Does Joan Didion’s Miami still exist?

By | September 15th, 2010 | 6 Comments

Joan Didion’s 1987 book Miami chronicles the city during the roughly 25 years between the Cuban Revolution and the end of the first generation of Cuban exile. Didion portrays Miami as a sweltering locus of violence and vengeance where assassination plots and covert CIA actions constitute dinner table conversation in the exile community. In the words of a New York Times review, “Didion has turned so much sunny light into a murky underwater darkness full of sharks and evil shadows.”

As a Miami native born in the mid-’80s, I found Didion’s narrative astounding. From the violent reprisals – bombings, stabbings, shootings – hard-line exiles visited upon dissenters within their own community, to Miami’s status as the second-largest CIA installation in the world (with “the third largest navy in the western hemisphere”), to “guerilla discounts” offered at the Howard Johnson near the Miami airport, the incidents and details piled up until my hometown began to seem foreign to me. I had a similar experience watching Cocaine Cowboys, the surpassingly gruesome documentary about Miami’s drug wars, but somehow Didion’s lens proved more unsettling.

When I finished Miami, which, a few leaps in time aside, covers the period between 1960 and 1985, I found myself wondering how much the city has changed. Having spent most of my life here, I instinctively felt that Didion’s portrayal no longer held in its entirety, but I wanted to know to what degree Castro and the Cuban Revolution still cast a shadow over Miami. How much has it evolved from the seething city Didion described, having “the feel … of a Latin capital, a year or two away from a new government”? To what extent does the legacy of a vengeance never realized define Miami today?

These are the questions I am pursuing in a retrospective essay on the book. In the hopes of getting some answers, last week I contacted Dario Moreno, former director of FIU’s Metropolitan Center and an expert on Cuban-American history. A 52-year-old who left Cuba at age 3, Moreno is involved in Marco Rubio’s senate campaign. While I assume his political leanings influence his understanding of Cuban-American history, I never felt that our conversation got stuck in an ideological box. Moreno was generous with his time and insights, and I believe the interview illuminates a Miami very different from the dark city depicted in Didion’s book.

You can see an edited transcript below. Make sure to stay tuned for more posts on this topic as I continue researching for the essay.

Miami would be classified as non-fiction, but it is a very stylized book. Was the picture Didion painted accurate?

Moreno: The book is almost exactly a quarter of a century old. She was writing at a time when the Cubans in Miami had not fully integrated into the American political system, and it was still the end of an era of exile extremist politics. This was a period right after a radio commentator, who was actually very conservative but was opposed to violence, was blown up. This was right after the period of the Cocaine Cowboys. You still had an active Omega 7 and Alpha 66, Cuban exile guerillas training in the Everglades. You still had this murky world of exile politics, assassination plots against Cuban regime officials.

Now, [Didion] exaggerated some of that, through her eyes. What caught her attention was just how different Cubans viewed politics than Americans at the time. The Cubans really viewed it as a life and death struggle, a struggle between good and evil, whereas Americans had a more mundane view of politics. Where she was wrong was that this didn’t last very long. It changed drastically over the next decade.

Why did it change?

Moreno: It really begins changing for a couple of reasons. One, Cuban-Americans begin to wield significant political power locally. They become the majority on the commission, the majority on the school board; they dominate the delegation to Tallahassee and to Washington; three congressmen eventually [get elected].

With political power comes responsibility. You don’t want Miami to get a reputation as a third-world country. So the politics began to moderate in the 1990s as […] Cubans got more political and economic power. If you work in a major law firm, you cannot advocate for people who disagree with you getting their businesses bombed, right? It’s kind of off-putting for the partners.

Also, a lot of the motive that drove the politics that Didion described in her book was based on the expectations of many in the community that the regime was about to collapse. When Cuba didn’t collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, many in the exile community realized that regime change was not going to happen. So training for guerilla actions in the Everglades, assassinations against Cuban officials, attacking Cuban tourist hotels, didn’t make any sense in the context that the regime was stable.

The third reason that things changed is that it has been a generation since the book’s publication and 50 years since the Cuban Revolution. A lot of the old exiles who participated in these guerilla movements, in extreme organizations like Omega 7 and Alpha 66, have passed away. Now you look at the leadership in the Cuban community, people like Marco Rubio, David Rivera, Mario Diaz-Balart — all of them were born in the United States. What you’re seeing now is the passing of the first generation of Cuban Americans, that historic generation that were at their prime when Didion wrote her book. They have either passed away or are in their 70s and 80s.

Didion wrote about how using certain “wrong words” such as “dialogue” and “negotiation” could get you killed. Today these words figure more commonly in debates about U.S. policy toward Cuba and Castro. Does the first generation of exiles resent the more conciliatory approach of the second generation?

