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Lisandro Pérez on the Campbell Conversations

Lisandro Pérez
John Jay College
Lisandro Pérez

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Lisandro Pérez. He's a Cuban American and a professor in the Department of Latin American and Latinx studies at John Jay College and he's written a new book. It's a wide, sweeping history of Cuba and his own family, titled, “The House on G Street: A Cuban Family Saga”. Professor Pérez, welcome to the program.

Lisandro Pérez: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

GR: Well, we really appreciate you making the time. So, really interesting looking book. Let me just start with a basic question, why did you want to write this book now in this stage of your life and where your memories of your family are at this point?

LP: Well, I've always thought about writing this book for decades in many ways. And I thought this would be a good time before I won't be able to. In other words, I'm getting you know, I'm out of my seventh decade, essentially. And if I didn't write it now, I wasn't ever going to write it. But it's a book that essentially I've been working on it all my life, if you will, because it brings together a lot of family anecdotes that I learned as a child. I was always asking my ancestors, my grandfather, my grandmother and others about the family and so I always had an interest in that. And I've retained those and refreshed that. And then I've been a researcher as a, you know, as an academic, I've been a researcher and I've been researching this for a long time. And those grandparents of mine, the two sets of grandparents now have about 80 living descendants. And I thought it was about time that I put this down on paper, but at the same time give it context. So it's not just a family history, if you will. It's a family history embedded in Cuban history. Or maybe the other way around. It's a Cuban history embedded in a family story.

GR: So tell me a little bit about that family. My understanding from what I've been able to read so far is that your family had some privilege, it had some prestige. You grew up, I think, at least early on, in privilege. Tell us about your upbringing.

LP: Yes, one of the things that I deal with very early in the book is the fact that the book has a certain elite focus. That is, my mother's family had been in Cuba since the early 19th century. And members of that family became rather prominent in the Cuban political and social life. My father's family was less prominent, but my grandfather made a lot of money exporting tobacco. He was an orphan boy from central Cuba. So these are two different families that I descend from. But they were both emblematic, really, of the course of Cuban history. And one of the things that I wanted to do was contrast the experience of my mother's family and my father's family in a way that would bring out many things about Cuban history starting in the early 19th century and moving forward. The book is therefore, and I give free reign, and I'm unapologetic about the elite focus, because essentially it's about a world that no longer exists. That is, that is a world that was wiped out, if you will, by the revolution as it restructured, essentially, Cuban society. The book is not about the Cuban Revolution. The book is really about what led to it.

GR: Well, that was one of the things I wanted to ask you was, do you know whether your family during the period leading up to the revolution had a clear sense that there was this level of deep dissatisfaction inside Cuba? Because obviously this, you know, it wasn't only a top down kind of thing, there was a grass roots element to it. So, was your family aware of that?

LP: Well, I was aware of it. In other words, part of what I have towards the end of the book is that I come in essentially with what you might call as memoir, that is, I come in with my memory. Because I'll now divulge that I was born in 1949, which means that in 1956-57 when things really start heating up, I have a memory that is, I have a memory of that time and I have a memory of what happened. And I was, I think very early aware of what was going on around me. There were events that I talk about in the book that took place, historical events to which I was a near witness or at least I heard the shots from afar, if you will. And I do reflect on the fact it came evident to me and certainly to my parents that the world that we knew was in many ways coming to an end. Of course, we didn't want to admit that. Part of what happened to this social class was that they left Cuba and generally around 1960-61 with the expectation they would be returning because the United States was simply not going to allow this to happen. And so I was very aware of it and certainly part of what I have towards the end of the book is that awareness as I develop it.

GR: And how I want to come back to that sense of the expectation of return actually, but let me stick with this other topic for a minute. How did then the revolution affect your family directly? How did it affect you financially and so on?

