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Second-Generation Cuban-American Hybridity: A Postcolonial and Hauntological Approach

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

by Nicholas Diaz

Photo by AXP Photography on Unsplash

“Cubanita descubanizada

quién te pudiera recubanizar.

Quién supiera devolverte

el ron y la palma,

el alma y el son

Cubanita descubanizada,

tú que pronuncias todas las eses

Y dices ómnibus y autobús,

quién te pudiera

quién te supiera

si te quisieras recubanizar.”

– Gustavo Pérez Firmat, “Cubanita Descubanizada” in Bilingual Blues

“I live with ghosts.

Laggard ghosts who wear their fatigue like a sheet

Petulant, unrepentant ghosts who never sleep

Ghosts like mouth sores

Ghosts that look me in the eye at midday

and buzz in my ears in the dead of night

Chinese laundry ghosts

Cuban coffee ghosts

Ghosts that tap and tease and taunt

Politically correct ghosts

Feminist ghosts

Holy ghosts

Ghosts of a chance

Gustavo-come-lately ghosts

Mami and Papi ghosts

The ghosts of all my Nochebuenas past.”

– Gustavo Pérez Firmat, “Ghost Writing” in Bilingual Blues

Postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha discusses hybridity as an alternative in between the colonized and the colonizer. He defines it as “a difference ‘within’ a subject that inhabits the rim of an ‘in-between’ reality.” As Astrid Nyberg explains in “Mestiza Consciousness,” “The hybrid possesses two (or more) inherited ethnicities, cultures, and languages, which allows a redefinition of identity.” The hybrid identity, as feminist Laura McLeod notes, “is constantly in motion, unable to be complete in itself; rather it is subject to borders and no longer attached to home and identity as concepts.” The hybrid exists in a permanent frontera without a stable sense of home.

Cuban-American writer Gustavo Pérez Firmat relates this “biculturation” to the ambivalence of the Cuban-American identity. In "Life on the Hyphen", Pérez Firmat explores the hyphenated hybridity of the Cuban-American in his own life and in popular culture. The Cuban-American exists as “neither fully Cuban nor fully American, but a fertile hybrid of both,” Pérez Firmat writes. Never able to go back home but never able to fully assimilate, the Cuban-American exists without a home in the in-betweenness of the frontera called Miami. Cuban-American novelist Jennine Capo Crucet also explores this hybridity in her fictional work "Make Your Home Among Strangers" where the protagonist struggles with defining herself as Cuban or American or simply from Miami. The novel highlights how hybridity is central to the Cuban-American experience.

Following Cuban-American sociologist Rubén Rumbaut, Pérez Firmat explains that hybridity is experienced differently for different Cuban-American generations. The first generation of Cuban-Americans is the generation of Pérez Firmat’s parents who were born in Cuba and grew up on the island but migrated later in life. This first generation of immigrants consists mostly of grandparents today who struggled primarily with the task of transitioning from one sociocultural environment to another. Their experience of hybridity was not one of losing their original culture already ingrained in them but one of learning another culture later on in life.

The next generation of Cuban-Americans consists of those who were born in Cuba but grew up in the United States. This generation of immigrants called the “1.5 generation” struggled with overlapping age and culture transitions. Cuban-Americans from this generation were born in the culture of the Cuban island but matured in American cultural surroundings. This generation of “one-and-a-halfers” is bicultural, according to Pérez Firmat, existing in a third space between its Cuban origins and its Americanized upbringing and being forced to constantly negotiate between elements of the two cultures. Some elements are lost and others gained as this generation is not fully American but not as Cuban as the first generation. This generation lives the most on the frontera of the hyphen.

The last distinctive generation is the second generation of Cuban-Americans, who were born and raised to immigrants in the United States. This generation maintains links to Cuba through the previous generations but at its most fundamental this generation is a generation of Americans, a generation "descubanizada." Pérez Firmat even goes so far as to revert the acronym ABC (American-Born Cubans) to CBA (Cuban-Bred Americans) to encapsulate this change in cultural precedence from Cuban to American. Whereas for the 1.5 generation, the hyphen is the site of a negotiation and power struggle between two cultures; for the second generation, the hyphen clearly tilts in the direction of ‘American’. Many second generation Cuban-Americans cannot even be said to be subjects of colonial mimicry since this generation is already born and raised in a white colonial space in the sense that Bhabha uses the term. The second generation a priori mimics American ideals, unlike the 1.5 generation which encounters these ideals in adolescence. So if not in the mimicry of a third space, where could this generation be said to experience hybridity?

Pérez Firmat does not concern himself with this question since he does not relate to the second generation as a “one-and-a-halfer,” but his work can serve as the foundation for a study of second-generation Cuban-American hybridity. Pérez Firmat observes that “for my children, Cuba is an enduring, perhaps an endearing, fiction. Cuba is for them as ethereal as the smoke and as persistent as the smell of their grandfather’s cigars.” Pérez Firmat’s second-generation children have never been to the Cuban island but have encountered its traces in stories and cigars. The second-generation experience of Cuba is limited to these traces of cubanidad that exist in its daily lives.

The language that Pérez Firmat uses to describe this phenomenon hints at the spectral quality of these traces. Cuba is akin to an ethereal ghost for the second-generation of Cuban-Americans, haunting their Americanized experiences. Hauntology is the field that describes the ways in which these traces of the past in traumas, memories, ideas, and traditions return to the present to haunt it. Postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida who coined the term hauntology explains how ontologies or states of being are haunted by these traces of absence. In the case of second-generation Cuban-Americans, American ontology, which is adopted a priori, is haunted by traces of cubanidad, of the absent and unreachable Cuban island, which persists and haunts in various forms.

Cubanidad often persists in the traces of physical features, intergenerational memories and traumas, and family relations. In daily life, American performances are constantly subverted by these spectral traces of Cuban différance. Bhabha explains how mimicry is defined precisely by this subversion and intrusion of an irreducible colonized différance. Mimicry occurs when colonial discourse encourages the colonized subject to ‘mimic’ the expected performances of the colonizer, but the colonized subject, never able to fully imitate the colonizer, experiences slippages that display hybrid ambivalence. Whereas for the 1.5 generation, Cuban-Americans are encouraged from adolescence to mimic American performances which contradict their familiar Cuban origins, ultimately causing slips, for the second generation, Cuban-American performances of American culture are haunted by cubanidad which returns from the past, even prior to the a priori acceptance of American culture at birth, to subvert white colonial performances. Cubanidad is a ghost that returns from the past generations in traces to haunt the experiences of the second generation.

In conclusion, the second-generation Cuban-American experience of hybridity is neither a Cuban adaptation to American culture nor a negotiation between two cultures in a third space. It is the haunting of American ontology by traces of Cubanidad. The island of Cuba exists as an ethereal ghost for the second generation, lingering in the traces of daily life. Hybridity is infused in second-generation Cuban-Americans by this ghostly presence which seemingly returns from a past even prior to birth.

This hybrid generation cannot fully belong to Cuban culture since it is fundamentally an American generation permanently severed from the island, but it also cannot fully belong to American culture since its white colonial performances are constantly subverted by an irreducible difference. Engagement with this irreducible core of cubanidad which intrudes into daily life constitutes an ethical task for second-generation Cuban-Americans who should embrace rather than repress the ghost of its past, the ghost "quién puede recubanizar una generación descubanizada." This embrace transforms spectral cubanidad into cubanía, which Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz defined as a higher and more complete cubanidad: “una cubanidad plena, sentida, consciente y deseada.”

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