Miami's Cuban Exile Community Evolves Again

The history of Miami's Cuban exile community has been one of successive migrations. First came the group from 1959, just after the revolution. Then came the Mariel boat lift in 1980. That was followed by the rafter crisis in the 1990s. Now, slowly and quietly, the exile community is changing again.

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The history of Miami's Cuban exile community has been one of successive migrations. First came the group from 1959 just after the revolution. Then came those who showed up on Miami shores during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, when Castro allowed everyone who wanted to leave the communist island to go. That was followed by the rafter crisis in the 1990s. Now, slowly and quietly, the exile community is changing again.

In the second part of our series on Miami's Cubans, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the newest generation to touch down in Florida.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's crowded at the county health clinic on Cayocho(ph) in Little Havana. Newly arrived Cuban families sit on plastic chairs, waiting to be called in for their medical checkup.

Unidentified Man: Angelina.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some bear the signs of exposure to the elements, rafters who have made it to American soil. But far more in number are the legal immigrants who have come here under a visa lottery system that allows at least 20,000 Cubans a year to immigrate to the United States. Over a 130,000 Cubans have arrived here since 2000, more than during the entire Mariel Boatlift. Jule Lopez(ph) is a skinny 19-year-old who arrived on December 14th in Miami through the lottery, or bomba(ph), as its called in Cuba.

He wants to study and become a computer programmer. But right now, he's still just taking it all in. It's all so different, he says.

Mr. JULE LOPEZ: (Through translator) Everything is surprising. The cleanliness of the streets, the food, the shops, well there is no comparison. I went to the mall, I couldn't even choose. There are just so many things. And it's so quiet in the neighborhood where I'm living. You don't hear people talking on the streets like in Cuba.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He chats to his friends back on the island online. They want to know everything about his new life.

Mr. LOPEZ: (Through translator) I've been telling them about a Chinese buffet I went to. I told them how you can serve yourself again and again, that there are doors here that open by themselves. I've told them about my family who have been here for a while, and how they have their own things - a car, a house. I tell them about how I want to get my driver's license.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting next to him is Louisa Martinez(ph). She is 50, thin, with dyed blond hair. Her husband was a baker in Cuba. But still for her, it's the food that's dazzling.

Ms. LOUISA MARTINEZ (Cuban Immigrant): (Through translator) Oh, the food. Here, there's a (unintelligible) of food. Over there, there's a lot of hunger; it's terrible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she left with her family because they all just wanted something better.

Ms. MARTINEZ: (Through translator) Here there is a future, especially for the kids. Over there, there's no future at all. And looking at the freedom of expression there is here; and over there, there's nothing. If you say anything, you can get into trouble. There was no future for our kids or for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like Jule Lopez(ph) and unlike other groups of Cubans who came here for political reasons, Martinez is more of an economic refugee. This new generation has lived all their lives under Fidel's system and gone through the deprivations that took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they also still have close ties to the island. Jule Lopez says right now he's more interested in getting ahead here than trying to change what he left behind.

Mr. LOPEZ: (Through translator) I don't have anything against Cuba. That's a country that has its own way of doing things. Fidel has his own way of governing - good, bad, that's depending on how you see it. For my part, I don't have anything to add to the debate. I studied. I never had a problem with the revolution. Those of 1959 whose houses were taken, well, they have their own opinions.

Ms. CANNE VIGORRA(ph): There is a difference. We see the good things that Cuba has to offer and we obviously see the bad ones. You know, we are more open. And for all the generations, the country is all bad. And there is nothing bad about that, you know, because they have a lot of emotions and frustrations and all of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Canne Vigorra is a 27-year-old paralegal who arrived here six years ago. She now speaks English and works at a law office in South Miami. She says, for the most part, her generation of Cubans has not gotten involved in Miami's virulently anti-Castro political scene. And polls show that the majority is against the travel restrictions put in place by President Bush in 2004 with the support of members of the hard-line exile groups in Miami, many of whom left Cuba long ago.

Ms. VIGORRA: Is that freedom at all if we can't go back to our countries? And I would like to go, because I have friends, I have family and everything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vigorra, though, says she is torn about going back permanently if things do change after Castro's demise.

Ms. VIGORRA: I would like to go, you know, and help my country to become a good one, a stronger one. But I also love this country and I'm very grateful. You help me when I need it. I don't want to leave you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, it's Cubans like her who may be in the best position to bridge the gap between the exile and the island if the day does come when the two communities of Cuba are finally reunited.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Miami.

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