LP: I was, you know, there were a lot of families that lost quite a bit economically. There were a lot of families whose members actually suffered very severely, either by imprisonment or even by execution or by dying. My family, I should say, fortunately, was not among those. So that's maybe why I write this in a somewhat analytical way, in a way that a child would write it I think in the memoir. So we were affected, of course, my analysis of that, which I share in the book as well, is that almost all of Cuba on January 1, 1959, including many members of my family, my father, for example, but not my uncle, my father and others welcomed the revolution. The revolution was something that many Cubans had long thought should happen. In many ways it was a postponed revolution. José Martí in the 19th century called his party the Cuban Revolutionary Party. The idea was to institute social justice, institute sovereignty and my father certainly was in favor of that. What happens between essentially 1959 and the middle of 1960, is that a number of measures are taken that cross a line that many people had between what were progressive ideals, right, of social justice and so forth and what now had the kind of whiff of communism in a Cold War era. And that was something very, very threatening. So it wasn’t that my family lost property, it wasn't that in any way we were in a physical danger per se, and I'm talking about my immediate family, in physical danger, but it was the sense that Cuba was going to change in ways that were very threatening. And I think that one of the ways that, one of the things that led to that, understanding on the part of, say, my father especially, is when the government announced a nationalization of private schools. Because unlike, say, the confiscation of U.S. properties or a number of other radical, so-called radical measures, this was something that promised to get at the heart of family, right? And of how you educated your children. And that, for my father, was the turning point. It wasn't something that happened to us, but simply the direction the country was going in a way that was simply very, very foreboding in many ways for many people.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Lisandro Pérez. He's a professor at John Jay College and the author of a new historical memoir about Cuba and the Cuban American experience titled, “The House on G Street”. So I want to fast forward to today, you're obviously an extremely keen observer of Cuba, its history and its present. What in your view is the current state of Cuba, and you can attack that however you like.

LP: Well, unfortunately, not very dynamic. In other words, most of my work actually has been on the post-1959 Cuban immigrants. And I've studied them in Miami, I've had a number of projects studying them, the Cuban-American population. I'm also keep up a great deal with what's happening in Cuba. And I think what part of what happens with Cuba is that it sort of becomes repetitive without ever going anywhere, it's cyclical. That is, if I may explain that, those of us who have been observing Cuba now for half a century or so, we're always under the expectation of change. That is, if things are going to change in Cuba, they're going to change in the direction that, for example, brings better living conditions, a better quality of life for people in Cuba, a way in which Cuba is not, for example, in a hostile or at least less than amicable relationship with the United States. We've always thinking that's going to happen. And we've become many ways pessimists because just when it seems like it's going to happen, for example, the opening that Obama did, it seems like things get reversed. Reversed not only by Washington but also by the Cuban government. And it almost seems like both sides of this, both governments seem intent on maintaining in many ways the status quo. And it, for us, who would like to see a change, would like to see a lifting of the embargo, we'd like to see Cubans have more opportunities in the island and that the government would afford them those opportunities. It's a kind of a frustrating exercise, right? Because change doesn't seem to come about in any significant way. So I would say it's not a very dynamic situation. We seem to be stuck, we've been stuck for decades.

GR: If I forced a bottom line question on you about the revolution and thinking of its aftermath in the following way, does this event do more harm than good to Cuba?

LP: That really a difficult question, because again, I'm going to have to answer it from my perspective, because this is, I always tell students I teach a course on Cuba, I've taken students to Cuba and even on courses. It all depends on who's talking, right? I think that there are people in Cuba who are great supporters of the revolution because the revolution did a great deal for them. They, you know, would not have had the opportunities that otherwise they have had if Cuba had stayed, you know, in the status in which it was before the revolution. They have been able to get an education. They have been able to develop a career, all of those things. At the same time, I think that the revolution has not allowed Cuba to move forward in the community of nations. And what I'm most concerned about is the fact that so many of the things that many other countries essentially take for granted, right? And I'm talking about countries not of the third world so much, but a country like Cuba that in many ways in the 1950’s was really on the cusp of a great deal of development, even if it was unequal. That essentially, a lot of that has I think been turned back in a material sense. So that to this day for example, the internet, many aspects of just daily living that we would take for granted, the availability of resources, food and gasoline and things like that. These things are for most Cubans, still continue to be a hardship and that is regrettable. and I think it has a great deal to do with mistakes that were made, mistakes that were made by the US government, mistakes that have been and continue to be made by the Cuban government in terms of being able to, in many ways, abandon ideology and do what is necessary to materially deliver for the Cuban people.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Lisandro Pérez. He's a professor in the Department of Latin American and Latinx Studies at John Jay College and he's got a new book out on the history of Cuba and his own family titled, “The House on G Street: A Cuban Family Saga”. So I want to pick up on something that you said before the break. You had talked about your sense of Cuba being kind of stuck in many ways and I wanted to ask you how you see the future project of the country. I'm not an expert on the country, you are. But from my limited knowledge, it seems to me like, from a distance, that the future might not be sustainable, that there might have to be some kind of major change if the government is going to deliver in any way for its people.

