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.


21 thoughts on “Trump revives memories of my "shithole" country

  1. Anonymous

    Indeed, only those people with extraordinary courage, enterprise, faith—and unmitigated cojones—take the chance.The main reason I'm pro immigration. A welcome addition to the US .


  2. It's SOP now for leftists to conflate “immigration” with “illegal immigration,” painting conservatives and anyone who believes in the Rule of Law as xenophobes. The problem is illegal immigration, people sneaking into the United States without permission. Legal and controlled immigration can be a positive thing when the people moving to a country, the U.S. in this case, are desirable people, people with skills, ambition, a willingness to learn English and to assimilate.But the bottom line is that legal immigration and illegal immigration are very different things. Recognizing that difference is important as is obeying laws.


  3. I was in awe of the Cuban people who chose to rebel from the slavery of the Mafia, Big Sugar and the corrupt cuban government.Though I am no fan of communism or how Castro betrayed his people, the revolution was overdue.Dana J


  4. Anonymous

    Here in northeast Ohio we have a fandango going on with a Jordanian immigrant of 38 years. Google Adi Otherman or Al Adi as he goes by here. It is a true sign of our times.


  5. This has nothing to do with legal versus illegal immigration, which is a law enforcement matter, but with prejudging groups of people on the basis of race, religion or national origin, which is old-fashioned bigotry. al


  6. Agree completely Dana. But almost sixty years later, the revolution has failed to deliver, partly because of U.S. interference and outright aggression, but largely because a centralized, control economy just doesn't work. Thanks for your observation. al


  7. An anonymous reader sent the following comment:”Here in northeast Ohio we have a fandango going on with a Jordanian immigrant of 38 years. Google Adi Otherman or Al Adi as he goes by here. It is a true sign of our times.”I Googled Al Adi and came up with this: It reminded me of another longtime immigrant, this one from Mexico, who's lived in the U.S for about twenty years, raised a family and made a life for himself in the U.S., and now faces deportation. Some would argue that both cases are just a matter of enforcing the law. I'm not a lawyer but I believe that in law enforcement there are also elements of mercy, proportionality, leniency and mitigating circumstances that also play a role. Most of all I would ask: What public or national purpose would be served by ruining the lives of these people and their family by throwing the book at them, twenty years after the fact? al


  8. Other than the obvious offensive term, I was most offended that President Trump, in his usual bull in a china shop mode, managed to obscure the fact that the immigration reform he claims to support is based on an individual's prospective skills, and has absolutely nothing to do with their country of origin. He would swant a bunch of meth addict teens from Norway instead of a Nigerian entrepeneur, a Haitin inventor, or a Salvadoran doctor? Apparently, the president does not even understand the reform he supposedly supports. A think tank ran a model immigration flow based on the skills requirement in the reform. Under the proposed system, the two countries that would qualify for the most visas are, not surprisingly, India and China.


  9. I got understand the bias toward having skills will put you at the front of the visa line. I want us to create a country that is so forward thinking, free thinking, risk taking and innovative that it's everyone's first choice to immigrate. We need Elon Musks, Nicola Teslas, and landscape labor, restaurant workers, seasonal crop workers, and assisted living caretakers, all.Dana J


  10. Problem is that given the current labor shortages, particularly in low-wage, back-breaking jobs (i.e., hanging drywall, at which my cousin works in Austin, Texas) there is a need for both, highly skilled folks from wherever, and lower-skilled people, also from wherever. I'd love to hear someone present a rational scheme for immigration based on labor needs, but what I hear from Trump and the Republicans is race-, nationality- and even religion-based selection criteria which wouldn't serve the U.S. and would be antithetical to America's traditions. I'd also like Republicans, Democrats and whoever, to declare the obvious: America has historically benefited from immigration and needs immigrants right now. It just a matter, a tough matter, or regulating and enforcing the inflow. Thanks for you typically thoughtful comment, Steve, and happy fiftieth birthday. You don't look a day older. al


  11. There is an underlying problem in the labor pool that neither of the political parties seem to have adequately addressed. The United States has an adequate unskilled labor pool. The rub is that the country has the lowest labor participation rate of any OECD country. The economists have no idea why that is — nor why the male participation rate is so woefully low. It would make sense to start addressing that issue.My immigrant roots are more attenuated than yours, but I too am the son of immigrants. And, like you, I am rather irritated at both political parties for selling out the best argument for legal immigration (that it makes America stronger) in favor of fear-mongering to interest politics. I recall PJ O'Rourke writing in the 1980s about a Haitian who floated all the way to Florida on the equivalent of a door. PJ rightly noted that this is exactly the kind of person we want in America — imaginative, persistent, a survivor. He was right. I often wonder what happened to the Haitian and his subsequent family.Because both of the political parties have failed us, maybe what we are now doing is the best we can do. We have a voice, we should use it.As for my birthday, you are most gracious. I thank you and the magical calendar you must have used to tote up my years.


  12. I remember two men from El Salvador who worked for me on a remodel of a Chinese restaurant. They took 5 buses to get to the jobsite. Hardest working men that I had ever seen. I was amazed by them and many others. I would take a 1000 of those men to one of the people who argue that we need people who can make over $100,000 a year because they would be skilled based! Truly. Who cares if they are legal or illegal? They are humans who just want to do a job and live…….


  13. Much to think about in this essay, thank you. And many good comments; our country can always use people who are willing to walk for days in the desert to make a better life for their family. But the sentence about diehard ideologues jumped out at me. Be afraid of diehard ideologues…be very afraid. Whether they are communist ideologues or capitalist ideologues.


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