Factors affecting assimilation...
 The prospects for assimilation...
 Cultural identity and the Cuban...

Title: Caribbean migration to the United States
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00086933/00001
 Material Information
Title: Caribbean migration to the United States cultural identity and the process of assimilation
Physical Description: Archival
Language: English
Creator: Safa, Helen Icken
Publisher: Safa, Helen Icken
Publication Date: 1983
Subject: South America   ( lcsh )
Spatial Coverage: South America
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Bibliographic ID: UF00086933
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Table of Contents
        Page 1
    Factors affecting assimilation in the United States
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
    The prospects for assimilation and alternative modes of incorporation
        Page 8
        Page 9
    Cultural identity and the Cuban community in the United States
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
Full Text

Caribbean Migration to
the United States:
Cultural Identity and the
Process of Assimilation
Helen I. Safa

Caribbean migration to the United States has assumed
alarming proportions recently, particularly with the recent
massive influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees to south
Florida. While there has been considerable socioeconomic
analysis of this phenomenon, little attention has been paid
to the possibilities of assimilation' of Caribbean migrants
into American society and how this relates to questions of
cultural identity. Many Caribbean migrants are rejecting
assimilation as a goal and choosing instead to maintain
their ethnic identity within a framework of ethnic pluralism.
They are contributing to a movement of "ethnic revitaliza-
tion" which has come to characterize much of American
sociopolitical life since 1950 (Maingot 1981), but which was
_._ especially strong in the 1960s and 1970s.
This resistance to assimilation on the part of some
Caribbean migrants is causing great alarm in certain
circles. It has led to_ calls for a complete -halt-to-such
immigration and to bilingual education and resettlement
programs designed to benefit these new immigrant groups.
The assimilationists cannot understand why Caribbean
migrants should not make every effort to become American-
ized and shed their cultural identity as quickly as possible.

Their resistance or inability to do so is seen as ingratitude or
arrogance by some sectors of the dominant society, who see
assimilation as the only possible goal not disruptive to the
fabric of American life.
This paper is an attempt to explain why many Caribbean
migrants have clung to their cultural identity and why
assimilation is not seen as a feasible goal. The first section is
a dis'cussion.of the factors that hinder the assimilation of
Caribbean migrants in the United States and that have set
them apart from previous migrations, particularly from
Europe. It will be seen that Caribbean migrants differ in
important respects from these earlier migrants and are also
encountering conditions in the United States that cause
them to question the validity .of the assimilation model.
The second part of this paper attempts to assess the
prospects for assimilation of Caribbean migrants and alter-
natives to such a strategy. Here we deepen the debate over
whether the theory of assimilation is really applicable to
Caribbean migrants, or whether they might not better be
viewed as internal colonies of the United States. Ethnic
pluralism is seen as a reaction by internal colonies to
continued subordination in the United States in an attempt
to establish a new power base rooted in ethnic solidarity.
The third section of this paper examines the formation of
cultural identity among Caribbean migrants in the United
States through an analysis of the Cuban case. While excep-
tional in certain aspects, the Cuban case shows how cultural
identity is affected not only by the socioeconomic status of
migrants and their receptivity in the host society but by their
mode of incorporation. Cubans have been characterized as
an economic enclave with a high degree of common cultural
identity, but this process is also undergoing change as the
Cuban community in the United States becomes more
heterogeneous and less cohesive.
Thus, the paper attempts to examine ethnic revitalization
among Caribbean migrants in the United States by analyz-
ing the relationship between cultural identity and such
factors as socioeconomic mobility, the_mode_ofmigrant
- incorporationand conditions in the host society. As we
shall see, the formation of cultural identity is not the same
among all Caribbean migrants, who differ not only by
country of origin but also by class, racial, and other factors
within ethnic groups. Is the maintenance of a strong cultural

identity incompatible with socioeconomic mobility? Must
ethnic groups shed their cultural heritage if they wish to
enter the American mainstream? We will return to these
questions at the end of this paper.

Factors Affecting Assimilation in the United States

In discussing the factors affecting the assimilation of
Caribbean migrants in the United States, we shall look both
at the characteristics of migrants and conditions in the U.S.
economy at this particular historical moment when Carib-
bean migration has reached its peak. We shall see that there
are various factors inhibiting the assimilation of Caribbean
migrants into U.S. society, which make them different from
previous European immigrants. Particular attention will be
paid to the recent Cuban and Haitian refugees in south
Florida, to illustrate our analysis.
Let us begin with a definition of the Caribbean used in this
paper. The analysis here will be limited largely to the islands
of the Greater and Lesser Antilles, which include the
English-speaking Indies or Commonwealth Caribbean; the
Spanish-speaking islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Domini-
can Republic; and the French Creole-speaking islands of
Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. Most of the islands are
now independent, but Guadeloupe and Martinique remain
dependencies of France, while the United States retains
control over Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin
Islands. The enormous political, cultural, and linguistic
diversity of the region makes generalizations difficult and
precarious, but there are broad historical patterns of colon-
ialism, slavery, the plantation, and dependence on an export
economy that are common to the entire area. Comparisons
will be limited mainly to the West Indies,, Haiti, and the
Hispanic Caribbean, from which come the majority of
Caribbean migrants to the United States.