LP: Yeah, and I'm glad you asked that question because I ended the last question on the note that the government has not materially delivered, but I think it's more than a material problem. I think there is the notion that many people have lost hope in Cuba, that they can actually, you know, develop themselves as full human beings in terms of opportunities and so forth. And the last economic crisis, I mean, things are really bad now, economically, but the last economic crisis was when Cuba lost all of the support from the former Soviet bloc. Essentially as the Soviet Union disintegrated and Cuba was in many ways left alone. There was a crisis then, but at least the crisis had an explanation. And that crisis essentially, people were able to say, okay, if this is what caused it, we can maybe crawl ourselves out of there, right? I think what happens now is that there is, again, an economic crisis and there's no reason other than, for example, the perception that the government is incompetent. The government does not allow for people to develop themselves in terms of their potential for improving their lives and that the government has no solutions beyond ideology. And that's why we're seeing record levels of emigration from Cuba right now. We're seeing record levels of emigration, people who perhaps had not considered leaving before are now leaving. So that's what in many ways most concerns me. And I think part of what may trigger a change may be a change in U.S. policy, which I don't see coming. But I also think that fundamentally, the Cuban government has got to realize that there is a time for a redefinition of the revolution and perhaps a new revolution that will bring about greater possibilities for the Cuban population to really, you know, develop itself.

GR: Well, you mentioned the new wave of emigration from Cuba to the United States. And obviously, one of the questions that comes up immediately in thinking about a book like this is, how does the Cuban immigration experience bear on getting a fuller understanding of, more generally, the immigration issues and challenges that the United States is facing and that are front and center in our political debates at the moment? Do you have any thoughts about how that maps onto it?

LP: Well, Cuban migration to the U.S. has always had this exceptional character. That is, that it's somehow different. Certainly in the 1960’s and even through to the Mariel boat crisis, you might remember the Mariel boatlift of 1980, all of that were episodes of migration to the United States that were in many ways exceptional. We're seeing now Cubans coming in in ways that are less exceptional. We're seeing Cubans, for example, crossing the border in Mexico, right? We're seeing, in many ways, the regularization of Cuban migration in a way that's similar to what had been the migration of other groups from Latin America and from other parts of the world. Even going back, I have another book that is the history of Cubans in New York in the 19th century, even then there was this exceptionality to Cuban migration. But what has happened is that in many ways, Cubans have become part of the wave that's coming into the U.S., even though, again, their treatment is a bit different. It is still the case that Cubans have a very, somewhat privileged status in terms of migration policy. In many ways, if Cubans arrive, they are more likely to be able to stay. And it sort of teaches us that the way in which the U.S. treats immigrants does depend a bit on where they come from and whether or not they come from countries that are friendly to the U.S. or countries that are hostile to the U.S.

GR: This leads directly into something else I want to ask you about when you talked about how the exceptional aspect of Cuban immigration has diminished and now it's become kind of more like other immigrations is that, it's my understanding that the Cuban-American population historically has been more conservative and more Republican than a lot of other Latin groups. And, you know, where they're coming from has a big part of that and what they're escaping. Now that this immigration is changing, do you see the Cuban-American population becoming more diverse where younger Cuban-Americans maybe have very little direct experience of Cuba at all and they've never maybe even been there?

LP: You know, I taught for many years at Florida International University in Miami, where I taught classes on Cuban history and most of my students were, you know, second or third generation Cuban-Americans who were in my class learning about Cuban history. And I would say to them, 20 years ago or so, you know, when a new generation comes in of leadership in the Cuban-American community, there's going to be a change, you know, and they're not going to be as passionate about the Cuba issue. They're not going to hinge their voting on Cuba policy or anything like that. And we're not going to see the kind of such right wing kinds of politics that we're seeing now. Well, I was wrong.

