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Cuban Americans

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Cuban Americans


by Sean Buffington


Cuba is an island nation located on the northern rim of the Caribbean Sea. It is the largest of the Greater Antilles islands. To Cuba's east is the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Off the southeastern coast of Cuba lies Jamaica, and to the north is the state of Florida. In 1992 Cuba had an estimated population of nearly 11 million. Since 1959, Cuba has been led by President Fidel Castro, whose socialist revolution overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. In the years before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba maintained a close political and economic relationship with that nation. Cuba has had a distant and antagonistic relationship with the United States. Sugar is the principal export of Cuba, but the Cuban economy, by most accounts, is weak.

The Cuban people are descendants of Spanish colonizers and of African slaves once employed in the sugar industry. Two-fifths of the Cuban population is Roman Catholic. Nearly half report no religious affiliation. Many of those who call themselves Catholics are also adherents of an Afro-Cuban religious tradition known as santeria. The official language of Cuba and the language spoken by nearly all Cubans is Spanish.

The capital of Cuba is Havana, located on the northwestern coast of the island. Nearly 20 percent of Cubans are city dwellers; most live in the capital city. The United States, which has limited diplomatic relations with Cuba, nonetheless maintains, against the Cuban government's wishes, a significant military presence in Cuba at the Guantanamo Bay base on the southeastern coast of the island.


Cuba was colonized by the Spanish in 1511. Before colonization, the island was inhabited by Ciboney and Arawak Indians. Shortly after colonization, the native population was ravaged by disease, warfare, and enslavement, causing their eventual extinction. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Cuba, like most of Spain's Caribbean possessions, received little attention from the imperial government. Especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spain lavished attention on its mainland colonies in Central and South America and ignored its island colonies. By the end of the seventeenth century, Spain itself had begun to decline as a world power through financial mismanagement, outmoded trade policies, and continued reliance on exhausted extractive industries. Spain's colonies suffered during this period. Then the British captured Havana in 1762 and encouraged the cultivation of sugar cane, an activity that would dominate the economy of the area for centuries to come.


The need for labor on the sugar and tobacco plantations and in raising livestock, which had been the area's first major industry, resulted in the growth of African slavery. Lasting only ten months before Spain resumed control, Britain's rule was of short duration. However, in this brief period North Americans had become buyers of Cuban goods, a factor that would contribute greatly to the wellbeing of the island population.

In the next 60 years, trade increased, as did immigration from Europe and other areas of Latin America. The introduction of the steam-powered sugar mill in 1819 hastened the expansion of the sugar industry. While the demand for African slaves grew, Spain signed a treaty with Britain agreeing to prohibit the slave trade after 1820. The number entering the area did decrease, but the treaty was largely ignored. Over the next three decades, there were several slave revolts, but all proved unsuccessful.


Cuba's political relationship with Spain during this period became increasingly antagonistic. Creoles on the islandthose of Spanish descent who had been born in Cuba and were chiefly wealthy landowners and powerful sugar plantersbridled at the control exercised over them in matters political and economic by colonial administrators from Europe. These planters were also concerned about the future of slavery on the island. They wanted to protect their investment in slaves and their access to the cheap labor of Africa from zealous imperial reformers. At the same time, black slaves in Cuba and their liberal white allies were interested both in national independence and in freedom for the slaves. In 1895, independence-minded black and white Cubans joined in a struggle against Spanish imperial forces. Their rebellion was cut short by the intervention of U.S. troops who defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War (1898) and ruled Cuba for four years. Even after the end of direct U.S. rule, however, the United States continued to exercise an extraordinary degree of influence over Cuban politics and the Cuban economy. U.S. interventionist policy toward Cuba aroused the resentment of many Cubans as did the irresponsible and tyrannical governance of the island by a succession of Cuban presidents.


That anger finally exploded in the late 1950s when a socialist guerrilla army led by Fidel Castro launched an uprising against the brutal, U.S.-supported dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Castro formed a socialist government after taking control of the island, and, in the polarized world of geopolitics during the Cold War, turned to the Soviet Union for support. Cuba's relationship with the United States has been cool at best since Castro's victory. The 1961 U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, an unsuccessful attempt by the U.S. government and Cuban exiles in the United States to overthrow Castro, was the first of many clashes. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, in which the United States successfully resisted an attempt by the Soviet Union to place nuclear weapons in Cuba, is also noteworthy.

Castro's Cuba has over the years supported socialist revolutions throughout the world. At home, Castro has used a heavy hand against dissidents, imprisoning, executing, and exiling many who have opposed him. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has lost its most important trading partner and supporter. Castro's Cuba is in dire economic straits, and many wonder about the future of Castro's regime.


The famous Cuban poet and dissident Jose Marti lived in exile in the United States before returning to Cuba to lead the 1895 rebellion against Spanish forces. In New York City, he strategized with other Cuban opposition leaders and planned their return to Cuba as liberators. Not more than 60 years later, Fidel Castro himself was an exile in the United States. He too plotted a revolution in the country that would soon become his enemy.

Cubans have had a long history of migrating to the United States, often for political reasons. Many Cubans, particularly cigar manufacturers, came during the Ten Years' War (1868-1878) between Cuban nationals and the Spanish military. Yet the most significant Cuban migrations have occurred in the last 35 years. There have been at least four distinct waves of Cuban immigration to the United States since 1959. While many, perhaps most, of the earlier migrants were fleeing Cuba for political reasons, more recent migrants are more likely to have fled because of declining economic conditions at home.

The first of these recent migrations began immediately after Castro's victory and continued until the U.S. government imposed a blockade of Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. The first to leave were supporters of Batista. They were later joined by others who had not been prominent Batista allies but who nonetheless opposed Castro's socialist government. Before the U.S government imposed its blockade, almost 250,000 Cubans had left Cuba for the United States.

The second major migration started in 1965 and continued through 1973. Cuba and the United States agreed that Cubans with relatives residing in the United States would be transported from Cuba. The transportation of migrants began by boat from the northern port of Camarioca and, when many died in boat accidents, was later continued by plane from the airstrip at Varadero. Almost 300,000 Cubans arrived in the United States during this period. The third migration, known as the Mariel Boat Lift, occurred in 1980 after Castro permitted Cubans residing in the United States to visit relatives in Cuba. The sight of well-to-do Cuban Americans coupled with an economic downturn on the island prompted many to line up at the Peruvian Embassy, which Castro had opened for emigration. The sheer numbers of Cubans clamoring to leave led Castro to permit any Cubans wishing to emigrate to leave by boat from the port of Mariel. Some 125,000 Cubans took advantage of this opportunity.

As economic conditions have worsened since the fall of Cuba's principal economic supporter, the Soviet Union, more Cubans have left Cuba in makeshift boats for Florida. Since Castro decided not to impede the departure of aspiring migrants, thousands of Cubans have left, many perishing on the boat journey. U.S. President Bill Clinton has initiated a policy of intercepting these migrants at sea and detaining them in centers at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere in Latin America, a policy that has outraged many in the Cuban American community.

These four migrations have brought substantial numbers of Cubans to the United States. Over the years, just as the migration "push factors" have changed, so has the composition of the migrant population. While the earliest migrants were drawn from the highly educated and conservative middle and upper classesthose who had the most to lose from a socialist revolutionmore recent migrants have been poorer and less educated. In the past several decades, the migrant population has come to look more like the Cuban population as a whole and less like the highest socioeconomic stratum of that population.