The Volume of Caribbean Migration-

Although the number of Caribbean migrants is still small
compared to migrants from Mexico, the other area of heavy
out-migration, the volume has increased rapidly in the post-
war'period.' For example, between 1960 and 1980 the.
percentage of Hispanic migrants in New York City doubled




to 10.4 percent of the population, while the 1980 census again
shows it to be the fastest growing ethnic group. West Indian
migration to the United States for the decade 1961-1970
reached almost 500,000, more than three times that of the
period 1951-1960 (Marshall 1982, 52).
While Mexican migration has been primarily to California.
and the Southwest, Caribbean migration has been confined
largely to the eastern seaboard, primarily to the areas
surrounding New York City and Miami. Last year alone,
south Florida admitted approximately 125,000 Cubans as a
result of the Mariel boatlift, and 18,000 Haitians, most of
whom arrived illegally, claiming status as political refugees
(Metropolitan Dade County 1981, 1).2
The Cuban migration augmented an existing Cuban
-population in the United States of about 794,000 people, 63
percent of whom live in Miami (Boswell n.d., 1-2). This figure
is constantly growing due to secondary migration from
other areas of the United States. Most of the Haitian
population of the United States, which is estimated at
400,000, live in New York City. However, most of the recent
refugees have settled in Miami, which nowhas a Haitian
population conservatively estimated at 40,000 to 45,000
(Boswell 1982, 19). A large number of Haitians (estimated at
20,000) have also entered the migrant stream as agricultural
farm laborers along the eastern seaboard.
The sudden increase in the volume of these refugees, often
combined with their status as undocumented aliens, has
greatly inhibited their possibilities of assimilation into
American society. Even the Cuban community in Miami,
which initially welcomed the Mariel refugees, has been
overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of the problem.
The result has been the continued detention of both Cuban
and Haitian refugees in government camps and prisons-
refugees whose legal status remains in doubt, or who cannot
find families or communities willing to accept them for
relocation. This is particularly the case of single men in the
Cuban Mariel group, many of whom are reported to have
criminal records in Cuba (Bach, et al. 1982).
-- -Another distinguishing featureof C-aribbean migration is
that it is often circulatory. This is especially true of Puerto
Ricans, who are free to come and go as they please. In recent
years, return migration to Puerto Rico has more than
equalled the number leaving for the United States. However,

Dominicans and other West Indians are also known to
circulate, even those who are undocumented aliens. Only
Cubans and Haitians are not free to return home because of
political conditions in their countries. Circulatory migration
also hinders the process of assimilation because it con-
stantly replenishes the stock of migrants with newcomers
from the islands, contributing significantly to the main-
tenance of ethnic identity. In addition, it offers migrants the
option of returning home rather than assimilating into
American society.

Racial Factors

Racial factors, have also impeded the assimilation of
Caribbean migrants. A large proportion of these migrants
S are black or mulatto, entering a predominantly white society
with strong racial prejudices. The result has been increasing
color consciousness among the Caribbean population, both
migrant and non-migrant, which is manifest in various
ways. Migrants may try to pass for white and assimilate into
the dominant white society. This is easier for migrants who
are clearly white, the majority of whom tend to come from
the Hispanic Caribbean. West Indians, on the other hand,
have tended to distinguish themselves culturally from black
Americans rather than to identify with this oppressed
minority. In contrast, other Caribbean migrants, both His-
panic and West Indian, have chosen to identify as black,
particularly after the rise of the black power movement in
the United States in the 1960s, which affected the racial
consciousness of migrants as well as islanders.

Thus, race has tended to divide the Caribbean migrant
population, even within groups, as studies of race among
Puerto Ricans and Cubans have shown. In a recent study in
Dade County, many of the recent Mariel refugees from Cuba
have felt rejected by their countrymen, and this is particu-
larly true of black and mulatto Cubans, particularly those in
detention camps (Metropolitan Dade County 1981, 59). The
_ -Mariel population is approximately -20 percent-black and
therefore differs considerably from previous Cuban
migrants, 95 percent of whom are white ibidd., 5). In this and
other respects, the Marielitos more closely represent the
Source Cuban population than ever before (Bach, et al. 1982,

Race undoubtedly represents the most formidable obstacle
to assimilation in American society, unlike the other factors
discussed here. Race is an ascribed characteristic that
permanently sets blacks and other racial minorities apart
from the rest of the society. However, there is evidence that
race and the recent revived interest in African culture in the
Caribbean is playing an increasingly important, role in the
formation of ethnic identity, both in the Caribbean and
among migrants in the United States. The increase in race
consciousness and cultural pride in their African heritage
appears to be bringing about greater exchange among
Caribbean peoples of different linguistic and cultural tradi-
tions. While this is most evident among intellectuals inter-
ested in the Afro-American cultural heritage, such as Rex
Nettleford, Aime Cesaire, Roberto Marques, or Miguel
Barnet, it is also manifest in signs of growing solidarity
among the mass of Caribbean migrant populations. It is
especially evident in the second generation of migrants, who
have lost some of their island provincialism and see race as a
political strategy for unifying the Caribbean population of
the United States.

Social Class of the Migrant Population

Most Caribbean migrants are poor and leave the islands
primarily for economic reasons. The poorest group are
probably the Haitians, who often arrive by boat with
nothing but the clothes on their back. This also reflects the
poverty of Haiti, where the per capital income of $260
annually is the lowest in the Western hemisphere. Two-
thirds of the rural population, who represent 80 percent of
Haiti's people, have annual incomes of $40 (Stepick 1982b,
Fully half of the recent Haitian refugees were engaged in
unskilled work or farming in their homeland. This indicates
a marked shift toward more rural migrants in recent years,
due in part to droughts, hurricanes, and to rural "recruiters"
who encourage selling of land tobuy.passage (estimated to
--cost-as-high-as-$2,000). Education levels among recent
Haitian entrants are also low with 5.6 average years of
schooling, reflecting their rural origin (Metropolitan Dade
County 1981, 16). By contrast, many of the earlier Haitian
migrants were urban middle- or upper-class professionals





