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La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami by Miguel A. De La Torre

MIGUEL A. DE LA TORRE. La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami. University of California Press, 2003.

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La Lucha for Cuba is a bold move for Miguel De La Torre, especially considering the ways he describes the structures of economic and religious power as well as intra-Cuban oppression within the Exilic Cuban community of Miami. As a successful businessman, community leader and “right-wing political activist” in Miami (25), De La Torre once played a role in the very structures of oppression that he critiques in his book, providing him with personal experience and an insider perspective, but also leaving him vulnerable and certainly reproachable to his subjects of study. De La Torre states in the preface, “My hatred for Fidel Castro has been ingrained in me since childhood,” and admits that he grew up believing Castro to be the “earthly personification of Satan” (xv). With such an opening, the reader prepares for a seething condemnation of communism and nostalgia for what was lost in exile, in this case, from the religious perspective of Cuban Americans. While there certainly is a healthy dose of nostalgia, complete with the usual ambivalent undertones of the Cuban exiles’ situation, De La Torre differs in that he directs his bitterness at the Cuban elite in Miami rather than the communist regime in Cuba and critically analyzes how the discourses of nostalgia and political victimization have been used to build religious myths and dichotomies concerning “children of darkness” (Resident Cubans) and “children of light” (Exilic Cubans). Religion is used metaphorically and is politically strategic for the population he discusses. It is a “holy war” that De La Torre chooses to call la lucha in the book, although it is locally known as la causa sagrada. (An ironic choice of terms, perhaps, since “la lucha” is also a phrase used by Cubans in Cuba to refer to the struggle for the continuation of Fidel Castro’s very secular Revolution). According to De La Torre, la lucha is “a sacred space in which the Exilic Cuban’s religious fervor becomes intertwined with the community’s political convictions” (30).

De La Torre does not focus on Cuba, the island nation, but on the militant religiosity of upper class “Exilic Cubans.” These Exilic Cubans—white and “nonwhite” members of what he calls an “Ajiaco Christianity” (he rejects the use of mulato)—position themselves as victims of both the Castro regime and of the racism of “Euroamericans” (by which I think he means to imply mainstream middle class white American culture). De La Torre bases his argument on the dramatic events surrounding the highly publicized custody struggle for Elián Gonzalez, a five year-old Cuban boy who washed into U.S. waters on an inner-tube in 1999. The performative actions of the Cuban religiosos in Miami to keep Elián in the United States are used as the primary evidence for De La Torre’s theories. He explains that while world media followed the heightened politics of the situation, the Cuban exile community was developing a religious subtext. Rituals were created to bind the sacred to the secular, and the most powerful figures in the Cuban American National Foundation (including its chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa) took part in blurring the boundaries between the social and the religious to give divine weight to their political strategies. Elián’s political appeal as symbol of opposition to the Castro regime was immediately evident, says De La Torre, but Elián quickly became valuable in the religious realm as a powerful symbol for those Miami Cubans “attempting to comprehend the will of a God who has remained so silent during the 40 years of their ‘captivity’ in Miami” (3). Elián’s arrival was a sign that things were about to change; that finally, God was sending a messiah.

De La Torre states that Elián became a sacred symbol for Cuban practitioners of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Santería. Elián was the miracle child: he was depicted as Miami’s baby Jesus and protected by the Virgin Mary; as a prophet warning against evil, as a messenger bringing salvation, and as the child of the orisha of the sea, Ochún (10). By traveling across the water, he ceased to be just an innocent boy, and instead turned into an image to be negotiated and manipulated in both political and religious terms. His migration was dangerous. He escaped drowning in open seas and the jaws of vicious sharks with only the protection of mythical dolphins, and was thus transformed from a child of “darkness” (resident Cuban) into a child of “light” (exilic Cuban)—from the faithless to the sacrosanct. De La Torre traces the staging of events and the key players that made Elián a religious icon in 1999-2000, events that further marked the ideological space between “us” and “them,” Exilic and Resident, Light and Darkness, aqui and allá, gusano and comunista. A complex web of symbols and myths are historicized and the coordinating actions of Miami Cubans are deftly explained.

Chapter 1 (“An Ajiaco Christianity”) was especially fascinating for me since at the time, I was watching events—huge public tribunales for Elián’s release from his gusano “kidnappers” and State media coverage—from the other side of the watery divide. In Cuba, Elián discourse remained firmly in the secular realm. Although Elián’s photo was included on the altar of an Altar de Cruz ritual I witnessed in rural Guantánamo in 2000, the songs sung that night begged the Virgin Mary and Santa Barbara for his return; they were not sung to Elián himself. The indisputable message in Cuba was “save Elián,” not “Elián save us.” In Cuba, like in Miami, Elián became what De La Torre calls the “poster child” of Cubans—but of Resident Cubans, not Exilic Cubans. In Cuba, “ajiaco” refers to race and ethnicity and to Fernando Ortiz’s definition of cubanidad. For Cuban-American De La Torre, ajiaco is Christian; it is a theology of the Diaspora, a postcolonial theology, a postmodern theology, a liberation theology: it is a form of religion that shapes the culture of the exilic community and identity in Miami.

