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.

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