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Reading Joan Didion's Miami On The Eve Of Normalization Of Cuban-American Relations

Listen – I can’t pretend to be an expert on any of this. I can though share some things from having grown up in it.

I was 6 when this book came out and living in Coconut Grove. The events Didion describes form a partial background of my upbringing, but in the way they do for a child who knows something is happening but cannot frame it against anything else due to inexperience and naivete. I knew vaguely that things were going on but didn’t know specifically what, and my parents weren’t in any hurry to explain how the city they moved to 15 years ago was not the city it was today.

Thus I only knew of the result, not the process. The many events laid out here to explain how Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba came to greatly influence the city of Miami were only felt by me in their aftermath. You didn’t need to tell me about the willful ignorance of the suddenly minority anglo population nor of ignominies of the hardliners – I only needed to look at my or my friend’s parents for perspectives I knew existed but hardly registered as I went through the motions of adolescence.

In the interim it has taken so much longer for these sentiments to die off than expected. I suppose this is relative though – for the past 50 years it’s always been “just wait 10 years and see what happens.” No one would imagine then that Fidel and Raul would hold on this long, and for my part I’d been assuming Fidel would keel over any second once I was old enough to have half an idea what was going on.

Now my friends, Cuban or otherwise, view the island as a pastoral time capsule. An island that hasn’t been ‘ruined’ by capitalism, where its relatively safe to experience it as an outsider rather than on a fenced off beach patrolled by heavily armed guards – a window into a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

Compare that to the individuals interviewed in this book for whom the island is a wound that will never heal. Didion talks to so many of them and details an untold number of schemes that trying to follow along can be difficult. Attempting to use Wikipedia as a reference for additional information inevitably turns up a more familiar context (i.e. they wound up owning a car dealership in the 90s or something) and the fact that they inevitably failed to outlive Fidel.

For much of the rest of America, Castro was a part of the backdrop of characters in the Cold War. A foil of Kennedy, a tool of Kruschev, and part and parcel of the fabric of a decade laden with disillusionment and conspiracy. In Miami though he was omnipresent. Still is, although I left 5 years ago and wouldn’t know as well now. The craziness of exile hardliners to me is lost against the backdrop of the craziness of the city. I feel as though for most I encounter his name is responded to now with a sigh rather than a verbal pitchfork and the only people who miss that particular decade are tourists who watched too much Miami Vice.

Local politics have not caught up to the generational shift that’s occurred although it’s possible the dysfunction introduced by the insular fiefdoms in the 80s will never truly leave. It’s also possible that I’m ascribing too much dysfunction to the confusion of the period and in truth it’s always been a city that draws those always on the look out to grab whatever they can. Too many cooks, too many chances to skim a bit off for yourself in the kitchen. Another 10 years just another 10 years …

My father insists I (or anyone) would get a better idea of the fabric of the city by reading a Carl Hiassen book, a point I’m not entirely willing to argue. In this particular moment in time though I think a thorough reading of Didion’s Miami is a great idea for anyone looking to have a little historical context, which is to say anyone of my generation who has ever had trouble fitting the pieces of our home city together.

 

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