It’s not hard to love Alan Aja. His smile is contagious and his passion for all things Cuba, all things race in Cuba, all things Puerto Rican is equally infectious, but what really mesmerized me about Alan Aja was his book, Miami’s Forgotten Cubans: Race, Racialization and the Miami Afro-Cuban Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 266 pages).
I was told by a Cuban who came to the United States in 2014 that before she arrived in New York, she had no idea what race was.
I never would have known about Miami’s Forgotten Cubans or Alan Aja, had it not been for Leilani Bruce who has spearheaded a movement across the country to read books by Afro-Cuban authors and/or about the Afro-Cuban experience. After I wrote about Leilani’s book club, Candela, she invited me to join and sent me Aja’s book.
Alan Aja is Associate Professor in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York, and Miami’s Forgotten Cubans is academic in nature, as the title would suggest. Aja’s paragraphs are long and dizzying at times but beneath the numerical and technical jargon, the book is a brilliant report on Miami’s Afro-Cuban experience, and not only in the context of the Cuban exile, but also within the framework of being Black in the United States.
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Aja explores the Afro-Cuban experience in terms of the waves of Cuban migrations. He spends a good amount of time describing and defining what he calls “the golden exiles”: that first wave of elite (read: white) Cubans who fled the island after Castro’s takeover. He reports that between the years of 1959 and 1962, 225,300 Cubans migrated from Cuba, mostly to Miami. Very few of these Cubans were Black.
And according to Aja, this set the stage for the Afro-Cuban experience in Miami. When the Afro-Cubans arrived in South Florida in the later waves of migration (Mariel being a tidal wave, in 1980) the dynamics had already been established: white Cubans were the rulers. Afro-Cubans faced housing discrimination in segregated Miami neighborhoods not unlike what Black Americans have historically faced in the South. To deepen these Afro-Cuban/Black experiential similarities further, Aja cites Ralph Ellison and his famous notion of invisibility. Did Afro-Cuban make themselves invisible shortly after their arrival or, did white Cubans work to blot them out?
It seems that Aja believes it’s an equal balance of both.
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He walks through his different methodologies for collecting data about Afro-Cubans in Miami over the years, and addresses a fascinating and timely phenomenon called “passing.” “Passing” is passing for white, and if not white, then passing for not-Black. Aja reported that he found some of the census data to be skewed in certain years because Afro-Cubans were not self-identifying as Afro-Cuban or Black. Therefore, he had to improvise upon his methodologies — he used a method called ‘street race’ which incorporates the race you choose for yourself as well as how others (racially) perceive you.
I was told by a Cuban who came to the United States in 2014 that before she arrived in New York, she had no idea what race was. This is not because she didn’t experience the sentiments of racism in Cuba. Contrary to the romantic belief that Cuba is a raceless society, the sentiment of racism is very much present on the island and reared its head most noticeably during the economic collapse and resulting Special Period.
But race, as we think about it in the United States, as we check it like the box that it is on job applications, on college applications, at the doctor’s office, does not exist in Cuba in the same way. Cubans are Cuban. They don’t officially become a race box until they reach the US and when they reach the US, that box becomes Alan Aja’s book. Are you white or are you Black or are you Cuban?
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Alan Aja’s 2016 in-depth study of the Afro-Cuban experience in Miami quickly pivots to a much wider portrait about how we learn to be racial in America. Although the focus is on Cubans and Miami, I believe Aja is telling a much bigger story that could not be more timely.