on Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and the Literature of Uprootedness, edited by Anjanette Delgado

Every piece included in Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and the Literature of Uprootedness, a new anthology edited by Anjanette Delgado, grapples with the concept of “uprootedness,” a term used by Reinaldo Arenas, an influential Cuban novelist and gay activist in the 1960s and ’70s, who eventually fled to Florida. In a 1983 interview with Ann Tashi Slater, when Arenas was still a relatively recent arrival to the United States, he articulated his desire “to create a new body of work now, a literature of uprootedness about someone who’s living in an environment that’s not his own.” For Arenas, desarraigo, the Spanish equivalent of uprootedness, doesn’t mean displacement alone; it implies all the contradictory emotions associated with the escape from undesirable and dangerous conditions (gratitude, joy, liberation, possibility), together with the difficult reality of life in a strange, dangerous new land: fear, regret, loneliness, and isolation.

Foremost among these conflicting feelings is the deep well of cultural grief, “el duelo cultural,” described by Judith Ortiz Cofer as “grief over the loss of friends and family, loss of the mother tongue, loss of the homeland, the fear of physical danger, loss of the original dream, grief of no possible return.” Though it may bind transported peoples, the experience of “desarraigo” differs greatly, even within migrant communities. In her nonfiction contribution to the anthology, “How to Name a City,” Mia Leonin describes how “exiles and immigrants shuffle the dominos of their suffering. Exiles argue that immigrants don’t suffer in the same way because exiles can’t go back. Immigrants claim that without a path to citizenship, they can never go back or forward.”

This divide certainly isn’t restricted to the experiences of Caribbean and Latin American migrants, and “desarraigo” is a usefully expansive concept, able to accommodate refugees, exiles, and asylum-seekers all over the globe. For this reason, any collection of work organized around Arenas’s notion must draw its own boundaries, enforce its own borders. For Delgado, this means anchoring the idea of “desarraigo” to one place in particular: Florida.

Over the course of six months in 1980, 150,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees fled their island nations to seek refuge in the United States in what became known as the Mariel boatlift, so named for many asylum-seekers’ point of departure from the harbor at Mariel, Cuba. This mass migration forever changed the cultural and political makeup of South Florida, and generations of Cubans and Cuban Americans continue to energize the vibrant pulse of Miami and its environs.

Home in Florida brings together a variegated collection of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry by writers who share either Caribbean, Central American, or South American heritage, as well as some connection to Florida. And yet, both halves of this anthology’s title simultaneously expand and contract their definitions. “Home” is more than a residential address. It’s more than a birthplace, and more than whatever city, country, or continent one might happen to occupy. “Home” is the accumulation of behaviors, languages, and customs the authors carry from place to place. It can be found in an elderly neighbor’s morning cafecito, in a handful of mango candies wrapped in translucent cellophane, or in the searing warmth of a toasted croqueta. But “home” is also all the ways a given place acts on its inhabitants, the way tropical heat can make a person retreat into air-conditioned confines or send them reeling into mournful nostalgia. It’s the way sunset over the coast or the ocean reminds Caribbean migrants they are and are not home.

But even as much as its salt marshes and encroaching shorelines define the place itself, “Florida” for Delgado isn’t strictly delimited by the state’s peninsular borders, nor does it encompass anything like the entirety of the Sunshine State. For not only is there nearly no mention of the panhandle’s rural stretches or downstate wetlands busy with their signature airboats, entire metro areas, such as Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, might as well not exist. Indeed, the purview of Home in Florida is less a sweeping panorama and more a tight portrait of Miami in particular. This is not terribly surprising, given the distribution of the state’s Latinx populations. In “Floridaness,” Dainerys Machado Vento, a Cuban journalist and academic, explains that “Miami itself had become synonymous with Florida, and Florida, synonymous with the United States.” The centrality of Miami’s cultures, energies, and identities shapes the core of the entire collection.

Nowhere is this made clearer than in Raúl Dopico’s “Miami Is Cuban.” A writer and producer of Spanish-language television programming, Dopico briefly recounts his own journey to the United States, echoing Judith Cofer Ortiz’s notions of “el duelo cultural,” where grief over the foreclosing of any potential return transforms into “the possibility of not having a future.” For Dopico, the entirety of his migration—from the moment he decided to leave to his continued decision to stay—not only informs his own identity, but his national identity subsumes the journey: “To be Cuban came to mean ‘to be an escapee, a fugitive,’ the uncertainty of the unknown world always preferable to the certain future of the known one.” In many ways, it’s no longer even a choice to be made, but an existential commitment to maintain.

