New Cubans Keep Culture, Embrace America

Perhaps nowhere is the desperation to come and live in America felt more than in the state of Florida.

Two weeks ago, a boatload of more than 200 Haitian asylum seekers who ran aground off Virginia Key, Fla., were summarily returned home. Yet, eight Cubans who arrived in Florida's Key West International Airport via a crop duster on Monday will reportedly be released soon to family members in Florida.

While the preferential treatment of Cuban asylum seekers remains controversial, Cuban immigrants and refugees are fully integrated into every level of society in Miami, where they make up 30 percent of the population. The family of Good Morning America's Entertainment Correspondent Alex Cambert is part of that statistic.

"My father came from Cuba for what he thought was a temporary stay, and is still hoping for the demise of [Cuban President Fidel] Castro," Cambert said. "I'm born here and know that my parents' struggle gave me the freedom to choose, even if that means rejecting the very things my parents adhere to."

Cambert, a second-generation Cuban-American, is one of the so-called "new Cubans."

It's Fuacata-licious!

Perhaps unlike the old Cubans, the new generation embraces Miami's frenetic nightlife. At 2 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, Cambert headed to a weekly nightclub event/sociological experiment known as "Fuacata." As Cambert observed, it wasn't his father's Little Havana.

"Exactly," said one woman at the event.

Like Miami itself, Fuacata is impossible to define without using some Spanish. The word is actually Cuban slang and means something like "wham," yet the Cuban-inspired party is somehow entirely American.

Fusion is what the new generation of Cuban-Americans is all about.

"They are successful, they are pursuing their careers," said Alejandro Portes, author of Miami City on the Edge. "And they are less interested in politics," he said.

Leaving It All Behind

The first wave of immigrants never planned for their children to be Americans. They fled the regime of Castro, certain the dictator would be overthown quickly. They left everything behind, except their resolve.

"Many lost their property, lost their capital, but they had their connections," Portes said. "They had their education. And with that, many were able to restart their lives — and do quite well."

In 1980, the Cuban Government allowed an estimated 130,000 Cubans to illegally depart for the United States from the port of Mariel, in an incident that became known as the "Mariel boatlift." But Castro also demanded that the Miami-bound vessels take on Cuba's unwanted, with 10 percent of the new arrivals being criminals and the mentally ill.

"But 10 percent of 130,000 is 13,000," Portes said. "So that's a significant number. And those who lived in Miami at that time remembered that the streets were turned into sort of a war zone."

The backlash against Mariel came swiftly, with Dade County passing an "English only" referendum, prohibiting any voluntary expenditure "for the purpose of utilizing any language other than English." (The measure was repealed in 1993.)

After the initial rush of new residents, crime abated, and Cuban refugees achieved the highest levels of employment and the lowest reliance on public assistance of any immigrant group in the state. What persists from the divided Miami of the 1980s is a fierce Cuban-American lobby intent on crushing Castro.

In Little Havana, Miami's spirited Cuban neighborhood, older men get together to play dominos, and debate the political issues that have shaped their lives ever since they left Cuba.

"With age, we're mellowing," one man said. "The younger people are the ones that have to step forward."

Why Can’t Americans Visit Cuba?

But the younger people don't share the agenda of their forebears.

"I'm Cuban-American, I have the best of both worlds," Ryannie Rodriguez said. "I have the Cuban culture and the American passport."

Jorge Betancourt, Rodriguez's grandfather, still pines for his homeland.

"The music! The people! The food! El mar! La playa!" he says.

The children and grandchildren of Betancourt's generation are well educated — Miami's doctors, lawyers, bankers. They call Miami home, and they're here to stay. Many are also ready for a more open policy with Cuba.

"We as Americans can travel to any country in the world," Rodriguez said. "Why can't we travel to an island 90 miles away?"

Ironically, it is the work of the old hard-liners that has afforded the younger generation the luxury of ignoring politics. But they do not ignore their heritage. They honor it.

"I've often tried to think, OK, if I had to leave right now and never look back and just leave with the clothes I had on my back," Rodriguez said. "It must be difficult. I don't know that my generation is mature enough to handle it. We've been given so much."