: I




who settled in New York.
Cubans, on the other hand, enjoy a reputation for being
largely middle class. In reality, many Cuban migrants were
also working class, particularly those arriving after 1965.
Certainly most of the recent migrants from Mariel could be
identified as working class. Compared to earlier Cuban
migrants, the Mariel group shows a higher percentage who
had unskilled or manual jobs in Cuba (71 percent versus 35
percent) and a lower percentage who had professional
occupations (9 percent versus 22 percent) ibidd, 5). However,
the average educational level of the Mariel entrants is about
eighth grade, close to the earlier migrants, and higher than
the Haitians ibidd, 16).
As many as 80 to 90 percent of Cuban and Haitian
entrants report problems in English ibidd., 65), but this is
alleviated for the Cubans by the bilingual nature of the Dade
County community. Many Cubans survive well without
English, working in and for the Cuban community (Wilson
and Portes 1980). For Haitians, the language problem is
aggravated by the fact that over half the refugees are
illiterate in their own language (Metropolitan Dade County
1981, 65).
Poverty, poor language skills, and low educational and
occupational levels are serious impediments to the assimi-
lation of ethnic migrants. Because they are poor and have no
knowledge of English, they tend to cluster together in ethnic
ghettos, and often have few personal contacts outside the
migrant community. Their only contact with the wider
society comes through impersonal dealings on the job, in a
store or an office. Their ethnic solidarity often serves as a
buffer to an impersonal and often hostile world.
Middle-class migrants, by contrast, tend to have more
dispersed residential patterns and are therefore much less
visible than their poor counterparts, with whom they may
have little or no contact. There has been a considerable
"brain drain" from the Caribbean with the exodus of
professionals such as doctors, nurses, engineers and teach---
-- ers.Virtually-all-C-ribbean nations have sent professionals
to the United States, but they have been much less notice-
able than the poor. For example, many middle-class profes-
sionals left Jamaica during the Manley government because
of inflation, shortage of consumer goods, and other eco-
nomic problems. Middle-class migrants tend to assimilate

more easily since they have less difficulty finding a job and
housing. They may, however, experience severe status dis-
location and downward occupational mobility As a result of
their move.
Class differences pose a problem to the political effec-
tiveness of the migrant community. Leadership should rest
with middle-class migrants, who have education, better
knowledge of English, and more experience in dealing with
the dominant society. However, many of the middle-class
migrants are effectively cut off from the larger, poor migrant
community and therefore lack the legitimacy and the sup-
port necessary to become effective role models and leaders.
This is less true in the case of the Cuban community, where
much of the middle-class has continued to live in the Dade
County area.

Political Status

Political status is another serious impediment to the
political strength of the migrant community. Most migrants
cannot vote until they become United States citizens, a long
and often arduous process. Caribbean migrants therefore do
not constitute a political constituency of any importance,
with the notable exception of the Cubans, who play a critical
role nationally as well as in south Florida. Some Caribbean
migrant groups, though not citizens, have been active in the
process of "ethnic bargaining" particularly in matters
relating to immigration (Maingot 1981). Though Maingot
decries this as diluting the privileges of citizenship of the
legal immigrants, it is difficult to see how else these disen-
franchised groups can exercise any influence over the
policies affecting them. They have learned that in the
United States the game of ethnic politics determines much of
a group's future, as witness the lobbying by Haitians and
their allies for their right to political asylum.
Undocumented aliens and refugees are of course the
weakest group politically, and the most vulnerable. Presi-
dent_Reagan has recently- proposed-that undocumented-
aliens living in the United States as of January 1980, be
permitted to apply for status as permanent residents,
which-if approved-would clarify considerably their legal
status. He has also proposed sanctions against employers
who hire undocumented aliens. This measure is bitterly

Supposed by Hispanic political organizations because they
feel it will lead to discrimination in employment against all
Hispanics (or all nonwhites), regardless of their legal status.
The 1980 Refugee Act attempts to clarify the status of
refugees as "victims of political repression," not just from
Communism, but from all forms of authoritarian regimes.
SThose'supporting the cause of the Haitian refugees have
sought to apply this law to their case, arguing that Haitians
are political refugees from the repressive Duvalier regime.
Nevertheless, the immigration authorities have continued to
maintain that Haitians are fleeing for economic, not politi-
I cal reasons. They are afraid that admitting Haitians as
refugees would set a precedent, opening the floodgates to
immigrants from other authoritarian regimes, such as El
Salvador (cf Stepick 1982a, 13). In their attempt to garner
greater political strength, Haitians and their advocates
sought the support of other political groups, such as the
congressional Black Caucus. Here we can see again where
race is playing an increasingly important role in the defini-
tion and long-range political goals of the Caribbean migrant
Despite the limited success of the Haitians, Cubans are the
best example of an effective ethnic bloc among Caribbean
migrants. Undoubtedly, they are aided by their geographic
concentration in the Miami area and by their relatively high
socioeconomic level. Although relative newcomers, Maingot
(1981, 25) describes how they have been able to gain from the
advances of other ethnic minorities and have become a very
effective lobby, particularly at the national level. For a long
time, their political goals centered on foreign policy and the
overthrow of the Castro Government. Recently, however,
they have exhibited a greater interest in state and local
SI politics and are well represented in city elective positions in
Dade County, where they constitute an important electoral
constituency (Jorge and Moncarz 1980, 84).
Cuban effectiveness as a voting bloc has been increased
by their naturalization as citizens, which, while resisted at--
Sfirst, has now reached about 40 percent of the Cuban
community (Azicri 1982,61). However, as Maingot (1981,21-
22) writes, "Power was achieved prior to citizenship, not
because of it." While citizenship was indicative of their
having come to terms with their permanence in the United
States, Maingot ibidd., 22) claims that it was a "matter of

strategic choice, not primordial attachment" and implies no
loss of ethnic identity. In fact, ethnic identity is intensified
by the process of ethnic bargaining at which Cubans have
become so adept.

