Identities are historically and culturally contingent; the case of Cuban migrants in the 1960s

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Historically, the construction of identities was seen as a finite thing; a process with a defined beginning and formulated end. Rather than relying on this conventional approach, however, sociologist Stuart Hall provides an alternate framework for understanding the formation of identities, arguing we should consider identity to be a “production, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (Hall 1990, p.222). In this essay, I show that this framework is indeed a persuasive one for arguing identities are historically and culturally contingent. The case study of Cuban migration to the United States in the 1960s is examined through this lens to see the interplay between identity, culture, and history in the diaspora context. I consider how historical events in both Cuba and the United States at the time affected the Cuban identity of themselves. I then examine how the development of the migratory Cuban’s collective identity was both maintained through connection to their Cuban culture and developed by the influence of American culture. I then discuss the implications these factors had for the changing collective Cuban identity within the United States and conclude that identity is indeed historically and culturally contingent and cannot be considered in isolation to these factors.

Stuart Hall considers that identity is ‘not as transparent or unproblematic as we think’ (Hall 1990, p.222), in that, whatever we say or do is based in some form of historical and cultural context that is specific to us at that time. In this way, he says it is ‘positioned’; our identity is not some unchangeable concept that is oblivious to the outside world because it has already reached a state of permanent formulation. Rather, it is in a constant state of flux, where a person is both directly and impliedly, adjusting, moulding, and reassessing their identity in the context of historical and cultural effects and implications. In diasporas, we can see this process at its most vivid, as people continually balance perceptions of identities between former and new cultures and histories.

Stuart further contends that we should consider ‘cultural identity’ in two ways; the first is that of the similarities between those pertaining to a ‘shared culture.’ Regarding a shared history and culture of a displaced people, Hall says that this ‘continues to be a very powerful and creative force in emergent forms of representation amongst hitherto marginalised peoples.’ (Hall 1990, p.223). Indeed, there can be no doubt that the similarities shared amongst people in the diaspora setting is a powerful connection allowing them, in times of uncertainty and fragmentation, to cling to a past, real, or imagined, binding them, empowering them, and in turn, giving a sense of hope and momentum for the future. It is a resource that sustains resistance within a new and perhaps threatening environment, whilst also maintaining a familiar part of identity – both on an individual and collective level.

The second ‘lens’ through which Hall believes we should consider identity in the diaspora context is the differences within this migratory group. Although a ‘shared culture’ may be the ‘glue’ giving strength in their commonality and in ‘what they are’, it is their differences that show ‘what they have become.’ Hall states, ‘cultural identity, in this second sense is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’ (Hall 1990, p.225). This ‘lens’ through which to see identity in the diaspora context, is a vital component in his framework of considering identity as a fluid thing; something being constantly transformed by the ‘play’ of history, culture, and power’ (Hall 1990, p.225). In fact, he argues it is only through this second ‘lens’ that we can truly come to appreciate the traumatic nature of enforced migration on any peoples.

The case study of Cuban migration to the United States in the 1960s provides an excellent study through which to examine the interplay of identity, culture, and history in the diaspora context. But what is the Cuban identity? To analyse this, we must consider Cuban history in brief. Situated in an ideal position at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, within easy distance of South, Central, and North America, Cuba always interested various empires. Not least because, despite being an island, it was unusually large so had the capacity (along with the resources and an excellent harbour) to support a substantial export industry, first with agriculture, then later, in the eighteenth century, with sugar, tobacco, and coffee.

The Spanish were the first to make use of the island’s size, resources, and harbour – needing a place for their fleet to dock whilst taking mineral treasures found in the mines of Peru and Mexico, back to their motherland. As they discovered they could easily export Cuba’s resources to Europe, the Spanish migratory population to the island swelled (to the detriment of the indigenous Indian population), particularly during the eighteenth century, with people looking to make their fortune. This resulted in greater Spanish migration to the island coupled with the introduction of the importation of African slaves in 1523. In fact, there was an almost insatiable need for African slaves to fill the roles of workers in the burgeoning sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations. And when slavery became forbidden, the planters turned to Chinese coolie labour. Furthermore, fearing an excessive ‘blackening’ of Cuba and the possibility of a successful slave revolution as in nearby Saint-Domingue (Haiti), the Spanish Crown encouraged further migration, “filling the island with new flows of migrants from Galicia, Asturias, and the Canary Islands” (Portes 2010, p.x).

By the mid-eighteenth century, Cuban identity was notably stratified. At the top of the social classes were those born in Spain (or penisulares) holding positions of power within the government, the military, and the Church. Beneath these were people of Spanish descent born in Cuba (or criollos) – mainly comprising wealthy landowners and merchants – but who simultaneously resented the minority penisulares’ disproportionate power in Cuba. Since there were few women living in Cuba in the early settlement years (by 1600 only 10 percent of the population was female), a mixed population emerged where Spanish men living on the island, as well as the transient sailor population moving through Havana, took Indian and African women as their wives and lovers. This mixed population was part of a middle class of people of Spanish ancestry who were artisans, construction workers, clerks, and the like, as well as some free blacks. Unlike the rest of North and South America during the seventeenth century, Cuba developed a substantial class of free blacks resulting from a unique system allowing negotiation for their freedom. As a result, “Those free blacks came to constitute a large portion of the Cuban working class” (Olson 1995, p.7). Beneath this group were poor whites, migratory workers, and large numbers of free blacks, whilst “at the bottom of the social structure were African-Cuban slaves who worked the sugar plantations” (Olson 1995, p.7).

