On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture is an engaging story. Actually a 600-page tome, the book charts the development of Cuban identity as it developed in relation to Spain and the United States: from Spanish and then U.S. colony, to a young democracy, to the military rule of General Fulgencio Bautista, and then Castro’s communism.
University of North Carolina professor Louis A. Pérez Jr. labored for a decade on this masterful social history, published in 1999 by the University of North Carolina Press. It covers roughly a hundred years, from the 1850s to 1959. Perez subsequently coauthored Tampa Cigar Workers: A Pictorial History, a localized examination of one of several Cuban enclaves.
Proximity and access to technology, essentially to economic development, linked the Cuban people to their neighbor to the north. A surprisingly large number of Cubans during the period of Spanish occupation vacationed in the U.S. and relocated long enough to obtain an education as well as citizenship.
“For many, emigration provided an opportunity to acquire new citizenship. Naturalization was part of a larger strategy, less to obtain legal rights in the United States than to secure civil liberties in Cuba.” (p. 38)
On Becoming Cuban devotes little space to U.S. electoral politics. Still, there are a number of interesting factoids: for example, 12,000 Cuban-born U.S. citizens were eligible to participate in the 1876 presidential election.
Moreover, a number of Cubans ultimately stayed in the U.S. and, according to Perez, “were appointed to government positions and elected to political office at the municipal, state, and federal levels.”
This passage provides a flavor of the Cubans’ role in Florida civic life:
In Key West, Alejandro Mendoza, Enrique Esquinaldo, Rogelio Gómez, and Juan Maria Reyes served as justices of the peace; Alfredo Reynoso was chief of police, and Juan Bustos, Delio Cobo, Marcos Mesa, Juan Carbonell, Manuel Varela, and José Valdeés were members of the city council. Isaac Carrillo received a federal appointment as southern district attorney, and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and Manuel Govin were installed as officers in the U.S. customhouse in Key West. Cespedes subsequently won the mayoral seat in Key West, and Govín served as postmaster of Jacksonville. José Alejandro Huau was elected to four terms on the Jacksonville city council. Celestino Canizares became mayor of Ocala, Manuel Moreno, Manuel Patricio Delgado, Joseé Gonzalo Pompées, and Fernando Figueredo Socarrás were sent to the Florida legislature. (pp. 41–42)
Others held prominent nonelected posts in civic life in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana.
This pre-1959 history is essential to understanding a people that are best known in the United States as post-1959 anticommunist refugees who have elected members of their community to Congress. In November 2010, Marco Rubio became the first Cuban elected to the U.S. Senate, as a Republican from Florida.