Economic Structure of U.S. Society

In discussing the assimilation of Caribbean migrants into
American society, it is also important to look atthe nature of
the society they are entering at this particular historical
moment. Caribbean migrants are entering the United States
in large numbers in a period of severe economic crisis hnd
political change, which is bound to have a critical impact on
the possibilities of their assimilation.
The economic crisis has brought about high rates of
unemployment combined with high rates of inflation.
Migrants suffer from these problems more severely than
ordinary citizens since they generally occupy the worst jobs
and pay exorbitant rents precisely because they are discrim-
inated against and lack the language skills and experience
of the native population. Unemployment is severe among
recent Cuban and Haitian refugees in Florida. As many as
78 percent of the Cubans and 66 percent of the Haitians in a
recent study are reported as unemployed and actively
seeking work (Metropolitan Dade County 1981,38). Housing
is also a major problem, with serious overcrowding among
Haitians who live with an average of six other people in each
household unit, contrasted to three for the Cuban entrant
group ibidd., 43).
Migrants, particularly undocumented aliens, are often
accused of taking away jobs from American citizens, ano-
ther factor in the move to restrict immigration and to expel
the undocumented aliens from the United States. However, '
most studies have shown that these groups take jobs that
ordinary citizens no longer desire because they pay poorly
and/or require heavy manual labor, such as migrant agri-
cultural labor; service jobs in hotels, restaurants and other
public establishments; and low-paying factory jobs, such as .
those-in-the-garment-irdsustry (NACLA 1979; Cornelius
1978; 1982). It is estimated that one-third of the garment
workers in New York City are undocumented aliens, many of
them from the Caribbean (NACLA 1979, 35). In illegal
sweatshops in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami,


undocumented aliens often are forced to work for long hours
at less than the minimum wage and under miserable
conditions. As undocumented aliens, they have no legal
recourse, although a considerable number are now members
of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union
(ILGWU), which is the only union to defend the rights of
undocumented aliens in the United States. The rest of the
Union movement has opposed the entry and legalization of
the status of undocumented aliens in the United States
because they fear that they bring higher unemployment and
deteriorating wages and working conditions.
The high percentage of Caribbean migrants in the gar-
ment industry points to the high percentage of women who
migrate and are employed in the American labor force. The
labor force participation rate of Cuban women, for example,
is 55 percent-much higher than the rate for native white
Americans. Women from the Caribbean work in the garment
Industry and other factory employment, in service jobs, and.
as domestic servants. Domestic servants are primarily
undocumented aliens who try to use their employment to
find a sponsor who will legalize their stay in the United
States and are often exploited by employment agencies
seeking this new form of cheap labor. The proportion of
women among recent Haitian and Cuban refugees is
approximately 30 percent (Boswell 1982, 21). Though the
total number of women is low, there is concern over the high
birth rate in the Miami Haitian community. A recent study
in Florida reported that 52 percent of the Haitian entrant
families had a pregnancy during 1980 as opposed to 10
percent of the Cubans (Metropolitan Dade County 1981, 55-
56). This figure may be exaggerated due to the nature of the
sample, but it is still considerable cause for alarm.
Not only are Haitian households larger in size than Cuban
households, but the proportion of working adults within the
household is smaller. While the average migrant household
reports no more than one working adult, that adult in
Haitian households is supporting 4 other nonworking
adults, while in Cuban households,-he-or she-supporttsan
average of 2.2 nonworking adults. It is surprising, therefore,
that only about half the Cuban entrants report some house-
hold incomes from a wage earner, a lower proportion than
the 83 percent reported in the Haitian population. Both
groups report receiving government aid in some form,

including food stamps, but the proportion of Haitians
receiving this aid (31 percent) is less than the proportion of
Cuban entrants (48 percent) ibidd., 41).
Contrary to popular belief, most migrants make limited
use of benefits, such as unemployment insurance, welfare, or
social security, or of social services, such as public hospitals
and clinics, public housing and free lunch programs.
(NACLA 1979' Cornelius 1978; 1982). With the exception of
Puerto Ricans, who as American citizens are entitled to
these benefits, many migrants are afraid to jeopardize their
status by taking advantage of these services, particularly if
they are undocumented aliens. Nevertheless, the cost for
such services is often deducted from their paychecks.
In south Florida, social services have been seriously
overtaxed by the sudden volume of Cuban and Haitian
refugees. Much of these costs has been borne by the state,
which adds to the rancor and hostility of the local popular.
tion. Health problems have been a particularly sensitive
issue, particularly among Haitian refugees suffering from
various diseases, parasitic infections, and malnutrition. The
major brunt of health services has been undertaken by
Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where approximately
20 percent of all children born in 1981 were to Haitian
women. Women often seek prenatal care for themselves and
infant care in the belief that bearing a child in the United
States will facilitate changes in their legal status (Lieber-
man 1982, 11). As Cornelius (1982, 52) reports for Mexican
migrants, medical services are the most utilized by this
otherwise fearful population.
Thus, it could be argued than most Caribbean migrants
are not taking jobs away from American citizens nor placing
a heavy demand on public social services, though there is a
need for more research in this area in south Florida. They are
hard-working, ambitious people who are primarily inter-
ested in earning and saving as much as they can, often with
the intention of returning home as soon as possible. A good
-percentage of their earnings are.sent as remittances to their
families at home. For these short-term migrants, the
temporary visas_that President Reagan has recommended
for Mexican migrants may represent a solution, distasteful
as it may seem to some.
The long-range problem seems to be, however, that the
jobs for which Caribbean migrants qualify appear to be


* I.

diminishing, at least in the large cities such as New York
City and Miami to which they have traditionally gone. The
United States has entered a post-industrial phase in which
blue collar jobs in factories, agricultural labor, and other
heavy manual labor are disappearing due to automation,
movement of production abroad, and other factors. Most
Caribbean migrants are not prepared for white collar jobs,
which require a higher level of education, and especially
knowledge of the English language. Thus, the long-term
prospects of employment for Caribbean migrants, given
their current educational and skill levels, are quite poor.