According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there are nearly 860,000 persons of Cuban descent in the United States. Of these, 541,000, or almost 63 percent of the total, live in Florida. Most of these live in Dade County, where Miami is located. There are also sizable communities in New York, New Jersey, and California. Together, these three states account for 23 percent of the Cuban American population. Florida, and Miami specifically, is the center of the Cuban American community. It is in Florida that the most significant Cuban American political organizations, research centers, and cultural institutions make their homes. The first Cubans to arrive in Florida settled in a section of Miami known among non-Cubans as "Little Havana." Little Havana was originally that area to the west of downtown Miami, bounded by Seventh Street, Eighth Street, and Twelfth Avenue. But the Cuban American population eventually spread beyond those initial boundaries, moving west, south, and north to West Miami, South Miami, Westchester, Sweetwater, and Hialeah.

Many Cuban migrants moved even farther afield with the encouragement and assistance of the federal government. The Cuban Refugee Program, established by the Kennedy administration in 1961, provided assistance to Cuban migrants, enabling them to move out of southern Florida. Almost 302,000 Cubans were resettled though the Cuban Refugee Program; however, many have begun to return to the Miami area.

Return to Cuba has not been an option for Cuban Americans for political reasons. Many early migrants hoped to return quickly after Castro was ousted, but that ouster never happened. There are prominent and powerful political organizations dedicated to ridding Cuba of Castro and setting up a non-socialist government in Cuba. Recent surveys, however, have shown that most Cuban Americans do not wish to return to Cuba. Fully 70 percent said that they will not go back.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The Cuban American community is well assimilated in the United States. Moreover, because of its size, it has significant political influence. In 1993, the Cuban American National Foundation lobbied against and successfully prevented the Clinton administration from appointing an undersecretary of state for Latin American affairs whom it opposed. Fully 78 percent of Cuban Americans had registered to vote in 1989 and 1990, compared to 77.8 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans. Moreover, 67.2 percent of Cuban Americans reported that they voted in the 1988 presidential election, compared to 70.2 percent of Anglo-Americans, 49.3 percent of Mexican Americans, and 49.9 percent of Puerto Ricans.

Cuban Americans also enjoy greater economic security than other Hispanic groups. In 1986, the median family income of Cuban Americans was $26,770 $2,700 less than the median for all U.S. family incomes but $6,700 more than the median for all Hispanic American family incomes. Cuban Americans are also highly educated; fully 17 percent of the Cuban American population has completed college or college and some graduate schooling, compared with eight percent of Puerto Ricans, six percent of Mexican Americans, and 20 percent of the total U.S. population. In other significant ways too, Cuban Americans closely resemble the total U.S. population. Two-parent households account for 78 percent of all Cuban American households and 80 percent of all U.S. households. The average U.S. family has 3.19 members, while the average Cuban American family has 3.18 members.

Despite the overwhelming success of early Cuban immigrants, many of the more recent migrants to the United States have not enjoyed as warm a reception from their adopted country as their predecessors. This is partially due to the fact that, as a group, they have less business or professional experience and are less educated. While the vast majority of Cubans who migrated to the United States during this period were not social deviants, they were nonetheless labeled as such by the media. The challenges presented to these migrants serve to remind us that Cuban Americans are not a monolithic community. Rather, they are quite diverse; generalizations about Cuban American politics and conservatism or about Cuban American wealth and business success must therefore consider the full complexity of the Cuban American community.


In Cuba, a sixth-grade education is compulsory and the illiteracy rate, in 1981, was 1.9 percent. There is a strong emphasis on math and science, and Cuba has become a center for preparing medical personnel, generating scores of young doctors. In the United States, Cubans and Cuban Americans are equally concerned about education and their children are often well-educated. The overwhelming majority of U.S.-born Cuban Americans have completed high school and some form of further education (83 percent). More than 25 percent have gone to post-secondary schools, compared to less than 20 percent of Cuban Americans born abroad, less than 16 percent of native-born Puerto Ricans, and ten percent of native-born Mexican Americans. More than any other Hispanic migrant group, Cuban Americans have shown a willingness and the ability to pay for private education for their children. Of native-born Cuban Americans, almost 47 percent have attended private schools. These numbers indicate that education is extremely important to Cuban Americans and that they, more than any other Hispanic migrant group, have the resources to pay for additional schooling and private education.


Like many recent migrant groups, Cuban Americans enjoy both Cuban and U.S. cuisines. Traditional Cuban food is the product of the mingling of Spanish and West African cuisines in the climate of the Caribbean. Pork and beef are the most common meats in the traditional Cuban diet. Rice, beans, and root vegetables usually accompany such dishes. Necessary ingredients are available in most major cities where there are significant Hispanic populations. Many Cuban Americans, especially those who have been raised in the United States, have easy access to a variety of "American" foods and tend to reserve traditional cooking for special occasions.


Early Cuban immigrants entered the United States with the blessing of a president and a nation committed to combating communism. These Cubans therefore enjoyed a largely favorable relationship with their host communities. More recently, signs of conflict between Cuban Americans and other American communities have increased. The movement of Cuban Americans beyond the Little Havana enclave was accompanied by a movement of non-Hispanic whites out of the areas into which Cuban Americans were moving. There has also been a longstanding antagonism between Cuban Americans and African Americans in Florida, especially as Cuban Americans have asserted themselves politically and economically in the Miami area, becoming the dominant ethnic community there. African American community leaders often accuse Cuban Americans of shutting them out of the political process and keeping them out of the tourist industry. In 1991, according to an article by Nicole Lewis in Black Enterprise, black Dade County residents were outraged by five Cuban American mayors' failure to officially welcome South African freedom fighter and president Nelson Mandela; they retaliated by initiating a boycott of tourismrelated businesses in the Miami area.

Most Cuban Americans report and perceive a nondiscriminatory relationship with white Americans. A survey of Hispanic Americans conducted from 1989 to 1990 showed that 82.2 percent of Cubans who were U.S. citizens said they had not personally experienced discrimination because of their national origin. Nonetheless, 47 percent of Cuban Americans surveyed said that they thought there was discrimination against Cuban Americans in general.


According to Fernando S. Mendoza's January 9, 1991 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Cuban Americans are generally healthier than other Hispanic Americans but often less healthy than non-Hispanic white Americans. Several indicators demonstrate the health status of Cuban Americans. The proportion of Cuban American babies with low birth weight is lower than the percentage of all infants in the United States with low birth weight and slightly higher than that of non-Hispanic white Americans. Similarly, the proportion of Cuban American infants born early, while lower than that of Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans, is nonetheless higher than that of non-Hispanic whites.

In the same issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Council on Scientific Affairs published an article stating that in other areas the comparative position of Cuban Americans is similar. Cuban Americans are far more likely than non-Hispanic white Americans to be murdered or to commit suicide. Still, they are less likely to be murdered than black or Puerto Rican Americans and less likely to die in accidents than black, Puerto Rican, or Mexican Americans. Trevino et al.'s piece showed that when Cuban Americans do seek treatment for injury or disease, they frequently must pay the entire cost of emergency care, since a higher proportion of Cuban Americans than U.S. residents is uninsured. Many Cuban Americans turn to the santeria tradition for health care, participating in santeria healing services and seeking the advice of santeria healers.