GR: (laughter)

LP: The, what I call the exile discourse, which is a discourse that is essentially focused on the homeland and that seeks to bring about change in the homeland, and that tends to fashion its politics around that phenomenon of exile politics. I think that it's had a tremendous ability to sort of reproduce itself generationally so that right now we're looking at who are the stalwarts right now politically of those policies? Well, the politicians in Miami, the politicians in Washington who are Cuban-Americans. And if you look at them, you know, Marco Rubio and Mario Diaz-Balart and a couple of the Congress people, they're all second generation, you know, born in the U.S. who have nevertheless managed to replicate that same discourse of, you know, of anti-Castro ism, anti, you know, communism and so forth. And it's been incredible how that has managed to essentially to survive, you know? And it's still the case that most Cubans are still a Republican. And we were surprised that a recent poll that said that a large, even a large number of the recent arrivals who became citizens, relatively recent arrivals, voted for Donald Trump, for example. So we're seeing a community in which still that is a very, very strong value and a very strong perspective.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is John Jay College professor Lisandro Pérez. So one of the things you write about is the immigrants coming here, I think including members of your own family, making their lives and really not looking back in some important ways. There is this exile mentality that you talk about, but also starting over, not looking back and that's often easier said than done. And those kinds of massive uprootings can leave, for some people, really permanent scars and deep emotional challenges. And I wonder if you could reflect on that a little bit based on I'm sure the many people that you have spoken to that have gone through this experience.

LP: Well, I'm sort of an exception to what you're talking about. And I think a lot of members of my family and many people I know are sort of exceptions to that. Part of what happens with Cuban-Americans and particularly my generation, you know, I left when I was 11 years old. And of course, those who left, whenever they’re adults, is that they were constantly looking back. We always thought in many ways we were we were going back. I became eligible to become a U.S. citizen like almost eight or nine years before I actually became a U.S. citizen. That is the notion that that well, you know, maybe things will change, maybe we could go back. And you don't fully define yourself as an immigrant, but you kind of define yourself as someone who is here because something happened, right? That, in many ways, in my case, for example, and I try to stress this is something happened that was beyond my control, I had nothing to do with it. In fact, not even the decision to emigrate was mine, it was obviously my parents, I was 11 years old, right? And so I had a very rich childhood which I document in this book. And I saw myself with very strong generational ties in Cuba. So one of the things that happened is that while I perceived that we were here to stay, I kind of willed myself to remember that life in Cuba, right? And to sort of keep it alive. I'm sometimes shocked by that students in my classes here at John Jay who are Latin American immigrants and whatever, don't know why or when exactly their parents arrived here from wherever, from Colombia, from Honduras and whatever. I remember that exact day that I arrived. In other words, you have a memory of this, and it is a very traumatic event, especially in our case, where, again, I was attending school in, this school I had attended all my life in Cuba from kindergarten until seventh grade which is where I was when we left Cuba. And to be in that school of that, suddenly we're leaving. And four days later, you were in another classroom in another country. For me, I must admit, for many others, it was harder. I went to an American school in Havana, so I learned English at the same time formally that I was learning formal Spanish in school. And so for me, it wasn't that hard as it was for many others, and I make it a point of stressing that, that I'm not necessarily saying that my experience was typical. But I think it was very hard for many people and it was also hard for me because we had had a life where we thought that sort of life was not going to end. And if you told a Cuban in Havana in 1957, you know, on the street, here's what's going to happen in the next ten years, right? Or in the next 15 years and you say, you know, there's going to be a break in diplomatic relations with the U.S. you know, they're going to be hostile relations between the two. The world will almost go to war over Cuba or nuclear war over Cuba and Cuba will be sending soldiers to Africa. They would have thought, you know, you were crazy. So but that was, all those things happened.

GR: So we've only got about a minute left. It's almost not fair of me to ask you this question at the end. You probably would have liked longer to talk about it, but, you did go back to your family's house, this house on G Street, after it had been repurposed by the government. If you can, in just a few seconds, what was that experience like for you to see it later in life?

LP: Well, first of all, everything looks smaller, as always happens when we go back to where we spent our childhood. And keep in mind that I wasn't able to go back until 1979. So that was essentially eighteen years or so, but it between 1960 and 1979, 19 years. So this is where I had very fresh, this memory in my mind of these places and here I was actually able to see them, to visit them. And that's why my trips that I went back in 1979, I took advantage of the first opportunity there was to go back and that was the first opportunity in 1979. I was of course thrilled to see my family that was there, right, my cousins. But it was to be a tremendous experience to just be in these places and refresh my memory as I walk through them.

GR: Well we'll have to leave it there. That was Lisandro Pérez and again his new book is titled, ”The House on G Street: A Cuban Family Saga”. Professor Pérez, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to you, it's been a fascinating conversation.

LP: Thank you. I've had a great time talking to you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.



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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.