What, then, is the future of Caribbean migrants in the
United States? Will they be able to overcome the obstacles of
race, class, political status and poverty outlined here and
assimilate into American society?
A comparison of the Haitian and Cuban migrants in
South Florida suggests that the obstacles to assimilation
will be far greater among the former than the latter.
Haitians suffer from the greatest disadvantages in terms of
poverty, race, educational level, language problems and
uncertain political status. In addition, the recent Haitian
refugees have saturated the absorption capacity of the small
and weakly developed Haitian community in Miami, which
was already characterized by an extremely rapid turnoverin
housing, severe overcrowding and unemployment. Many of
these recent Haitian migrants may find, and some already
have found, an outlet in migrant agricultural labor.
The Cuban Mariel group is more likely to remain in Miami
as urbanized wage labor. Although there has been rejection
of some black, criminal, and other "undesirable" elements of
the Mariel group by the larger Cuban community, the
majority will probably be incorporated in the Cuban
enclave. The Mariel group is likely, however, to change the
image of the Cuban American community in the eyes of the
wider American society, aswe.shall see in Section III.
The barriers to assimilation faced by many Caribbean
migrants have caused many of them to question the viability
of this as a goal and to turn to ethnic bargaining as a way of
competing for political strength and survival in the United
States. However, to constitute an effective ethnic bloc,

migrants must maintain a strong sense of cultural identity,
which has led to a process of ethnic revitalization among
Caribbean migrants. This process will be examined in the
next section.

The Prospects for Assimilation and Alternative
Modes of Incorporation

The theory of assimilation has been severely criticized
recently, particularly in terms of its applicability to racial
minorities such as migrants from the Caribbean. The theory
was developed primarily on the basis of empirical studies
conducted among European immigrants, who did not face
racial obstacles to their assimilation into American society.
When applied to racial minorities, however, the theory did
not work. Why?
Before answering this question, it is necessary to review
briefly the theory of assimilation as applied to immigrants
to the United States. Assimilation implies the gradual loss of
cultural and ethnic identity and the adoption of the values
and behavior patterns of the host society. Milton Gordon
(1964) has distinguished between cultural and structural
assimilation. The former usually precedes the latter, since
Adoption of the language, norms, and values of the host
society (cultural assimilation) is a necessary prerequisite to
acceptance as an equal by the members of that society. It
was the knowledge of the importance of cultural and struc-
tural assimilation for socioeconomic mobility that per-
suaded European immigrants to shed their cultural heritage
and encourage their children to adopt the language, values,
and behavior patterns of American society. European immi-
grants paid a price, but for them it was worth it.
For racial minorities, on the other hand, cultural assimi-
lation did not guarantee structural assimilation. No matter
how fervently they adopted the language, values, and
behavior patterns of American society, they were still
excluded from structural assimilation and socioeconomic
mobility on racial grounds.
----- The mostcogent exarmpleof the failure of assimilation was
black Americans. Imported as slaves and forcibly divided
and deprived of much of their cultural heritage, black
Americans were long thought to lack a cultural identity
apart from the larger dominant white society. Differences



from whites in language, family patterns, religion and
values were explained as pathological aberrations due to
their marginal position in American society. It was felt they
simply had not been given the opportunity to fully adopt the
values and behavior patterns of the dominant society. Civil
rights and equal opportunity legislation was designed to
correct this and allow black Americans to integrate into the
The failure of civil rights legislation to assist more than a
minority of middle-class black Americans led to a backlash
against integrationist theories and practice in the black
community. In its place grew up the Black Power movement,
which sought to turn the assumed inferiority of blackness
Into an advantage by proclaiming the unique qualities of
Afro-American culture and consciously reconstituting a
history and tradition which had long been denied to many
black Americans. The Black Power movement sponsored a
resurgence of Afro-American culture in the United States in
the arts, language, religion, cuisine, and hair and" dress
Internal colonialism developed as the theoretical counter-
part to the Black Power movement. Developed by scholars
like William Tabb (1970) and Robert Blauner (1972), the
theory of internal colonialism sought to explain the contin-
ued structural exclusion of black Americans on economic
grounds. The maintenance of subordinate racial minorities
provided the capitalist power structure with a cheap and
easily exploitable reserve labor force. The weapons of
internal colonialism were both economic and ideological.
Racial minorities were kept subordinate economically by
denying them access to such social goods as quality educa-
tion, employment, and housing. Continued denial of access
was justified on the grounds that they were inferior to the
dominant white society and lacked the cultural capacity to
assimilate into American society. Thus, many black Ameri-
cans were convinced of their own cultural as well as
economic inferiority tothedominant white society (Safa
1968).Civil rights legislation addressed the economic issues,
while Black Power addressed the ideological question by
rejecting the cultural superiority of the dominant society
and proclaiming a separate ethnic identity.
The Black Power movement led to a new racial pride that
many ethnic minorities, particularly from the Caribbean,

