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  • Cuban-Exile Identity and Novels for the Young
  • Alexandra McPherson (bio)

Cubans comprise a diverse group, their society spanning across variations in race, class, gender, and cultural experience. However, they are often essentialized by their political and ideological affiliation with socialism and are often placed in binary opposition with the United States and capitalism. In children's literature, Cuban diversity and conflicting ideologies, as well as U.S./Cuban interconnections, are highly transparent. Elías Miguel Muñoz's Brand New Memory (1998)1 and Hilda Perera's Kiki: A Cuban Boy's Adventures in America (1992)2—both by Cuban exiles in the U.S—display this transparency. Munoz's and Perera's novels present, respectively a middle road political position and a one-dimensional, anti-socialist position.

The Formation of Cuban-Exile Identity

Of particular importance to contemporary dialogues about island Cubans and exiled Cubans is the question of race and gender inequality. The controversy centers on whether or not racism and sexism have been largely eliminated or remain pervasive throughout the various social, political, cultural, and economic spheres. Questions concerning racism (and more recently, gender equity) remain a continuous source of friction and debate. And predictably, novels for the young include examples of racist thought, as well as examples of upward mobility for all racial groups.

Castro's "Cuban experiment," which began in 1959, created an upsurge of interest in race and gender issues. At first people tended to view the new revolutionary government in celebratory rather than critical terms. This positive response stemmed from the transformation of an inequitable capitalist system into a socialist economy that promoted a more egalitarian distribution of goods and services. In relation to children and to women, this transformation brought striking results. Prior to the 1959 revolution, 40% of Cuban children did not go to school and approximately 985,000 people were illiterate; by December of 1961, 700,000 Cubans (half of whom were children) had learned to read and write, and by 1977, 80% of Cuban women were literate (Davies 116-17). By the year 2000 Cuba had the highest literacy rate in the world: 95.7 %. According to Stuart Hamilton, Cuba's free schooling was the result of a high educational budget over a forty year period (a budget that also produced "the highest index of teachers per capita in the world") (4).

In relation to land usage, by the spring of 1961 over a third of the farmland was controlled by the state, and by that date approximately 100,000 members of the bourgeoisie had left Cuba (Thomas 1354.) This group increased the Cuban exile community, especially in Florida, and from that point a significant Cuban American lobby gradually increased its influence in American foreign policy. As early as 1960, the U.S. had begun putting in place its economic embargo against Cuba, and the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion occurred in 1961. When the Elían Gonzalez affair occurred in 2000-2001 (an emigrating six-year-old Cuban had been rescued from a floating inner tube after losing his mother at sea), the Cuban exile community was highly engaged politically. A Miami Herald poll found that 91% of Cuban Americans in South Florida believed Elían should be forced to remain in the United States (LeoGrande 39).

Prior to the 1959 overthrow of the dictator (Batista), Cuba was highly nationalistic, but still divided by class, race, and gender prejudices. In this climate, dialogue pertaining to widespread disfranchisement was left to a small group of socially conscious Cubans of varying racial and political persuasions. This group (not part of the elite cadre that allocated national resources) used a variety of artistic and literary genres to disseminate its concerns. Following the revolution, Cuba became a more openly multi-ethnic, multi-racial society, but it was not without contradictions. The historical evolution of Cuba (including its indigenous, Spanish and African ethnic blend) can be likened to a search for identity and the capacity to maintain it as essentially expressive of Cubanness. In the post-1959 period, emphasis was placed upon Cuban-style socialism and the equating of this form [End Page 110] of socialism with a nationalism that promotes cohesiveness...


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