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Psalm 137
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How Can We Sing?

"Sing," they said, "some mambo." How can we sing our rumba in a pagan land? Mi Habana, if I forget you may my right hand wither.

Those who arrived in the United States from Cuba as infants or small children struggle with the realization that they do not belong to the


Cuban rafters: An official U.S. Coast Guard photograph of rafters crossing the Florida Straits in 1976. Courtesy of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

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mythical Cuba de ayer of their parents. In spite of their determination not to forget La Habana lest their "right hand wither," their situation provokes them to ask the paradoxical question, "How can we forget that which we can not remember?" On a personal note, when I look at my two children, born in the early 1990s, I realize that in spite of my efforts to raise them as Cubans (a term I struggle daily to define for myself), their skin is light enough and their lifestyle sufficiently middle-class for them to assimilate easily into the dominant culture. Their blond hair and blue eyes allow them to "pass" as Euroamericans. By 2030, when my children are my age, will they define themselves as Cubans? Will the names they give their children, names like Ashley Gómez or Jordan Perez, betray the extent of their assimilation, an assimilation similar to that of the exiled Jews who lived in Babylon some 2,500 years ago?[10]

The pain that prevents me, and many Exilic Cubans like me, from "singing our rumba" in a foreign land is the knowledge that while my parents, my children, and I belong to the same biological family, we live in separate cultural families. My parents will die as brokenhearted Cubans

who will never again bathe at Cuba's warm tropical beaches. I will die as an unfulfilled Exilic Cuban, for even though I have visited my homeland on several occasions, I am deeply pained when constantly told by island inhabitants, "You may have been born here, but you are no Cuban." I am accepted neither in the United States because I am too Cuban nor in Cuba because I am too Americanized. My children will die as new "Americans," remotely remembering their roots. They are no more Cuban than my parents are "American." They exist in two different worlds, connected only by my generation.

Exilic Cuban sociologist Rubén Rumbaut has labeled those in this in-between space the "one-and-a-half" generation. While the first generation, consisting of our parents from the "old" world, faced the task of acculturation, managing the transition from one sociocultural environment to another, the second generation, consisting of our children from the "new" world, face the task of managing the transition from childhood to adulthood. We who are caught in between these two spaces are forced to cope with both crisis-producing and identity-defining transitions (1991, 61).

Every Exilic Cuban has heard Celia Cruz sing the popular tear-jerker "Cuando salí de Cuba" (When I left Cuba). No other song better summarizes the pain of the Exilic Cuban's existential position. "Never can I die, my heart is not here. Over there it is waiting for me, it is waiting for me to return there. When I left Cuba, I left my life, I left my love. When I left Cuba, I left my heart buried [emphasis mine]." This popular Cuban ballad, written by an Argentine (Luis Aguile) and sung as a hymn of faith, illustrates a certain poignant denial of Exilic Cubans, who will certainly live, and most probably die, on foreign soil.

Both the exiled Hebrews of the Bible and the Cubans of today were forced to deal with the incomprehensible pain of exile. Judaism as a religious expression was constructed in Babylon out of the pain of questioning the sovereignty of a God who would tear the chosen people from their homes and plant them in an alien land. A major concern for those in exile was their status as deportees. Did removal from the "promised land," by which their identity as Hebrews was constructed, indicate a divine rejection, voiding any future participation in God's plan? The prophet Ezekiel (11:14–25) addressed the exiled Hebrews’ anxiety by attempting to construct a new covenant upon "a single heart" and "a new spirit." Moreover, with the fall of Jerusalem and the devastation of the Temple, which marked the end of the Jews’ political sovereignty and the beginning of the Babylonian exile, concerns were again raised about an everlasting rejection by God, or worse, the inability of God to prevent

these destructive forces. For Ezekiel (8–11) the fall of the city was not a result of God's powerlessness but of God's deliberate desertion, a belief qualified by the hope of restoration. Additionally, Ezekiel stressed the continuation of God's fidelity to Jerusalem and to the exiled. While comforting, Ezekiel's words failed to initiate repentance among those in exile (18). Instead, the experience of exile led the Jews to forge a new identity (De La Torre 2000, 271–72).

La lucha serves a similar purpose in constructing identity. As we have seen, Exilic Cubans subconsciously reconstructed themselves according to the imagery of the mirror. They internalize and naturalize their mirror image so that they can shape outside structures, always masking their drive to master them. If we define power as repressive, then a purely juridical understanding of power can develop. Power, identified with law, says "no." Such a view of power is wholly negative and narrow. Power is not defined as a group of institutions or social mechanisms ensuring obedience from those who are disenfranchised. It is neither a mode of subjugation nor a form of domination exerted by one group over another (Foucault 1978, 92; 1984, 60–61). Instead, power creates: it creates the "truth" of ethnicity for the one gazing into the mirror. Looking in the mirror, Exilic Cubans reread their history as the story of a people who escaped. Unlike other examples of refugees, both the Babylonian-bound Hebrews and the United States–bound Cubans belonged to the privileged upper class.[11] The surreal scene at the Miami airport, as welldressed refugees disembarked, resulted from the same forces that brought about the Babylonian exile of the Bible. In both cases, the hegemony of the north (Babylon for the Jews and the United States for the Cubans) was responsible for the circumstances making flight necessary. Cuba's political system, since the formation of the Republic in 1902, was designed to protect the commercial interests and assets of the United States. Dictator Batista's utility to the United States was best expressed by William Wieland, Cuban desk officer at the U.S. State Department, who said, "I know Batista is considered by many as a son of a bitch…but American interests come first… at least he is our son of a bitch, he is not playing ball with the Communists" (Thomas 1971, 971). As vassals, both the Cuba of the first half of the twentieth century and Judah of the Bible were desirable prizes: Judah as a buffer zone between the north and south and Cuba as a key to the entire hemisphere. While Judah's exile was triggered by the physical invasion of Babylon, Cuba's Revolution was a backlash against the hegemony of the United States. The majority of the elite from both Cuba and Judah found themselves in el exilio, cut off from the land that defined who they were.