sought to emulate. Many rejected assimilation as a goal and
strove instead to conserve their own cultural heritage as an
ethnic group in American society. They tried to replace the
ideology of assimilation with one of ethnic pluralism, which
respects the cultural heritage of distinct ethnic groups,
rather than asking them to blend into a "melting pot." (cf.
Gordon 1964). The change also implies a move away from an
emphasis on individual mobility as a mechanism of assimi-
lation into American society, toward a focus on collective
strategies that would foster ethnic solidarity and cohesion.
Those groups which had been denied the possibility of
structural assimilation now also denied the validity of
cultural assimilation and consciously strove to maintain
ethnic institutions that could serve as a power base in
American society. The era of ethnic revitalization had
Among migrants from the Hispanic Caribbean, ethnic
pride is manifest primarily in the emphasis on the retention
of the Spanish language along with other cultural items
such as music, dance and food. The ideological value of the
struggle is most clearly evident in the intense debate over
bilingual education. Hispanics fought for bilingual educa-
tion so that their Spanish-speaking children would not be
placed at a disadvantage and could learn and appreciate
their native language. Opposition to bilingual education
came chiefly from sectors of American society who contin-
ued to believe that ethnic groups must shed their cultural
heritage and adopt the language and customs of the domi-
nant culture. They have recently won a major battle through
President Reagan's cut in the budget for bilingual education
programs. The assimilationist group is again in the
Not all Hispanics or other Caribbean migrants subscribe
to ethnic pluralism either. Migrants who do not face the
barriers to assimilation outlined earlier, who are white,
middle-class, and fluent in English, can more easily assimi-
late and stand to gain little from identifying with their less
fortunate countrymen. For them, the price to be paid for the-
continued maintenance of ethnic identity is too great,
because it may detract from their success in public life. Thus,
Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican-American "scholarship boy"
educated at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia, and the Warburg
Institute, London, in a recently published autobiography

that is highly critical of bilingual education, writes:

Today I hear bilingual educators say that children lose
a degree of'individuality' by becoming assimilated into
public society.... But the bilingualists simplistically
scorn the value and necessity of assimilation. They do
not seem to realize that there are two ways a person is
individualized. So they do not realize that while one
suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by
Becoming assimilated into public society, such assimi-
lation makes possible the achievement of public indi-
viduality. (Rodriguez 1982, 26).
But what is public individuality? Even Rodriguez recog-
nizes that for a scholar with his credentials, the individu-
ality achieved in public life is often "impersonal" and
"tenuous." What of those Mexican-Americans less fortunate
than he, for whom public life represents only subordination
in low paying, menial jobs? Would he deny them the refuge
of an intimate family and community life based on ethnic
ties? His own poignant description of the pain of separation
from his family and community and his consequent per-
sonal estrangement is a powerful indictment against the
very policies Rodriguez purports to uphold. He may feel his
sacrifice was socially necessary, but many-ethnics or not-
may wonder if it was worth the price.
The knowledge that success and upward mobility are only
open to a few and serve to weaken class and ethnic identifi-
cation in the United States has led most Hispanic scholars to
reject the path Rodriguez has chosen. At least verbally, they
continue to insist on the maintenance of ethnic identity
through programs of bilingual and bicultural education and
other measures. The importance of class issues in the
formation of ethnic identity is clearly evident in the intense
debate over bilingualism now raging in the Puerto Rican
community in the United States. The debate is less over the
need for bilingual education (on which most agree) than over
the nature of bilingualism in the Puerto Rican community
on-the mainland. Is code switching (using Spanish and
English interchangeably) evidence of deculturation or of a
failure tolearn either Spanish or English adequately; ordoes
it represent an "expansion of communication ot expressive
potential" (Flores, et al. 1981, 200)? Does migration lead
inevitably to moral and cultural deterioration, as Puerto

Rican writers such as Ren6 Marques suggest, or can itlead to
a new form of cultural identity, rooted in the native culture
but not merely a transplant? How is this new form of cultural
identity manifested in linguistic practice and artistic prod-
Puerto Rican cultural identity is distinguished by two
important factors: (1) Puerto Rico's colonial relationship to
the United States, which has imposed a strong Americani-
zation process on the island itself since the occupation in
1898 and has led to massive proletarianization of the
population; and (2) the circulatory nature of Puerto Rican
migration, with constant new replenishments coming from
the island while others are returning in increasing nunilbers. :
Therefore, Puerto Rican culture on the mainland has been
difficult to distinguish from that'on the island, and some
would still question the validity of such a distinction.
However, culture is a dynamic process, and it is clear that
with the development of a second, and even a third and
fourth, generation of Puerto Ricans in the United States,
there is emerging a distinct "Nuyorican" subculture that
borrows heavily from black Americans both in language
and behavior patterns. Much of the literature and other
forms of artistic expression exhibits an increased awareness
of African culture, in opposition to both European (Spanish
and English) traditions, and stresses the need for racial
unity noted earlier among Afro-Caribbean writers. Thus,
Laviera, a Nuyorican poet, writes:

a blackness in spanish
a blackness in english
mixture-met on jam sessions in central park,
there were no differences in
the sounds emerging from inside.
ibidd., 205)

Thus, it would appear that assimilation of Caribbean
migrants is not entirely dependent on acceptance by the
larger society.-In a sense, many Caribbean migrants have
consciously rejected the goal of assimilation and have
sought instead a new identity that sets them apart from the
American mainstream. Nor are they simply transplants of
the island culture, as the Nuyorican writers tell us. The
island "remains a key source of reference and collective

identity, a wellspring of resistance to the arrogant workings
of pervasive cultural subordination." ibidd., 209). But they
recognize thatPuerto Rico, or Jamaica, or any other island is
no longer a refuge, as it was for the first generation, and that
they must forge a new cultural identity based on life in the
United States. This new cultural identity shares a strong
element of racial pride, ethnic consciousness, and rejection
of conventional American middle-class norms. It seeks to
promote socioeconomic mobility through ethnic solidarity
and collective struggle .rather than through individual
achievement. Ethnic revitalization is thus more than seek-
ing roots in the native culture. It is a struggle to forge a new
identity based on shared elements from both the United
States and native culture.