The national language of Cuba is Spanish and many Cuban Americans have some facility with Spanish. In 1989 and 1990, among Cuban Americans born in the United States, 96 percent said that they could speak either Spanish and English equally well or English better than Spanish. Cuban Americans born in the United States tend to be English speakers and have less facility with Spanish. Among those individuals born abroad, 74.3 percent said that they could speak either Spanish or Spanish better than English; however, while those born abroad have greater facility with Spanish, more than half have some English ability as well.

These numbers do not capture the phenomenon of "Spanglish." Among many Cuban Americans born in the United States who speak English at school and in other public domains but speak some Spanish at home with relatives and neighbors, "Spanglish," or a linguistic mixture of Spanish and English, is a common alternative. Many Cuban Americansespecially younger Cuban Americansuse Spanglish to talk with friends and acquaintances, incorporating English words, phrases, and syntactic units into Spanish grammatical structures. Facility with Spanglish, however, does not necessarily imply lack of facility with either English or Spanish, though such a lack of facility may characterize the Spanglish speaker.

Family and Community Dynamics

The Cuban American family is different in significant ways from the Cuban family. The Cuban family is characterized by patriarchy, strong parental control over children's lives, and the importance of non-nuclear relationships for the nuclear family. In the United States, these elements have become less characteristic among families of Cuban descent. For example, the Cuban tradition of selecting godparents for a child who will maintain a close and quasi-parental relationship with the child has begun to decline in the United States. Compadres, or godparents, are less likely to play a significant role in the lives of Cuban American children.

Similarly, Cuban American women are more likely to have greater authority in the family than in Cuba. This is in part attributable to the greater workforce participation of Cuban American women. These women, because they contribute to the household income and to the overall security and independence of the family, claim a greater share of authority and power within the household. Authority in Cuban American families has changed in other ways too. Children have greater freedom in the United States than in Cuba. For example, in Cuba young people are traditionally accompanied by an adult chaperon when dating. This is less true in the United States where young people go out unaccompanied or accompanied by an older sibling.


There are significant changes in patterns of marriage and childbearing within the U.S. Cuban community as Americans of Cuban descent raised in the United States have begun to depart from traditional Cuban familial patterns. Although 63 percent of foreign-born Cuban Americans over the age of 18 are married, only 38 percent of similarly aged U.S.-born Cubans are married. Also, almost 50 percent of U.S.-born Cuban Americans are single, compared with 10.7 percent of Cuban Americans born in Cuba. Cuban Americans born in the United States are also less likely to become parents than Cuban Americans born abroad. Finally, nearly 30 percent of native-born Cuban Americans who are married are married to Anglo-Americans, compared to 3.6 percent of Cuban-born Americans.


Most Cubans living in Cuba identify themselves either as Roman Catholics or as nonreligious. The large number of nonreligious people is a consequence of the antireligious bias of the socialist government in Cuba. The most recent statistics reflecting the religious affiliations of Cubans come from before the Castro Revolution. In 1954 more than 70 percent called themselves Roman Catholic, and six percent called themselves Protestant. There were also small numbers of santeria adherents and Jews at that time.

Recent figures demonstrate that Americans of Cuban descent overwhelmingly identify themselves as Roman Catholics. Almost 80 percent of those born in Cuba and 64 percent of those born in the United States are Catholic. Fourteen percent of Cuban migrants and ten percent of U.S.-born Cubans follow some form of Protestantism. Fully one-quarter of native-born Cuban Americans say they either have no preference or have another religious affiliation.

Among Protestant Cubans in Florida, most belong to mainline Protestant denominations, the most common being Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Lutheran. However, there are increasing numbers of independent church members, including Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists. This growth parallels the growth of charismatic, fundamentalist, and independent churches throughout Latin America and in the United States. Jewish Cuban Americans, while few, are also notable. The Miami Jewish Federation reported in 1984 that there were 5,000 Jewish Cubans in the Miami area. The Miami Cuban Hebrew Congregation and Temple Moses are two of the largest Miami area Cuban synagogues.

The Cuban religious tradition that has received the greatest publicity in recent years, including Russell Miller's article "A Leap of Faith in the January 30, 1994, issue of the New York Times, is santeria. Santeria has been portrayed in movies and television since the mid-1980s as a form of Afro-Caribbean "black magic" similar to Haitian vodun, popularly known as "voodoo." These media portrayals, which have been largely negative and frequently inaccurate, have led to a public misunderstanding of the nature of santeria. The tradition is, like vodun, a synthesis of West African and Roman Catholic religious vocabularies, beliefs and practices. Santeros, or adherents of santeria, seek the guidance, protection, and intervention in their lives of orishas divine personages who trace their lineage both to Yoruba West African gods and Roman Catholic saints. The practice of santeria involves healing rituals, spirit possession, and animal sacrifice. This last aspect of santeria practice caused controversy when leaders of a santeria church recently challenged a local Miami area law prohibiting animal sacrifice. The U.S. Supreme Court later struck down that law as unconstitutional. The same santeria church that challenged that law has incorporated itself and plans to establish a national church similar to other national religious organizations.

"S ometimes I have dreams, and I see myself walking to my grant-parents' house in Cuba ... It brings back a lot of memories. The States is home. I have no qualms about it, but I'm still attracted to that little island, no matter how small it is. It's home. It's your people. You feel, if it's ever possible again, you'd like to reconstruct what was there. You want to be a part of it."

Ramon Fernández in 1961, cited in American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It, edited by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980).

Employment and Economic Traditions

Most Cuban Americans, both foreign-born and U.S.-born, were employed in 1989 and 1990. Their rates of unemployment were lower than those of Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans though somewhat higher than those of non-Hispanic white Americans. Almost 18 percent of Cuban Americans were professionals or managers. Although only 15 percent of Anglo-Americans were so employed, more than one-third of Cubans who were U.S. citizens were employed in technical, sales, or administrative support positions.

Cuban Americans are better off financially than other Hispanic Americans and nearly as well off as the average American. Their economic and employment profiles look very little like those of other recent Hispanic Caribbean immigrant groups (e.g., Puerto Ricans and Dominicans). In the Miami area, the center of the Cuban American community, Cuban Americans are prominent in virtually every profession. In 1984 Cuban Americans headed a third of the Miami area private companies that returned sales of at least 12.5 million. Manuel Viamonte's book, Cuban Exiles in Florida: Their Presence and Contribution, states that there are approximately 2,000 Cuban American medical doctors in the Miami area, and the Cuban Medical Association in Exile claims more than 3,000 members nationwide.

Cubans are regarded as a successful migrant group. They are reputed to be excellent and dedicated entrepreneurs who came to the United States with nothing and built profitable industries. Scholars report that later immigrants have built upon the connections and resources of the Cuban community already here. And many of the wealthiest Cuban American business people built their businesses by catering to the Cuban community or by using their connections to or knowledge of it. Nonetheless, there are many exceptions to this portrait of Cuban Americans. More than 33 percent of Cuban American households earn less than $20,000 per year, and while this proportion is close to the proportion of Anglo-Americans in the same income category, it still represents an extraordinary number of Cuban Americans who have not yet achieved the "American Dream" of security and prosperity.

