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Archive for Sunday, August 6, 2006

Modern Florida traces roots to Cuban exiles

August 6, 2006

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— It is a supreme irony: The most-hated man in Miami is arguably the city's greatest benefactor and among Florida's greatest agents of change.

In the 47 years since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, unleashing an exodus that continues today, Miami has become the world city dreamed about ever since Henry Flagler brought his railroad to the wilderness settlement in 1896.

"I always say the arrival of the train and the arrival of the Cuban refugees are the most defining moments of our history," said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks.

Few other groups have changed Florida as profoundly as the 700,000-plus refugees who have fled Castro's oppressive regime by plane, boat and homemade rafts since the now-ailing dictator marched into Havana the first day of 1959. Today, a million Floridians identify themselves as Cuban.

Paving the way for other Spanish speakers, they helped transform nearly every facet of life in Florida, from the economy to the culture, from politics to foreign policy, from entertainment to sports.

"They created an outpost for Latin America in Miami, which attracted millions of other Latin Americans, which decidedly changed Florida," said Sergio Bendixen, the nation's leading pollster on Hispanic opinion. "It's made it bilingual, bicultural and the economic hub for Latin America."

Cuban-American Lozano Marques holds a poster with a map of how he would like to see Cuba after Castro last week in Miami. These 700,000-plus refugees from Castro's oppressive regime helped transform nearly every facet of life in Florida. Today, a million Floridians identify themselves as Cuban.

Cuban-American Lozano Marques holds a poster with a map of how he would like to see Cuba after Castro last week in Miami. These 700,000-plus refugees from Castro's oppressive regime helped transform nearly every facet of life in Florida. Today, a million Floridians identify themselves as Cuban.

Largely from Cuba's professional class, the first wave of refugees who landed in Miami brought their business acumen, a knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean, and, of course, Spanish. Coming from bustling, cosmopolitan Havana, many were stunned by what they found. "Miami was a seasonal, sleepy town," said Tony Villamil, who arrived in 1960 at age 13. "I remember going down Calle Ocho and crying, 'What am I doing here?' It was almost like a country road."

The Cubans would, of course, turn Eighth Street into the vibrant heart of Little Havana. Initially taking menial jobs, such as janitors and seamstresses, they became teachers and bankers, and opened gas stations, restaurants, hardware stores, pharmacies, law firms and doctor offices.

"Cuba basically exported its professional class to Miami, to Tampa and throughout the state. What you saw was an infusion of human resources with international skills," said Villamil, now an economist who served as undersecretary of commerce under President Bush's father.

Today, the results are everywhere. Known as Wall Street South, Miami's Brickell Avenue is home to the largest concentration of international banks in the United States outside of New York.

Scores of multinational corporations have planted their Latin American headquarters on Brickell or in nearby Coral Gables or Miami Beach.

Ditto for the Latin entertainment and music industry. MTV's Latin American headquarters is on Miami Beach.

Once exiles solidified their economic power, they turned their sights on elective office, rallying around Cuban-Americans who often put one issue above all others: ending Castro's totalitarian grip on their homeland. "They saw a connection between getting involved in American politics and getting rid of Fidel," Bendixen said.

A political avalanche followed, one that would contribute to Florida's transition from a Democrat- to a Republican-controlled state. Miami elected its first Cuban-born mayor, Xavier Suarez, in 1985 and sent its first Republican and the nation's first Cuban-American member of Congress, U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to Washington in 1989.

Today, three of Miami-Dade's four congressional representatives and one of Florida's two senators, Orlando's Mel Martinez, are Cuban-Americans - and faithful Republicans.

Some observers credit Cuban-Americans for handing President George Bush his razor-thin victory over Sen. John Kerry. Florida's Cuban-Americans voted 6 to 1 for Bush in the contested 2000 election, which the Sunshine State decided by 537 votes.

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