Cultural Identity and the Cuban Community in the
United States
Before concluding this analysis of Caribbean migration, it
is important to look at the Cuban case for what it reveals
about the process of assimilation and cultural identity.
Cuban Americans differ from other Hispanic migrants
previously discussed, such as the Puerto Ricans and
Mexican-Americans, in several important ways: (1) Cubans
entered the United States primarily as political refugees
rather than for economic reasons; (2) they are largely white
and middle-class in origin and brought with them capital,
skills, and. other assets that aided in their socioeconomic
mobility in the United States; and (3) they are more concen-
trated geographically than other migrant groups, constitute.
ing over half the population of Miami and Hialeah (Wilson
and Portes 1980, 304).
All of these factors tend to favor the rapid and relatively
easy assimilation of Cubans into American society. Their
flight from the Communist regime of Fidel Castro led to
much greater receptivity on the part of the American public
and government, which took full advantage of their exodus
to try to discredit and delegitimize the Castro regime. As
political refugees, they were also given considerable state
assistance not extended to economic migrants, such as
resettlement and cash assistance, special educational pro-
grams (including retraining for professionals), college
tuition loans, and relaxed citizenship requirements. Bilin-

gual education programs for Cubans were instituted in
Florida as early as 1960 and served as prototypes for
programs in other areas of the country (Pedraza-Bailey 1982,
88). Pedraza-Bailey has also documented the importance of
this state assistance in the economic success story of the
Cuban refugees.
The Cuban community in the United Statel faces few of
the obstacles to assimilation outlined in the first section of
this paper. The earliest wave of migration in the early 1960s
was overwhelmingly white and middle-class, and entered
the United States in a period of expanding economic oppor-
tunities. In fact, Cubans are generally credited with the
revitalization of the Miami economy, which had begun to
stagnate at that time. Thus, their attachment to the Miami
area is due not only to climate, its proximity to Cuba, and
prior knowledge of the area, but to the fact that they
discovered there an economic niche which they could exploit
to the fullest. This comparative advantage accentuated the
process of geographic concentration.
Wilson and Portes (1980) have argued that the mode of
incorporation of the Cuban community into the United
States differs both from assimilation and internal colonial-
ism and is best characterized as an "economic enclave"
similar to that developed by such groups as the Jews,
Japanese, and more recently by the Chinese and Koreans.
While other immigrant groups, both European and racial
minorities, served primarily as a source of cheap labor,
economic enclaves tend to be characterized by a strong
entrepreneurial element, beginning in the first generation
(connoting an obvious class difference). These entrepre-
neurs built up small enterprises that tend to employ fellow
migrants and serve primarily the needs of the ethnic
community. This economic advance is followed by consoli-
dation and growing political influence in successive
generations. Economic mobility in this case does not
necessarily presuppose cultural integration since the
enclave tends to develop a whole gamut of institutions to
preserve cultural identity and defend it against external
pressure.The enclave resists assimilation because it recog-
nizes that the loss of cultural identity and geographic
dispersion would weaken the resources and the economic
viability of the ethnic community in a hostile society bent on
reducing it to a source of cheap labor (Portes 1980, 13).


The evidence to support the enclave thesis in the Cuban
case is impressive. In the Miami area there are Cuban firms
in construction, sugar, cigar making, manufacturing,
finance, and a variety of service sectors (Wilson and Portes
1980). In a study conducted in 1979 by Portes and others, it
was found that over half of the sample were self-employed or
working in Cuban-owned or -managed firms six years after
their arrival in the United States (Portes, et al. 1982,19). The
size of Cuban firms has also tended to increase and in the
1970s they have moved from small retail establishments to
larger manufacturing plants (Jorge and Moncarz 1980, 67).
On the other hand, there is also evidence of increased
socioeconomic heterogeneity in the Cuban community. Most
of the entrepreneurs arrived in the first waves of migration,
and the highest incomes are still associated with those
arriving between 1960 and 1962 ibidd., 73). Even some of the
middle- and upper-class Cuban migrants experienced down-
ward occupational mobility because of problems of lan-
guage, recertification, discrimination, and age ibidd., 53-60).
The heterogeneity of the Cuban community increased
with successive waves of migration, which brought increas-
ing numbers of the working class to the United States, some
of whom settled in the Union City-West New York area of
New Jersey as well as in Miami. Added to this has been the
formation of a second generation, who have not always
followed the success story of their parents. As a result, Jorge
and Moncarz (1980, 55) argue for the bipolar nature of the
Cuban occupational structure. Based on the 1978 census,
they estimate that 31 percent of the Cubans are presently in
higher occupational groups, such as professionals, tech-
nicians and managers, while over 43 percent are part of the
lower strata comprised of operatives, laborers, and service
workers. Portes' longitudinal study in Miami also reports
increasing economic differentiation (Portes, Clark, Lopez
1982, 20).
SThe heterogeneity of the Cuban community is also evident
in measures of assimilation into American society. The_
study by Portes, Clark, and Lopez (1982) in Miami reports
increased residential dispersion in Anglo and mixed neigh-
borhoods and high exposure to mass media (though often in
Spanish) correlated with a good knowledge of American
society as measured by such matters as familiarity with
political figures and institutions ibidd., 4-9). Knowledge of