Politics and Government

Cuban Americans are reputed to be conservative politically and to vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Party in elections. Dario Moreno and Christopher L. Warren's 1992 essay in Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, validates this reputation by examining the voting patterns of Cuban Americans in the 1992 election. Voting returns from Dade County, Florida, showed that 70 percent of Hispanic Americans there voted for then-President George Bush. Another survey indicated that, of Cuban Americans who voted in 1988, almost 78 percent voted for Republican candidates. That same survey showed that, in the 1988 elections, most Cuban Americans were registered to vote and voted. Thus, Cuban Americans seem to share many basic political values and a willingness to exercise their voting power to advance these values.

The driving ideological force behind most Cuban American political activity has been opposition to the Marxist regime in Cuba. Some of the most powerful Cuban American political organizations are dedicated to shaping U.S. policy toward Cuba and to ridding Cuba of Castro. Perhaps the most important of these organizations is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). Headed until 1998 by Jorge Mas Canosa, a wealthy Miami businessman who participated in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion attempt, CANF squelched the Clinton administration's nomination of a Cuban American lawyer for Latin American undersecretary at the State Department because it judged him too sympathetic to the current Cuban regime. CANF also pushed for the passage of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which imposed further restrictions on trade with Cuba, and for the passage of the controversial Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (the Helms-Burton Act). This law, which allows the United States to impose sanctions on foreign companies that trade with Cuba, provoked intense resentment throughout the world and has been challenged in the World Court. CANF has also supported U.S. anticommunist ventures elsewhere in the world. CANF is active in several areas: it sponsors research on Cuba and Cuban Americans; it raises money for political purposes; and it lobbies elected officials. Many regard the organization as representative of the Cuban American community. Some, however, have charged that the foundation tries to stifle dissent within the community.

Since Mas's death in 1998, however, the role of CANF has become less clear. Growing numbers of Cuban Americans resent what they consider the organization's excesses, and, in opposition to the CANF position, prefer an end to the U.S. trade embargo. Groups such as the Cuban Committee for Democracy and Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change) which advocate an end to the embargo, were given renewed support when Pope John Paul II denounced U.S. policy toward Cuba when he visited the island in January 1998. The fact that President Clinton softened restrictions on travel to Cuba as well as donations of food and medicines suggests to many that CANF's power to dictate U.S. policy toward Cuba has begun to wane.

The Cuban American community's political activities have been very successful in certain areas. It has elected Cuban Americans to Congress and has dominated the local political scene in the Miami area. Consequently, candidates have courted them as a group in the last two presidential elections. Change may lie in the community's political future, however. Mas Canosa, a staunch Republican, gave some support to Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign, and CANF donated $275,000 to the Democrat's coffers. Voices within the community have raised questions about the conservatism that has guided Cuban Americans since the 1960s. Indeed, Bill Clinton received more Hispanic support in the Miami area than any of his predecessors (Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter), suggesting that political preferences in the Cuban American community may be changing.


Since the start of Cuban migration to the United States, Cuban Americans have been greatly concerned with the political status of Cuba and many are committed to Cuba's political transformation. In the United States, they have been staunchly conservative, supporting candidates who have taken a hard line against Cuba. However, Cuban Americans are becoming less committed to the struggle against Castro; or at least, the anti-Castro struggle is becoming less central to Cuban American identity. A principal challenge facing the Cuban American community in the years ahead is a reconsideration of what it means to be Cuban American. Perhaps that definition will become more elastic and accommodating, and the Cuban American community will embrace ever greater internal diversity. What had once seemed a politically united community is divided on issues like migration, Castro, and U.S. Republicanism. However, these internal divisions should not weaken the community, and may even strengthen the Cuban American community, making it more vital.

Individual and Group Contributions


Lydia Cabrera (1900-1991) was one of Cuba's most prominent scholars and writers. Born in Havana, she studied Afro-Cuban folklore and edited many collections of folk literature; she was also a prolific fiction writer. She lived in exile in Spain and Miami. Poet and art historian Ricardo Pau-Llosa, who was born in Havana, moved to the United States in 1960 and became a naturalized citizen. He is an authority on contemporary Latin American art, and has written texts for more than 30 exhibition catalogues. He has also published several collections of poetry. Havana-born Gustavo (Francisco) Perez-Firmat, who moved to the United States in 1960 and became a naturalized citizen, is a literary historian who specializes in the Hispanic vanguard novel. He has been awarded numerous fellowships and is a professor of romance languages at Duke University.


Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., the son of Cuban immigrants in Miami, has been nationally recognized for his contributions to medical care for the homeless. Dr. Greer founded the Camillus Health Concern in Miami, and developed a medical school course that focused on the specific medical needs of homeless persons. Dr. Greer has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 1993, and has advised the federal government on health care reform. His book Waking Up in America, which details his work with the homeless, was published in 1999.


Born in Havana, Cuba, Roberto Goizueta (1931 ) is the chief-executive of Coca-Cola. Jorge Mas Canosa (1939-1998) was a Miami businessman and chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. Born in Santiago, Cuba, he became president of his own company, the Mas Group, and chair of the advisory board of Radio Marti, the U.S. governmentsponsored radio station that broadcasts to Cuba.


Desi Arnaz (1917-1986) was an actor and musician who is perhaps best remembered for his role in the popular 1950s TV series "I Love Lucy," which he helped create with his wife Lucille Ball. Cuban American dancer Fernando Bujones (1955 ) danced with the American Ballet Theatre from 1974 to 1985. Maria Conchita Alonso (1957 ), a singer and film actress, was born in Cuba; she has appeared in films such as Moscow on the Hudson and House of the Spirits, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for a solo album. Andy Garcia (1956 ), a television and film actor, was born in Cuba; he has starred in such films as The Untouchables, Internal Affairs, Godfather III, and When a Man Loves a Woman, and was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Godfather III. Elizabeth Pena (1959 ), a television and movie actress, was born in New Jersey; she has appeared on stage and in such films as Jacob's Ladder, Blue Steel, La Bamba, and The Waterdance, as well as in the television series "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law."


Cristina Garcia (1958 ), a journalist and a fiction writer, was born in Havana; she earned a B.A. from Barnard College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University; she served as a bureau chief and correspondent for Time magazine, and was a National Book Award finalist for her Dreaming in Cuban. Oscar Hijuelos (1951 ), a Cuban American born in New York City, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a novel that was later made into a movie of the same name. One of the leading voices in contemporary American literature, he is the author of several novels and short stories that address his Cuban American heritage. Reinaldo Arenas, who came to the United States in the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, was considered one of the leading experimental writers in Cuba. Imprisoned by Castro for homosexuality and political dissent, Arenas wrote frankly about his erotic life, most particularly in his posthumously published memoir, Before Night Falls. Arenas, in the last stages of AIDS, committed suicide in New York City in 1990.


The popular salsa musician Celia Cruz had a cameo role in the film The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Gloria Estefan (1958 ), a Cuban-born singer/songwriter, enjoyed top-ten popularity during her stint with the Miami pop band Miami Sound Machine and during her solo career; she fronted Miami Sound Machine from 1975 to 1987; the song "Conga" propelled her and the band to national prominence.