Dopico’s disposition is not unique among the anthology’s contributors. Of the thirty-three authors included in Home in Florida, nearly two-thirds identify as Cuban or Cuban American. Five are Puerto Rican, and three are Argentine. The other six authors identify their heritages as Honduran, Panamanian, Peruvian, Chilean, Mexican, and Dominican and Guatemalan. Many of these authors append “American” to their national identity to acknowledge their hyphenate life in the United States; many others do not. The authorial allotment seems to make sense, given Florida’s unique demographic dynamic, even if a more accurate representation should include more voices from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. It’s an admittedly difficult balance to achieve, since the preponderance of Cuban and Cuban American voices is surely indispensable to any literature purporting to represent the Latinx experience in Florida. But when Dopico refers to the long-held belief by some Cubans that “the only good thing that Castro’s regime created was Miami,” it threatens to eclipse the roles of Black, African American, and Bahamian residents in building the city during the early twentieth century, not to mention the influential presence of the Seminoles hundreds of years earlier. Incidentally, the Tequesta people, who lived for thousands of years on the lands that would become South Florida, eventually sought refuge in Cuba, further complicating the region’s origin story.

Like the rich, complex histories of Miami, the act of reading Home in Florida can be a bit discombobulating. Most of the entries are short nonfiction, commissioned especially for the anthology. These range from bittersweet recollections of the authors’ lost island lives to tender reflections on their new realities stateside. A sampling reveals shared tropes and forms, such as multiyear timeframes and a penchant for cataloging memories like inventory. A few examples include “I Write to Mami about Florida,” a one-sided correspondence that spans decades, by emerging writer Nilsa Ada Rivera; “Rite of Passage,” an enumerated list by Argentine poet, novelist, and editor Hernán Vera Álvarez that recalls a family trip to Disney World in the 1980s and concludes with the abandoned shopping centers and endless Zoom meetings of 2020; and “From Las Colinas to Carol City and Back: Variations on a Theme of Acculturation” by Honduran-born poet Yaddyra Peralta, another enumerated list, albeit one that luxuriates in the sounds Peralta’s mouth shapes into song (“The language lives inside me, divorced from meaning: mecate, petate, cipote—the words colored by sounds—jaguar y guacamayo macao”), even as she resists the notion of linguistic proficiency as a prerequisite to belonging: “What does it mean to be in the land of my people? It does not mean I know the names of all the living things. It means I do not need to.”

These personal narratives of exile, immigration, and resettlement rock back and forth from one perspective to the next, in a sequential logic that becomes familiar, if occasionally unsteady or uneven, like the ninety nautical miles of Caribbean Sea between Havana and Key West, until a short, powerful poem knocks wind into the sails. Ariel Francisco’s “They Built a Margaritaville on Hollywood Beach Which Was Once My Favorite Place in the World and Now I Can’t Go Back Because It’s Unrecognizable So Fuck Jimmy Buffett” is composed of ten tight lines of glorious, breathlessly vulgar invective, closing with a string of reiterated swears (“Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you”) that captures the exhaustion and exasperation so many émigrés to South Florida struggle to put into words. While the few poems included are excellent, such as those by Barack Obama’s inaugural poet Richard Blanco and by fronteriza Natalie Scenters-Zapico, it’s unfortunate the anthology doesn’t include more, since poetry’s rhythms and images and economy of language fit so naturally into the varied cadences of an anthology such as this.

The dearth of poetry is especially notable when several selections don’t seem to be uniquely or necessarily related to Florida at all. One example is “38 Hours,” a brief recollection by the Argentine author Javier Lentino of the tenuous time between his diagnosis of a tumor and the emergency surgery he needs to remove it. While compelling and urgent, it reads like the unfortunate experience of anyone who lives in a major metropolitan area with a predominant Spanish-speaking population and is unlucky enough to end up in an American hospital. Similarly, “Star Power,” an exceedingly short story by YA author and comic book writer Alex Segura about subdued attraction between musicians backstage at a venue, only happens to take place in Wynwood, an arts district in Miami, and the setting has zero bearing on the story’s events. (It doesn’t help that Segura’s piece is followed by the definitively Floridian “Monster Story,” an excerpt from Jaquira Díaz’s devastating, engrossing, and multi-award-winning memoir Ordinary Girls.)