English remains surprisingly low, even.after years in this
country. This study also reports an increased perceived level
of discrimination against Cubans in American society,
particularly among the better informed and fluent English
speakers ibidd., 15). These data suggest that initially favor-
able attitudes toward American society may be waning with
time, particularly as the Cuban community loses its privi-
leged status-in American society. Hostility toward Cubans
in the United States is also increasing, as witnessed by the
recent rejection of bilingual education in a referendum in
Dade County (Portes 1980, 19).
As Portes (1980) suggests, the Cuban community is in the
process of transformation from a group of political exiles to
an ethnic group. Their definition as political exiles rested on
their flight from and opposition to the Castrd regime.
Although they have been very effective in preventing any
rapprochement between the American and Cuban govern-
ments, the hope of return to Cuba has faded and with it the
unity brought about by common opposition to Castro.
Political differences were intensified by the Dialogue, which
permitted some Cuban exiles to return to Cuba to visit
family, and by the political radicalization of some younger
members of the community into defenders of the revolution
(Azicri 1982). Many of these younger Cubans suffered an
identity crisis that they could only resolve by returning to
Cuba (at least for a visit) and reconciling themselves with
the Castro regime.
Thus, cultural identity has also taken on different mean-
ings in the Cuban community. For some, it represents close
ties with present-day Cuba and acceptance, if not ardent
defense, of the Castro government. The older generation,
however, remains largely bitterly opposed to the present
government and continues to cling to an older, prerevolu-
tionary cultural tradition that they attempt to maintain.'
They refuse to recognize themselves as an ethnic minority in
the United States and continue to think of themselves as
political refugees. This may be one reason that they have
failed to develop institutions to defend Cuban interests as an_
ethnic minority. Portes(1980, 17)tes es this failure but
attributes it to political weakness, manifest in the lack of
response by the Cuban community to the negative image of
the recent Mariel refugees portrayed in the media. However,
this lack of response can also be attributed to the rejection of

the Marielitos by the Cuban community that knew a new
wave of working class Cubans would consolidate their
image as an ethnic minority in American society.


The transformation of the Cuban community in the
United States raises interesting questions regarding the
relationship between cultural identity, the process of assimi-
lation, and socioeconomic mobility. If assimilation is predi-
cated on the adoption of the host culture, then resistance to
assimilation through the maintenance of a strong cultural
identity would seem to preclude socioeconomic mobility.
SThis is because mobility was thought to depend upon
adoption of the values and behavior patterns of mainstream
American society.
To varying degrees, this ethic of assimilation and mobility
was adopted and practiced by earlier European immigrants
to the United States. It has been rejected recently by some
racial minorities, led by black Americans, who recognized
that cultural assimilation did not necessarily guarantee
structural assimilation or acceptance by and access to the
dominant white society. In its place they advocated a policy
of ethnic pluralism that allowed each group to maintain its
cultural identity and rejected the superiority of the dominant
culture. Ethnic cohesion might give them increased political
leverage, which could -be used in the process of ethnic
bargaining for the benefit of the community. Thus, ethnic
groups bargained for increased state assistance for pro-
grams such. as bilingual education, housing, job training, as
well as for immigration reform. While these might benefit
the community collectively,, the goals of ethnic pluralism
were ideological as well as economic. Pluralism sought to
reinstitute a sense of dignity and self-worth to oppressed
minorities who had long been told they were inferior to the
white society. On the other hand, it rejected members of
ethnic groups who, like Richard Rodriguez, put success first
and chose individual achievement over collective cohesion--
and identity.
The enclave theory as developed by Portes poses a third
alternative. Through enclaves itis possible to retain a strong
sense of cultural identity without sacrificing individual
socioeconomic mobility. In fact, the enclave is dependent on

continued ethnic cohesion to sustain its strength and defend
it from hostility on the part of the dominant society.
However, this cohesion becomes increasingly difficult to
maintain with the passage of time and the increasing
heterogeneity of the ethnic community. The enclave may
remain, but inevitably some of the more upwardly mobile
sectors of the community will assimilate into American
society and cease to identify primarily with the ethnic group.
The data on residential dispersion, out-marriage, naturali-
zation, and occupational change in the Cuban community
indicate this may be taking place. Though the success of the
first generation has been predicated on ownership and
employment in Cuban firms, it is reported that their children
are not necessarily following in their footsteps (Jorge hnd
Moncarz 1980, 69). The real test of the enclave theory rests
with the second generation. It may not necessarily be
followed by the consolidation Portes has predicted on the
basis of similar enclave groups.
In a sense, the Cuban community has followed a very
different trajectory from other Hispanic minorities in the
United States. Second generation Puerto Ricans and Chi-
canos experienced an ethnic revitalization as they shed the
traditional cultural heritage of their parents and sought a
new cultural identity based on life in the United States.
These are the groups that are most receptive to bilingual
education and other programs designed to bolster the
strength of the ethnic community. This new cultural identity
is not yet evident in the Cuban community, although it may
be a question of time. The Cuban community arrived more
recently and is only now being subject to the proletarianiza-
tion and exploitation long suffered by other Hispanic minor-
ities. Thus, the fate of the Mariel refugees and other less
fortunate Cuban migrants will help determine whether they
also react with the ethnic revitalization characteristic of the
other Hispanic groups.
Critics like Maingot (1981) assert that ethnic revitaliza-
tion threatens to increase divisiveness in American society
and to produce a backlash in the dominant society. Yet the
Semphasis-on-new forms of cultural creativity and identity
has already enriched our lives in many ways-from salsa
music to comida criolla, from West Indian street festivals
and Puerto Rican parades to the writings of Piri Thomas and
Paule Marshall. Ethnic pluralism encourages the formation

of a more culturally diverse society from which we all stand
to gain.


1. The term "migrant" used in this paper is intended to cover
immigrant, refugee, entrant, undocumented alien, and other more
specific terms applied to persons entering the United States from
the Caribbean. Migrant is preferred to immigrant because Puerto
Ricans, as United States citizens, are not immigrants, nor are
legally undocumented aliens and refugees.

2. Much of the statistical data in this section is drawn from a
study conducted in 1981 by the Office of the County Manager of
Dade County among three hundred Cubans selected from cash
assistance applicants, fifty men in the Dade County jail, and one
hundred Haitians (fifty receiving refugee assistance and fifty
social service treatments). Although the sample is small and
restrictive, it offers a basis for comparison of these two recent
groups, particularly among the most needy.


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