Baseball outfielder Tony Oliva (1940 ) played for Minnesota from 1962 to 1976. During that period, he won the American League batting tittle three times. Tony Perez (1942 ) was an infielder, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds, from 1964 to 1986. He was a seven-time National League All-Star. Cuban-born José Canseco (1964 ) began playing for Oakland as an outfielder in 1985. In 1986 he was proclaimed rookie of the year and in 1988 he became the first player to have 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in one year.


Lincoln Diaz-Balart (1954 ), a Florida Republican member of Congress since 1993, was born in Havana; he earned a law degree from Case Western Reserve University and served in the Florida State Senate. Robert Menendez (1954 ), the first Cuban American Democratic representative to the national legislature, was born in New York City and represents New Jersey in Congress; he was also a member of the New Jersey State Assembly and was mayor of Union City, New Jersey, from 1986 to 1993. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (1952 ), a Republican member of Congress from Florida, was born in Havana; first elected in 1989, she was the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She has also been a school principal and a Florida State Senator. Xavier Suarez (1949 ) was born in Las Villas, Cuba; he earned a law degree from Harvard before chairing Miami's Affirmative Action Commission; he serves as mayor of the City of Miami. Bob Martinez (1934 ) served as the first Hispanic governor of Florida from 1987 to 1991. In 1991 he was appointed director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy by President George Bush.



Cuba Update.

Reflects the aim of the Center for Cuban Studies, which is to disseminate accurate and up-to-date information on Cuba. Recurring features include editorials; news of research; book reviews; a calendar of events; news of conferences, forums, film showings, and exhibitions; and notices of publications issued by the Center.

Contact: Sandra Levinson, Editor.

Address: Center for Cuban Studies, 124 West 23rd Street, New York, New York 10011.

Telephone: (212) 242-0559.

Fax: (212) 242-1937.


Diario Las Americas.

Though not precisely a Cuban American paper, it has been one of the principal forums for Cuban American expression since 1953, and has a readership of 70,000.

Contact: Horacio Aguirre, Editor and Publisher.

Address: 2900 Northwest 39th Street, Miami, Florida 33142-5149.

Telephone: (305) 633-3341.

Fax: (305) 635-7668.

Hispanic Newsletter.

Monthly newsletter covering the League's activities on behalf of Cuban Americans. Assesses needs of minority communities in relation to education, training, manpower development, and health care. Recurring features include reports of Cuban American community-based centers opened by the League.

Address: National League of Cuban American Community-Based Centers, 2119 Websters, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802.

Telephone: (219) 745-5421.

Fax: (219) 744-1363.

El Nuevo Herald.

The Spanish-language subsidiary of The Miami Herald, it was founded in 1976 and has a circulation of 120,000.

Contact: Barbara Gutierrez, Editor.

Address: Hometown Herald, 1520 East Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33304.

Telephone: (954) 527-8940.

Fax: (954) 527-8955.

El Nuevo Patria.

Originated in 1959, it has a circulation of 28,000.

Contact: Carlos Diaz-Lujan, Editor.

Address: 850 North Miami Avenue, #102, P.O. Box 2, José Martí Station, Miami, Florida 33135-0002.

Telephone: (305) 530-8787.

Fax: (305)577-8989.


WAMR-FM (107.5), WQBA-AM (1140).

Programs news and talk on its AM station and contemporary music on its FM station.

Contact: Claudia Puig, AM General Manager; or Luis Diaz-Albertiny, FM General Manager.

Address: 2828 Coral Way, Miami, Florida 33145-3204.

Telephone: (305) 441-2073.

Fax: (305) 445-8908.

WAQI-AM (710).

A Spanish-language news and talk station.

Contact: Tomas Regalado, News Director.

Address: 2690 Coral Way, Miami, Florida 33145.

Telephone: (305) 445-4040.

WRHC-AM (1550).

Programs Spanish talk and news shows.

Contact: Lazaro Asencio, News Director.

Address: 330 Southwest 27th Avenue, Suite 207, Miami, Florida 33135-2957.

Telephone: (305) 541-3300.

Fax: (305) 643-6224.


Two of the most prominent Spanish-language television stations serving the Cuban American population in the Miami area provide diverse programming created by Cuban American journalists and administrators.

WLTV-Channel 23 (Univision).

Contact: Alina Falcon, News Director.

Address: 9405 Northwest 41st Street, Miami, Florida 33178.

Telephone: (305) 471-3900.

Fax: (305) 471-4160.

WSCV-Channel 51 (Telemundo).

Contact: J. Manuel Calvo.

Address: 2340 West Eighth Avenue, Hialeah, Florida 33010-2019.

Telephone: (305) 888-5151.

Fax: (305) 888-9270.

Organizations and Associations

Cuban-American Committee.

Works to improve interaction between the United States and Cuba.

Contact: Alicia Torrez, Executive Director.

Address: 733 Fifteenth Street NW, Suite 1020, Washington, D.C. 20005-2112.

Telephone: (202) 667-6367.

Cuban American National Council (CNC).

Aims to identify the socioeconomic needs of the Cuban population in the United States and to promote needed human services.

Contact: Guarione M. Diaz, President and Executive Director.

Address: 300 Southwest 12th Avenue, Third Floor, Miami, Florida 33130.

Telephone: (305) 642-3484.

Fax: (305) 642-7463.



Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).

Americans of Cuban descent and others with an interest in Cuban affairs. Serves as a grass roots lobbying organization promoting freedom and democracy in Cuba and worldwide.

Contact: Francisco Hernandez, President.

Address: 7300 Northwest 35th Terrace, Suite 105, Miami, Florida 33122.

Telephone: (305) 592-7768.

Fax: (305) 592-7889.



National Association of Cuban American Women of the U.S.A.

Addresses current issues, concerns, and problems affecting Hispanic and minority women.

Contact: Ziomara Sanchez, President.

Address: P.O. Box 614, Union City, New Jersey 07087.

Telephone: (201) 864-4879.

Fax: (201) 223-0036.

Museums and Research Centers

Center for Cuban Studies (CCS).

Individuals and institutions organized to provide resource materials on Cuba to educational and cultural institutions. Sponsors film showings, lectures, and seminars; organizes tours of Cuba. Maintains Cuban art collection with photographic archives, paintings, drawings, ceramics, and posters; sponsors art exhibits.

Contact: Sandra Levinson, Executive Director.

Address: 124 West 23rd Street, New York, New York 10011.

Telephone: (212) 242-0559.

Fax: (212) 242-1937.


Cuban Research Institute.

Integral unit of Florida International University, under the direction of the Latin American and Caribbean Center. Besides supporting and encouraging research on Cuba, it also sponsors an annual teacher training workshop and a journalist workshop.

Contact: Lisandro Perez, Director.

Address: University Park, DM 363, Miami, Florida 33199.

Telephone: (305) 348-1991.

Fax: (305) 348-3593.


Sources for Additional Study

Boswell, Thomas D., and James R. Curtis. The Cuban American Experience: Culture, Images, and Perspectives. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983.