But the fiction selections are where this anthology really shines. An excerpt from Guillermo Rosales’s profoundly sad novel The Halfway House captures the suffocating experience of recovery and survival inside the water-stained walls of a truly mad house. Toward the end of a humiliating day at the hands of an exploitative manager, the narrator, an exiled Cuban and failed novelist, reflects on another writer disillusioned with revolution: “I think of Coleridge, the author of ‘Kubla Khan,’ whose disenchantment with the French Revolution provoked his ruin and sterility as a poet.” A housemate bellowing obscenities interrupts this tidy parallelism between Rosales, his narrator, and Coleridge, underscoring the absurdity of imagining los Estados Unidos as anything other than the site of just another failed republic.

Elsewhere, fiction contributors revel in celebrating moments of cultural retribution, small and large. In “Feliz Año Nuevo, Connor,” Jennine Capó Crucet inverts the caustic scorn often directed at members of immigrant communities by white America. The narrator and her sister don’t even attempt to suppress a rollicking disdain for the narrator’s Caucasian boyfriend, who is in town from New England. The sisters imagine the white boyfriend’s “white shirt glowing like a beacon in the club’s inevitable blacklights,” relishing “how much he would stand out, how much he didn’t belong there.” Even the boyfriend’s skin appears “green, sallow. Disgusting even.” This unabashed embrace of the dominant culture’s typical treatment of ethnic and racial others flips the script in its unrepentant cruelty. In “The Many Deaths of Fidel,” Achy Obejas likewise lampoons a domineering figure, albeit one of staggering stature. Obejas imagines dozens of increasingly zany scenarios in which Fidel Castro is killed by retired Watergate burglars. In a single riotously funny paragraph, Obejas captures the multiethnic essence of Miami: “We would have cried, to be honest, but we were busy down in Little Haiti, driving through the Grove, buying a linen guayabera for a quinces in Hialeah.” Truly, the alchemical spirit of Magic City is conjured by incantations like Obejas’s.

But for all its admirable attempts to include a wide swath of voices suited to the task of this idiosyncratic anthology, one unresolved issue is Delgado’s decision to use “Latinx” in the book’s subtitle. The term is controversial among folks with heritage inextricably marked by imperial Spain, both for its difficulty in Spanish pronunciation and its easy mark as a target for right-wing complaints about liberals’ preoccupations with language and identity. But when deployed with thoughtful consideration and an aim toward inclusivity, “Latinx” can function as a welcoming invitation to transgender readers and writers. The term can also serve more broadly as a useful conceptual tool. In an article for Colorbloq, the poet Alan Pelaez Lopez articulates a particularly strong case in favor of using the term. In “The X in Latinx Is a Wound, Not a Trend,” Pelaez Lopez argues that the “X” represents four wounds that must be confronted by Latin American diasporas: settlement, anti-Blackness, femicides, and inarticulation. As such, the term should be used intentionally.

To that end, Home in Florida must account for some curious omissions. The exclusion of an author like Chely Lima, a transgender Cuban writer who has lived in Ecuador and Argentina before moving to Miami, seems strange, at best. Even for other trans Latinx writers who may not live in Florida per se, surely the anthology’s porous notion of place could have accommodated their contributions to this literature of uprootedness. And the absence of other gender nonconforming writers, such as José Pablo Iriarte, who resides in Florida and otherwise seems to meet every criterion for an anthology like this, is a mystery. While it’s entirely possible these writers were invited to contribute to the anthology, and it didn’t work out for whatever reason, a prefatory note from editor Delgado or a statement of intent may have mitigated the impact of these missing voices. Because it’s true that any endeavor to capture the exceptional vigor of a place like South Florida and the deracinated nature of its inhabitants may inevitably exclude a portion of the population, even small gestures can help to account for these potential oversights. For if the “X” in Latinx is a wound, then it’s also a crossroads, an intersection of continuously evolving identities, and a contradiction that must, too, be confronted.

 

 

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Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and the Literature of Uprootedness. Edited by Anjanette Delgado. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2021. 286 pp. $26.95.

 

Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. A recipient of fellowships from the Surge Institute, CantoMundo, and the Poetry Foundation’s Incubator for Community-Engaged Poets, he has served on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle, the International David Foster Wallace Society, and Families Together Cooperative Nursery School. His poems and book reviews have appeared online and in print. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.