In Chapter 2 (La Lucha: The Religion of Miami”), De La Torre explains that the financial success and rise to power of elite Cubans in Miami was due to four “cultural texts:” 1) their ethnic composition as early (light-skinned) refugees, 2) the propaganda value of Cubans fleeing communism, 3) the construction of an ethnic economic enclave by el exilios, and 4) the CIA’s contribution to the influx of capital into Miami. He also describes the Exilic Cuban community as radical in their beliefs, both spiritually and socially—in a quest for power that threatens those who do not conform, and sometimes even punishes them in violent ways (43). Repeated bombings and Cuban-on-Cuban violence reveal the seriousness of the political issues at hand. One of De La Torre’s main arguments is that Cubans are not “free” in Miami or in the United States. They have only traded in one sort of oppression (Castro and communism) for another (hyper-capitalist and ultra-conservative ideologies of elite members of la lucha).

De La Torre becomes self-reflective in Chapter 3 (“Psalm 137: Constructing Cuban Identity while in Babylon”). He first shows how the biblical analogy of Babylonian captivity is used as a source of hope for exiles. Similar to the Jews banished to Babylon, the Cubans’ faith becomes “a means of coping with their existential situation, giving meaning to the shame and humiliation of displacement and providing hope” (54). The text then turns to a discussion of how Cubans (including De La Torre) see themselves as privileged, in a position of authority. For la lucha to function correctly, he claims, they must believe that 1) Exilic Cubans pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, 2) that they fled tyranny, and 3) that they are not racists (59). De La Torre proceeds to expose each of these beliefs as myths.

I was uncertain why De La Torre devoted so many pages to the general history of the waves of Cuban immigration and racial dynamics of the city, since, as he himself admits, such content has already been well covered by other scholars. And I was also puzzled as to why he dwelled on the importance of machismo and cojones for political domination (Chapter 4). Certainly, being rich, white, and male are essential components of the intra-Cuban structure of oppression, so perhaps it is my own actual lack of cojones that made it difficult for me to sit patiently through an extensive discussion of the metaphor. La lucha is macho, says De La Torre. “History is forged through one’s cajones. Women, nonwhite males, and the poor fail to influence history because they lack cojones, a gift given to machos by the ultimate Macho, God” (87). Both Cubans in Cuba and Cubans in Miami believe that nationhood depends on the “male projection of identity,” thus the religious-political discourse of la lucha […] can be understood as a gender discourse” (91). Both Fidel Castro and Jorge Mas Canosa have represented father figures, heads of households, and both have dominated virgin (feminine) land by constructing patria upon her (95).

While La Lucha for Cuba contributes a new religious perspective for understanding the complexities of the culture of the Cuban Diaspora and provides an intriguing look at the ways religion connects with Cuban political culture in Miami, I was disappointed by De La Torre’s generalizations and lack of qualitative methods. “Exilic Cubans” were painted with one face in the book as a homogenous collective, yet I find it difficult to believe that all Exilic Cubans fit into De La Torre’s category. In his introduction he claims to be “employing an ethnographic methodology” (xvii), yet most of the voices quoted in the book were those previously published in articles from The Miami Herald and its Spanish counterpart El Nuevo Herald. He characterizes himself an “indigenous ethnographer” (24), yet such ethnographers must also interview other members of their home locales. Exactly which “Exilic Cubans” and which “streets of Miami” he referred to were never clarified. Given the potential richness of the overall topic and his stated intention to address religious expression by consulting the “political grassroots” (20), his project would have benefited greatly by hearing directly from some of the Exilic Cubans themselves—those believing and fighting in La Lucha before and after the arrival of the “miracle child.”

In the end, De La Torre is successful in making the reader uncertain about taking sides, for the reader remains uncertain about which side the author takes. This is no small feat, and I believe it a positive one, given the contentious arguments about and between Cuba and the United States and the scholars who study them. Although the dichotomies he presents remain firmly in place, some rarely discussed influences that affect the dialogue between Cuban groups are revealed in his narrative. De La Torre provides an enlightening, albeit disquieting, view of a very vocal and powerful segment of Cubans living in Miami.


Laurie Frederik Meer is an anthropologist by training and an Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at the University of Maryland. She writes and teaches about contemporary Cuba, Latin America, political performance, and national identity.

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