Moreno: No. You gain influence in the United States not through political violence but through elections. What Didion describes is an attempt by the Cuban community […] to present a homogeneous exile community. Dissent is not tolerated. You get punished if you dissent from the consensus. Beginning in the late 80s, for all the reasons I cited, the Cuban community becomes more heterogeneous. In the United States, you cannot have what Didion described.

Miami recounted incidents that made the Cuban exiles seem begrudgingly pro-democracy. For example, Didion quotes ex-Miami mayor Xavier Suarez lamenting the fact that a group of demonstrators protesting U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, with whom the Cuban community identified, had the right to freely assemble. Does that attitude still exist?

Moreno: You have remnants of it. You have the book debate. But you no longer have debates about having Cuban artists in Miami. There are Cuban artists playing every weekend in Calle Ocho and in South Beach. You no longer have businesses being bombed because they disagree with the embargo. You no longer have people getting their legs blown off because they disagree with the embargo. You have people running for Congress … who want to soften the embargo. So Didion described a point in time that has long passed and has changed dramatically.*

Didion described how Miami’s white residents bristled when the Cubans unapologetically took root in the city. To date, has Miami adapted more to the Cuban community, or vice versa?

I get your point and I’ll be glib. Is pizza Italian or American? Miami has changed because of the Cubans and the Cubans have changed because of Miami. The admiration that Didion and other writers have had about the Cuban community, its brazen “we are here and taking America on our own terms” chutzpah, I think, was an important factor in why Cubans have been successful in politics and in business and why Miami has changed so much from a sleepy southern town to this great cosmopolitan city. But the irony is that as Cubans became more influential, they had to lose that brazenness. You can’t be the dominant group in an area and then claim victimhood and special privileges.

The exile community Didion described considered itself Cuban first and American second, if American at all. Is that still the case?

Moreno: I’m 52. If you ask any Cuban younger than me, they’re going to say “American.” Older than me, it becomes more split, but you’ll still be amazed by how many view themselves as American.

The longer you live in the United States, the more you assimilate. The more successful you are, the less you feel Cuban. You always have great pride in being Cuban, but it’s not the dual loyalty you had in the mid-’80s.

So when the Castro regime fades away, will Miami’s Cuban community stay put?

Moreno: Will people move back? Very few. In Miami very few people expect to reclaim their property, and almost nobody expects to have any political influence [in post-Castro Cuba]. At the time of the book, that wasn’t true.

So the opening line of Didion’s book (“Havana vanities comes to dust in Miami.”) no longer holds?

Moreno: The expectation has gone from going back and reclaiming the family business to, “Which distant relative in Cuba, if there’s regime change, can I invest with and start a business with in Cuba.” The expectations have gone from reclaiming something to, “How can I use my connections in Cuba to better myself in Miami.” But this idea of “Havana vanities,” of who I was in Cuba and reclaiming that, is all mostly gone.

*I would have asked Moreno about the July protest of the band Orquesta Aragón, but I only read about it later.

6 Comments on “Does Joan Didion’s Miami still exist?”

  1. 1 Mike said at 2:16 pm on September 15th, 2010:

    Excellant Dude

  2. 2 Guillermo said at 1:51 pm on September 17th, 2010:

    Extremely enlightening. I would really like to see more of this.

    “If you work in a major law firm, you cannot advocate for people who disagree with you getting their businesses bombed, right? It’s kind of off-putting for the partners.”

  3. 3 Didion's Miami Part II: Francisco 'Pepe' Hernandez Interview | Beached Miami said at 5:49 am on September 27th, 2010:

    […] I wrote in an earlier post, I am working on a retrospective essay on Joan Didion’s 1987 book Miami, which chronicles the […]

  4. 4 Jake Blumgart said at 12:10 pm on September 9th, 2011:

    Really excellent interview. Just read Didion’s Miami for a book club and I was wondering how much things had changed. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. 5 Jordan Melnick said at 2:00 pm on September 9th, 2011:

    Thanks Jake. As I alluded to in the interview intro, I intended to develop this post (and the other Didion posts) into an essay on how Miami has changed since Miami. Still might! Especially since next year marks the book’s 25th anniversary.

  6. 6 JJ said at 5:43 pm on January 31st, 2013:

    This is good stuff, JM. I’m obsessed with the theme of how and why Miami is changing. And I (personally) push back against the Cuban influence today. Love Didion’s Miami tho–still think it was the last accurate book written about our city, notwithstanding Deco, of course… :) you should def still write that essay. you’d find a nice home for it..

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