Despite these class distinctions, however, it wasn’t racial or class tensions that led to revolution and Cuban mass migration, but political and economic oppression. After a succession of corrupt dictators, Cuba was weary of corruption and instability. So when the charismatic and popular aspiring politician Fidel Castro, successfully gained authority of the country in 1959, the Cuban people had high expectations.

The reality was somewhat different. After systematically disposing of his political enemies, Castro turned his attention to severely limiting economic trade and growth by putting commercial interests under government control. This dramatically stifled the activities of the economic elite within Cuba, and they saw no other choice but to seek temporary shelter in America. They were convinced they would one day return to Cuba after America had neatly disposed of a Communist dictator within its sphere of influence.

During this time, tensions between the United States and Soviet Union were high, whilst racism against blacks and other non-whites was rampant, especially in the southern states. Fidel Castro continually launched vitriolic verbal attacks against the United States whilst ingratiating himself with the Soviet Union and encouraging the latter to launch nuclear missiles strategically kept by them in Cuba.

The Americans, in turn, covertly armed and financed Cuban exiles to return to Cuba to overthrow Castro in retaliation, not only for his alliance with the Soviets, but also for the governmental takeovers of American companies in Cuba and the subsequent fleeing of both its citizens and Cuban people to American shores.

The historical effects on the collective migratory Cuban sense of identity, was to consider themselves as political exiles who would one day return to Cuba and reclaim their former economic spoils. They were, therefore, acutely attuned to political developments occurring within Cuba, and their collective anti-Communism stance allowed them to stand politically united from their new vantage point “Feeling victims of the political changes taking place on the island, the emigres in the initial exodus gave the exile community in the United States its lasting political character” (Gonzalez-Pando, 1998, p. 21).

Of course, not all who fled Cuba were rich, white Spanish descendants who had given up power and privilege; some were middle class mixed and black peoples. However, the great majority of exiles in the 1960s had been part of the Cuban economic elite, and so had the knowledge and resources to set up businesses in their ‘temporary’ homeland. They developed enclaves that became economic, and later political, hubs for the preservation of their collective Cuban identity.

Cuba’s cultural development had been a mixture of elements from many regions, not just America, but also Spain, Central Europe, and the Orient. At its essence, though, it was a Hispanic culture blacks had highly influenced. As a result, this blending of nationalities created “contradictory customs, beliefs, and traditions that became integrated into a national culture” (Gonzalez-Pando 1998, p. 120).

The 1960s in the United States was, of course, a time of social upheaval and revolution in which old social norms were challenged and replaced by free speech, free love, and the push for individual and civil rights recognition.

Cubans fleeing to the United States in the 1960s, mainly settled in Florida, New York, California, and New Jersey and developed quite isolated and insular exile communities. They seemed to turn their back on adopting American culture and rigidly clung to maintaining elements of their culture, such as language and the Cuban way of life. This was their defence against having to negotiate a situation forced upon them.

As a result of never relinquishing the belief they would eventually return to Cuba, the exiles were very insistent that they and their children should not abandon their cultural ties to their homeland, particularly their language. The fact that they preferred to remain somewhat isolated from American culture also prevented the dilution of Cuban language and culture – as had happened with other immigrant groups who had felt the ‘pull’ of American culture in their desire to emigrate.

In conclusion, we can see that identities are indeed historically and culturally contingent, as seen through Cuban migration to the United States in the 1960s. Historical events in Cuba, namely the revolution led by Fidel Castro, saw thousands of Cubans flee their country for the safety of the United States. Furthermore, despite a simultaneous ‘cultural revolution’ occurring within the United States, many Cuban exiles remained loyal to their own culture, particularly their language, as a means of reinforcing their collective similarities in a foreign region. Conversely, their differences to the host nation motivated them to forge economic success and independence; in terms of identity, it was the basis of their ‘becoming.’ This ability to balance their similarities of shared cultural and political history, together with adapting their differences to their new home, ensured their success. “In just one generation, these enterprising and adaptable emigres created what has been labelled the Cuban economic miracle” (Gonzalez-Pando 1998, p. 120).


Garcia, Maria Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida. University of California Press, 1996.

Gonzalez-Pando, Miguel. The Cuban Americans. Greenwood Press, 1998.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural identity and diaspora.” Identity: community, culture, difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford, Lawrence & Wishart, 1990, pp. 222-237.

Herrara O’Reilly, Andrea. Remembering Cuba: legacy of a diaspora. University of Texas Press, 2001.

Olson, James. Cuban Americans: from trauma to triumph. Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Portes, Alejandro. “Foreward.” Cervantes-Rodriguez, Margarita. International migration in Cuba: accumulation, imperial designs, and transnational social fields. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010, pp. ix-xi.


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