Cuban Exiles in Florida: Their Presence and Contribution, edited by Antonio Jorge, Jaime Suchlicki, and Adolfo Leyva de Varona. Miami: Research Institute for Cuban Studies, University of Miami, 1991.

de la Garza, Rodolfo O., et al. Latino Voices: Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992.

Morganthau, Tom. "How Can We Say No?" Newsweek, 5 September 1994, p. 29.

Olson, James S. and Judith E. Cuban Americans: From Trauma to Triumph. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Peterson, Mark F., and Jaime Roquebert. "Success Patterns of Cuban American Enterprises: Implications for Entrepreneurial Communities," in Human Relations 46, 1993, p. 923.

Stone, Peter H. "Cuban Clout," National Journal, February 20, 1993, p. 449.

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Cuban Americans

Cuban Americans

ETHNONYMS: Cubans, cubanos


Identification and Location. Cubans living in the United States originate in Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean Sea and the one closest to the North American continent. Two-thirds of Cuban Americans live in Florida and over half in Miami-Dade County. Elsewhere in the United States, Cubans live almost exclusively in large metropolitan areas, especially Greater New York City-New Jersey and Los Angeles. Those two metropolitan areas, together with Miami, contain more than three-fourths of the Cuban American population.

Demography. According to the 2000 census there were 1,241,685 persons in the United States who identified themselves, in accordance with the terminology of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as being of Cuban "origin or descent. " By far the bulk of that population was born in Cuba and migrated to the United States since 1960. Cubans represent the third-largest single national-origin group within the Hispanic or Latino population of the United States, outranked only by Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. According to the 2000 census, 74.2 percent of Cuban Americans lived in the South (833,120 in Florida), 13.6 percent in the Northeast (139,927 in New Jersey and New York), 8.5 percent in the West (72,286 in California), and 3.6 percent in the Midwest.

Although immigrant populations tend to be young and composed primarily of men, this does not apply to the Cuban American population, which is characterized by high proportions of the middle-aged, elderly, and women. The median age of Cuban Americans (40.7 in 2000) far exceeds that of the general U.S. population. The ratio of women to men among Cuban Americans is also higher than in the rest of the population. These age and gender characteristics are understandable only in the context of the special conditions of Cuban migration. The Cuban government has largely prohibited the emigration of males of military age. That restriction had a particular impact on the age and gender composition of the migrants arriving between 1965 and 1973 through the airlift. It resulted in an extraordinarily high ratio of women to men among those who were between 25 and 40 years of age in 1980. The high proportions of elderly and middle-aged persons are also rooted in the conditions of migration. During the 1960s, young families, with household heads in their late 20s and early 30s, predominated in the exodus from Cuba. This is a large cohort that was in their 50s and 60s at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Additionally, the elderly represented one of the groups most alienated by the sweeping changes introduced by the Cuban revolution. Because this age group was largely a dependent population, the Cuban government facilitated its departure, especially during the airlift. The high percentage of elderly and middle-aged among Cuban Americans is also boosted by a birthrate (16 births per 1000 people) significantly lower than that of other immigrant groups.

Linguistic Affiliation. Cubans speak Spanish. Cuba's non-Spanish immigrant populations in the twentieth century undoubtedly retained their native languages for use in private settings. But every indication seems to point to a widespread adoption of Spanish for public use, so that multilingualism has not been an evident feature of Cuban society in this century. The importance of the United States in the economy of the Cuban Republic, especially tourism and corporate investment, resulted by the middle of this century, in a noticeable use of English as a second language, especially in the capital and among the upper socioeconomic sectors. Cuban Spanish is also peppered with words and idiomatic expressions that are clearly African in origin. The Yoruba language of West Africa is reportedly spoken as a second language among some descendants of African slaves and is also used in religious rituals of African origin.

Among Cuban Americans there appear to be substantial differences between generations in the use of Spanish. Those born in Cuba and who arrived in the United States as adults are more likely to have Spanish as their primary language. In Miami's large Cuban enclave, in which the first generation still predominates, Spanish is a very public language, widely used in business and the media. The size and importance of the Miami enclave has also affected the second generation, which exhibits a tendency to acquire Spanish and to speak it at home with their parents. Research shows, however, that despite the second generation's ability to use Spanish, their language of preference is English.

History and Cultural Relations

From the early nineteenth century through the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States has been the principal country of destination for Cuban emigrants. The development of close economic, political, and cultural relations between the two nations when Cuba was still a Spanish colony attracted to the Unites States Cubans who felt compelled to leave the island, especially those who left for political reasons. By the 1820s there was a significant community of Cubans residing in New York City, the center of Cuban emigration activity throughout the nineteenth century. Most were intellectual and political figures who lived in exile due to their support for Cuban autonomy from Spain. The most important figure of the early New York community was a Catholic priest, Félix Varela y Morales, who arrived there in 1823 and remained there almost until his death in 1853. He became an important leader and builder of the Catholic diocese of New York.

Cuban emigrants who supported annexation of the island to the United States formed a small but politically active community in New Orleans during the 1840s and 1850s. The growing North-South conflict in this country fueled support among Southern planters for the annexation of Cuba, since it would have entered the Union as a slave state. The planters supported efforts by the Cubans in New Orleans to prepare insurgent activities against Spanish control of the island. The intensification of the Cuban independence movement after 1868 increased the number of Cuban exiles residing in the United States, especially in New York. That movement culminated at the end of the century with the war against Spain and the end of the colonial era in 1898. During the 1880s and 1890s New York was the center of the movement led by José Martí to take the struggle for Cuban independence to the island. Mart, regarded as the most important forger of the Cuban nation, lived in New York for nearly fifteen years in a fairly large community of fellow expatriates.

The turmoil caused in the island by the independence movement compelled many cigar manufacturers to move their operations to Florida. They relocated their factories to Key West, only 90 miles north of Cuba. In 1886, Vicente Martínez Ybor, manufacturer of the "Prince of Wales" brand of cigars, opened his factory in the outskirts of Tampa, Florida, in what become known as Ybor City. Other manufacturers followed him, so that by the 1890s, Ybor City grew to become the largest community of Cuban Americans in the nineteenth century. The cigar factories in Ybor City depended on the importation of both tobacco leaves and cigar workers from Cuba, and the community, founded entirely by Cuban immigrants, flourished. The manufacturers did not just build factories, but also housing for the workers and infrastructure, and supported the active social life of the community. By the 1920s, however, Havana regained its position as the center of cigar manufacturing, and many manufacturers and their workers returned there. Ybor City declined in importance as a Cuban American community.

The decades of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s witnessed a tremendous movement of people across the Strait of Florida between the United States and Cuba. The close economic and political ties between the two countries during the first half of the twentieth century had profound cultural and social implications. Havana became one of the foremost foreign destinations for U.S. tourists. At the same time, many Cubans traveled to the United States on a temporary basis. Some did so as students at American universities and others were businessmen involved in the growing flow of capital and goods to Cuba. Others, professionals in sports or music, sought to develop their careers in the United States. The presence in the United States of Cubans among the ranks of professional boxers and major league baseball players became notable. Exponents of Afro-Cuban music, especially percussionists, had a significant influence in the development of both "Big Band" music and jazz in the United States.

