and their younger daughter who could barely maintain it. It wasn't quite squalid but depressingly close to it. On the way out I gave the equivalent of fifty dollars to the couple, so they could fix the broken panes in the front window. Other houses in the neighborhood looked as if they'd been washed over by a tsunami decades ago and never repaired.

My old homestead, with the new owners. 
Diehard idelogues will insist Cuba remains an exciting Marxist work-in-progress, while some Cubans in Miami will rhapsodize about its beauty, sophistication, even glamor, before Castro ruined everything.

Truth is that, using Pres. Trump's definition of the word, Cuba is and was a shithole, its poverty not as asphyxiating as Haiti's or that of some African countries, but certainly not a Scandinavian utopia populated by white folk hard at work on another sleek furniture line or depressing movie.

Trump's remarks underlined his bigoted and mendacious nature but most of all his impenetrable ignorance, in this case about the mechanics of immigration.

By definition, people flee desperate situations: war, famine, persecution. It's a form of the survival instinct. It's been said that Norwegians, with five weeks of vacation, free college education and health care hardly have a reason to move to the U.S. today.

But Stew's dad and grandparents migrated from Norway early in the last century, when that country was a hopeless shithole of failed crops and poverty. So did the Irish in the nineteenth century during the potato famine. Vietnamese fled after the fall of Saigon. Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. today are overwhelmingly poor. Successful professionals and the literati here stay put to enjoy their cappuccinos in the swankier sections of Mexico City.

Yet migrating is also among life's most harrowing experiences, comparable to living through an invasion by a foreign force or the breakup of one's family. It entails abandoning home, friends, language, culture—all that is reassuring and familiar—in exchange for a uncertain promise of a better life in a strange place.

Think of the thousands of people from all over Africa who've thrown themselves in boats clearly unsafe and overcrowded to make it across to somewhere in Europe. Remember the expressions of fear on the faces of those who made it. Also remember their valor.

Indeed, only those people with extraordinary courage, enterprise, faith—and unmitigated cojones—take the chance.

And it's this process of self-selection that historically has enriched the American bloodline: New arrivals may be smelly,  wear weird headgear, worship different gods and speak another language, but America has benefitted from, in effect, this reverse brain-drain.

Beginning shortly after the revolution in 1959, approximately 1.3 million Cubans migrated to the U.S. During the first several years, the arrivals were an orderly and amicable middle- and upper-class bunch who arrived by plane, a deluxe type of immigrant.

As the years passed, though, and life in the island grew more desperate—turning into an ever deeper shithole—the exodus reached further down the socioeconomic scale and the refugee stream, largely unfiltered by the U.S., turned into a motley crew arriving in rickety boats sailing through the shark-infested Florida Straits. God knows how many thousands didn't make it.

This immigrant influx—Cubans, Colombians, Venezuelans and other Latin Americans—is what re-energized South Florida, and particularly Miami, which during the sixties was on the verge of becoming a ramshackle retirement destination. Miami today is a giant tourist and business hub worth billions of dollars to the Florida economy, thanks to the immigrant hordes. The same could be said from ethnic neighborhoods in Houston, Chicago and New York, among others, brought back to life by immigrants.

Trump's race-based calculus ignores this history and assumes that white people from Western Europe should be preferred over immigrants from shithole countries, with the exception of overachieving Asians whom he apparently assumes would be an asset to the U.S. because they are all either brilliant scientists or violin prodigies. Ironically, in the 1920s the U.S. had in place race-based quotas that excluded Asians and didn't look too favorably on Jews and Eastern Europeans either.

By now I should be inured to Trump's stream-of-idiocies and vile remarks. But as an immigrant I was particularly offended and hurt by Trump's racist take on immigration. As an American I worry too that someone as ignorant of American history and the American experience should be pretending to lead an urgently needed overhaul of my country's immigration system.

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