Is it any wonder that when Exilic Cubans read Psalm 137 they are stirred to the core of their beings? Exilic Cubans fully comprehend the tragic pain of sitting by the rivers of an alien land unable to sing to a God whom the psalmist secretly holds responsible. Landlessness, which comes with the ninety-mile crossing of the Florida Straits, radically disenfranchises them. The hope of returning to their land becomes fundamental to the construction of their Exilic Cuban ethnicity, yet each passing year, the cemeteries of Miami sprout more headstones bearing Cuban surnames.[12] Rather than proclaiming, "next year in Jerusalem," as do Jews at the conclusion of the Passover meal, Exilic Cubans tell each other, "this year Castro will fall," as if this one person were the only thing preventing them from "going home." In reality, the hope of returning home has been replaced by a private desire to adapt and capitalize on their presence in their new country.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiled Jews telling them to stop hoping for a speedy return. He tells them "to build houses, live, plant gardens and eat their fruits;… [they are to] seek the peace of the city [to which they are exiled]… and pray to Yahweh for its peace, for in its peace there will be for you peace (29:5–9)." Like these exiled Jews, Exilic Cubans are forced to relinquish the old world and embrace the realities of the new space they occupy. Their adherence to Jeremiah's dictates was facilitated by their former contacts with elites in other Latin American countries; the possession of the necessary language skills and cultural links to deal with these contacts; their confidence in succeeding due to their habitus; and their connections with U.S. corporations, developed when they acted as their representatives in Cuba.

Success exists in exile. In the closing chapter of 2 Kings, the disgraced king of Judah, Jehoiachin, is allotted a seat at the Babylonian king's table "above those of the other kings (25:27–30)." From the former Judean elite arose leaders like Nehemiah, who occupied the post of "cupbearer" for the Persian king Artaxerxes.[13] While life in exile contained numerous hardships, the exiled Jews from the elite circles of Judah possessed the necessary habitus and resources to overcome their predicament. In Babylon, exiled Jews constructed a community whose legacy is felt to this day. This independent and powerful community participated in the life of postexilic Israel by providing financial support to the Palestinian community until the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. The importance of the Babylonian Jews in the construction of Judaism is evidenced by the monumental development of the Babylonian Talmud (which has taken precedence over the Jerusalem Talmud) in subsequent centuries.


Like the exiled Hebrews, Cubans suffered no unusual physical hardships. On the contrary, for some life in exile opened up opportunities that never existed in the homeland. Exilic Cuban sociologist Lisandro Pérez, who heads the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, states, "In Miami there is no pressure to be American. People can make a living perfectly well in an enclave that speaks Spanish" (Booth 1993, 84). As a unilingual Exilic woman told me, "Even though I hate Fidel, I thank him every day. In Cuba I had nothing, living in a dirt floor hut. But now, look at me. My two sons went to college and make a lot of money, and I own a house with Italian tiles." Like the Babylonian Jews, Cubans entered trades and grew rich, with some ascending the political structures to hold power over those who did not go into exile, just as Nehemiah did. In spite of the "rhetoric of return," the United States became the place where Exilic Cubans put their hope.

Even while Jerusalem was falling, Jeremiah bought a plot of land there (32:9–11). His message juxtaposes God's judgment—exile—with God's deliverance—repatriation. The true hope for Jerusalem did not lie in Babylon; rather, it was rooted in the homeland. Similarly, Exilic Cubans, especially YUCAs and Generation Ñ, see their exilic experience as positive because of their individual economic advancements.[14] While they look to the United States to define the future of Cuba, they also look to Cuba to define their present situation in the United States. The greatest danger of landlessness is the ending of a people's history. The historical activity of remembering la Cuba de ayer protects Exilic Cubans from this apocalyptic danger and creates the hope of one day returning to the "promised land" (De La Torre 2001, 192–93). During the 2002 centennial celebration of the establishment of Cuba as a republic, held in the heart of Miami, Rafael Peñalver, one of the celebration organizers, said, "We're in exile but can't forget that a dream for a free Cuba began more than a century ago. When Fidel Castro is just an asterisk in the story of Cuban history, there will always be a Cuban people."[15]

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Psalm 137
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