In 1959, a process was initiated that in a few years would totally alter Cuba's social, economic, and political institutions. The government which rose to power that year rapidly transformed a dependent capitalist economic system, closely intertwined with the United States, into a centrally-planned system presumably guided by Marxist-Leninist principles, in conflict with the United States and in close alliance with and dependence on the Soviet Union. Such a radical transformation prompted an unprecedented exodus from the island to the United States. Never before in the long history of Cuban migration to this country had the flow of persons attained the levels reached in the four decades that followed 1959. Four major waves took place during four distinct time periods. The first was from 1959 to 1962, when regular commercial air traffic still moved between the United States and Cuba and brought approximately 200,000 people to this country. Next, between 1965-1973 260,500 Cubans arrived through an air-lift, or "freedom flights," sponsored by the U.S. government. These flights operated on a regular basis during those years from Cuba to Miami. The third wave occurred during nine months in 1980, when the notorious Mariel boatlift brought some 125,000 Cubans to the United States in a dramatic fashion. The most recent wave of migration was during the 1994 rafter crisis, when nearly 36,700 persons left Cuba for the United States, most of them in makeshift rafts. Migration from socialist Cuba to the United States has been viewed as heavily influenced by social class and described as a successive "peeling-off," starting at the top, of the layers of the prerevolutionary class structure. This was especially evident in the first migration wave, which was characterized by the exodus of the island's elite. That elite possessed a set of abilities, attitudes, qualifications, and orientations that formed the basis for the relatively successful socioeconomic adjustment of Cubans in the United States in recent decades.


The settlement of Cubans in the United States has occurred almost exclusively in large metropolitan areas, with Miami, New York-New Jersey, and Los Angeles accounting for three-fourths of the total Cuban-origin population of the United States. Miami is the undisputed "Mecca" for Cuban Americans: over half (52.4 percent) live in Miami-Dade County, Florida. In 1970, only 40 percent of Cubans in the United States lived in Greater Miami. The concentration of Cubans in Miami originated in the initial dispersion caused by the U.S. government's Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program. With the goal of easing the pressure of Cuban immigration on Miami, the program scattered some 300,000 Cubans throughout the United States in the period from 1961 to 1978. Families arriving from Cuba were given assistance if they immediately relocated away from Miami. The assistance included transportation costs to the new destination, help in finding housing and employment, and financial assistance until such time as employment was secured. The bulk of the resettlements took place during the early years of the airlift in the 1960s. Almost immediately after the inception of the program, a "trickle-back" to Miami was underway, and the concentration in Miami continues to this day. The data show that the communities outside of Florida that received the largest number of resettled Cubans are precisely the communities that have recently been losing a large number of Cubans to Florida.


Commercial Activities. Miami's Cuban community is regarded as the foremost example in the United States of a true ethnic enclave. The basis of the enclave is highly differentiated entrepreneurial activity. Miami is the U.S. metropolitan area with the highest per capita number of Hispanic-owned businesses. The community's entrepreneurial base was established largely by the Cuban immigrants who arrived in the 1960s, the entrepreneurial class displaced by the socialist revolution. They possessed the skills and attitudes that eventually made possible their successful entry into a wide-range of self-employment. There are three sectors of Miami's economy in which Cuban American entrepreneurship is especially evident and which represent the principal spheres of Cuban American economic participation: construction and real estate development, professional services, and international trade and commerce. Strong and diversified entrepreneurial activity is responsible for the enclave's most important feature: institutional completeness. Cubans in Miami can literally live their lives without leaving their ethnic community. The wide range of sales and services, including professional services, available within the community makes this possible. In terms of economic activities, the completeness of the enclave means that many recent Cuban immigrants enter the U.S. labor market through the large number of businesses that are owned and operated by members of their own group. Compensation is usually not higher in the enclave, but ethnic bonds provide for informal networks of support that facilitate the learning of new skills and the overall process of economic adjustment. The enclave's positive implications for economic adjustment are seen as a factor that has maintained the relatively high socioeconomic position of Cuban Americans.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The marital status composition of Cubans in the United States shows a relatively high proportion of married, divorced, and widowed persons, with a correspondingly low percentage of persons who have never married. This is not surprising given the relatively high numbers of persons who are elderly and middle-aged among Cuban Americans. Cuban American marriages may be subject to particular pressures that lead to higher rates of marital conflict and dissolution. One pressure originates in the success orientation and family work ethic that have resulted in high rates of female participation in the labor force. The definitions of the male role have not totally adjusted to the realities of female employment so as to permit greater sharing of household tasks. Consequently, Cuban women have the double burden of employment and domestic responsibilities. The high divorce rate is most evident among women. The usual gap between the genders in the percent who are divorced is especially pronounced among Cuban Americans. Although this may well be the result of a high divorce rate, it may also reflect the relative disadvantage that a divorced Cuban American woman faces if she wishes to remarry within the group given the relative abundance of women in cohorts that have recently passed through the prime marital ages. That numerical imbalance between the sexes may have also influenced the incidence of intermarriage. Studies have shown that Cubans, in comparison with many other immigrant groups in the United States, are more likely to marry outside their particular group.

Domestic Unit. Among Cuban Americans the high proportion of divorced women does not translate itself into household characteristics usually associated with a high divorce rate. Among Cubans, a relatively high proportion of children under age 18 live with both parents, and there is a fairly low number of families headed by women with no adult male present. The divorced Cuban woman tends to return to her parents' household and, given the relatively low birth rate, she is not likely to have children, a factor that favors her return to the parental home.

One of the most distinctive features of the Cuban American household is the relatively widespread existence of the three-generation family. Compared with other populations in the United States, the Cuban elderly are not likely to be heads of households and much more likely to live with their children. They also tend not to live in nursing homes, especially in comparison with the total elderly population of the United States. Many Cuban Americans believe it is disgraceful to have a widowed parent living alone or in a nursing home. Furthermore, because many of the Cuban elderly arrived in this country past their working ages, they were in an especially vulnerable situation in adjusting to life in this country, both economically and culturally.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. The Cuban American community, especially in Miami, is highly politically active. Although more than four decades have passed since the Cuban Revolution, many Cuban Americans remain "exiles," focused on the political status of the homeland. The principal focus of political discourse and mobilization is still Cuba, and the goal is the overthrow of the current Cuban government. Consequently, the principal voluntary associations within the Cuban community are usually centered on organizing opposition to the Cuban regime through tactics aimed at isolating the Havana government. One paradox of Cuban American political organization is that despite the manifest emphasis on the affairs of the homeland, the community, especially in Miami, has developed a strong participation in the U.S. political system at the state and local levels. Starting in the late 1970s Cubans started occupying important elected and appointed positions in various government entities in southern Florida. By the middle and late 1990s, Cuban Americans represented the predominant force in the political landscape of the region. Most of the mayors and commissioners of the cities located within the Greater Miami metropolitan area were Cuban Americans. The public school system, the county administration, the largest institutions of public higher education, and the county police were all headed by Cuban Americans. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the majority of Florida's state legislators from Greater Miami were Cuban American, and three persons of Cuban origin served in the U.S. Congress (two from Florida and one from New Jersey).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. As in most of Latin America, the predominant religion in Cuba during the last five hundred years is Roman Catholicism. Throughout most of its history in Cuba, however, the Church has not had the influence it enjoyed throughout the rest of the area. Cuba's role in the Spanish Empire was almost exclusively centered on Havana as a pivotal port city in Spain's trade system. Since its establishment, the Cuban capital has had a distinctly secular character, and observers have long noted the lack of religiosity among the inhabitants of the island. Most Cubans, therefore, can best be described as nominal Catholics.

The influence of Catholicism was further weakened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the entry of large numbers of non-Catholics. Of special importance were the large migration flows of African slaves during the first half of the nineteenth century. The cults from West Africa eventually blended their traditions with many Catholic practices, resulting in a religious syncretism that is the basis of the religious beliefs of many Cubans, especially in the lower socioeconomic sectors. Religious heterogeneity was furthered by U.S. influence early in this century as a number of Protestant denominations made successful inroads in the island. During the twentieth century there were sizable migration flows to Cuba from China, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the English and French Caribbean, all of which served to increase the non-Catholic population. Cubans in the United States reflect the island's religious traditions. While most are nominal Roman Catholics, there is also evidence of substantial heterogeneity in religious beliefs. The Cuban tradition of secularism continues in the United States. Religion does not constitute the basis for the principal organized voluntary activities among Cuban Americans. The principal institutions in the community are almost exclusively political and economic, not religious.

Arts. Drawing upon a dynamic artistic and cultural tradition that flourished in Havana during the first half of the twentieth century, Cubans in the United States have made important contributions in the arts. A sizable group of Cuban American painters have produced works that are in high demand in the art world. These painters span several generations and include the established artists that migrated from Cuba in the early 1960s as well as a younger generation that left the island in the 1980s and 1990s. In Miami, Cubans have made an indelible mark on the artistic and cultural programs of the city. This is true not only in painting, but also in film, theater, dance, and architecture.

For other cultures in The United States of America, see List of Cultures by country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


Boswell, Thomas D. (1984). The Cuban-American Experience. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld.

Garcìa, Marìa Cristina (1996). Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1951-1994. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jorge, Antonio, Jaime Suchlicki, and Adolfo Leyva de Varona, eds. (1991). Cuban Exiles in Florida: Their Presence and Contribution. Miami, FL: University of Miami, North-South Center Publications for the Research Institute for Cuban Studies.

Pèrez, Lisandro (1986). "Cubans in the United States," The Annals 487: 126-137.

Rogg, Eleanor Meyer (1980). Adaptation and Adjustment of Cubans: West New York, New Jersey. New York: Hispanic Research Center.


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Cuban Americans


CUBAN AMERICANS began forming communities in the United States in the late nineteenth century. In the 1860s, cigar manufacturers began moving their shops to Florida to avoid political turmoil in Cuba, and workers followed. Struggling to end Spanish colonialism in Cuba, political exiles organized clubs and expeditions. By 1870, more than 1,000 Cubans lived in Key West. Communities also emerged in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Tampa, Jacksonville, and New Orleans. Migration continued, responding largely to political and economic changes in Cuba. With the 1959 Cuban Revolution, migration increased dramatically, and was shaped by the Cold War. Cuba instituted socialist reforms, while the United States defined its refugee policy based on anti-communism. American welcomed Cubans as refugees fleeing communism.

Cubans came in three major "waves" of migration. From 1959 to 1962, more than 215,000 Cubans arrived. Hoping to overthrow Castro and return to Cuba, some 1,300 exiles, with support from the Central Intelligence Agency, invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The invasion failed. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States pledged not to intervene militarily in Cuba in exchange for the Soviet removal of missiles there.

From 1965 to 1973 more than 300,000 Cubans arrived, as the U.S. and Cuban governments permitted those with relatives in the United States to come via an organized airlift. In 1980 migration was rapid, and less controlled. The Cuban government opened the port of Mariel, and Cuban Americans rushed there by boat to retrieve relatives and friends. Another 125,000 Cubans came. Between waves, close to 100,000 Cubans arrived through third countries or through the Florida Keys by boat.

Cuba's upper classes dominated the first wave and constituted a significant proportion of the second wave. Described as "golden exiles," the first arrivals were political and military supporters of the former dictator Fulgencio Batista, those most threatened by Cuba's redistribution policies, and professionals. Although the second wave was less homogenous, it was the third wave that more closely resembled Cuba's population. This migration was more socio-economically diverse and included a higher proportion of blacks and mulattoes. The migrants, however, were overwhelmingly male (70 percent), younger

by an average of about ten years, and included a significant number of gay men. The new arrivals were less welcome by the United States and the Cuban American community. Perceiving Cuba as dumping their "undesirables" in the United States, the U.S. media labeled them as "criminals." Yet authorities released half of the 1980 immigrants to sponsors in Miami. Of the others, held in military camps, an estimated 16 percent had been jailed in Cuba, some as convicted felons but many for participating in the black market or refusing military service.

U.S. government programs eased Cubans' settlement. The 1961 Cuban Refugee Program provided unprecedented and comprehensive assistance, with emergency relief checks, food distribution, medical care, education, job training, and loans. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act facilitated the transition from refugees to permanent residents by cutting red tape and allowing permanent residency regardless of how they had entered the country. With education and skills, as well as federal and private loans, early arrivals created an economic enclave in Miami that provided jobs to later arrivals. Cuban women entered the work force in much higher proportions than they had in Cuba. Their employment was facilitated by the enclave's garment industry jobs and by three-generation households, where grandmothers provided childcare. The resettlement program sought to disperse Cubans beyond Dade County, Florida, where the overwhelming majority lived. Communities emerged in Union City and West New York, New Jersey; New York City; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As more Cuban Americans became naturalized citizens and registered to vote, they became a force in Florida politics. By the mid-1980s, Cuban-born mayors represented Miami, Hialeah, West Miami, and several small municipalities in Dade County, and ten Cuban Americans served in the state legislature. In national politics, the Cuban American National Foundation, founded in 1981 and based in Washington, D.C., voiced anti-Castro views and sought to influence U.S. policy toward Cuba. During the 1970s activists, and especially the younger generation, challenged the vehemently anti-Castro stance that dominated the Cuban American community. As they advocated an open "dialogue" with the Cuban government, family visits, and the release of political prisoners, some in the Cuban American community responded with violence.

Cuban migration is still shaped by U.S.-Cuba relations. A 1984 agreement between the two governments stipulated the admission of up to 20,000 Cubans per year. Yet during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States admitted an average of just 2,500 per year. As pressures mounted, Cubans tried to reach U.S. shores. In 1994, American authorities intercepted 36,791 rafters. The exodus slowed when Cuba agreed to seize rafters, and the United States agreed to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas per year. U.S. policies toward Cubans shifted. Rafters already in the United States were detained for more than eight months before being admitted. In 1995 U.S. policy became to return rafters to Cuba. Although Cubans would ostensibly be treated like other migrants, in reality political context still shaped U.S. responses. By the 2000 census, 1,242,685 Cuban Americans lived in the United States, constituting 3.5 percent of the Latino population. Most, 67 percent, lived in Florida, especially Miami, Hialeah, and Tampa.


García, María Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Herrera, Andrea O'Reilly, ed. ReMembering Cuba: Legacy of a Diaspora. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Portes, Alejandro and Alex Stepick. City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Carmen TeresaWhalen

See alsoBay of Pigs Invasion .

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