The Unknowable: Archival Strategies for Another Way to Be

Today was the day. On January 12, 2017, President Barack Obama ended former President Bill Clinton’s “wet foot, dry foot policy.” Enacted in 1995 in response to the wave of balseros leaving Cuba for the United States, Clinton’s wet foot, dry foot policy was intended to appease anti-immigrant activists appalled at the hundreds of Cubans fleeing the island on make-shift rafts. The policy also sought to keep parts of the Cuban Adjustment Act that insured that Cubans would be afforded U.S. residency.

As a policy, it made little sense. As a political maneuver, it was stunningly effective. For over two decades, this policy continued to allow Cubans leaving the island to position themselves not as immigrants, regardless of their motivations, but as refugees and exiles.

The distinction has meaning.

Former President Obama’s reversal came on the heels of two major changes: the normalization of relations between both countries, and his promise to Cuban President Raúl Castro that he would end this policy. Together, these actions dramatically changed the course of U.S.–Cuban relations and Cuban immigration policies. They are profound.

More curious is the lack of any real response or push back from the Cuban exile community. Even the death of Fidel Castro was met with a relatively tepid response given the decades of rancor and hate.

There is no easy way to discuss these changes. There are no clear sides. I, like so many, have mixed feelings. As much as I supported President Obama’s attempt to end the embargo and open diplomatic relations with Cuba, his sudden announcement concerning Cuban immigration has real-life consequences. Former President Obama’s declaration that the policy was effective immediately left thousands of Cubans stranded in mostly Central America and Mexico through no fault of their own.

Believing in a 50-year immigration policy that afforded them a privilege granted to no other, close to 100,000 Cubans left the island in 2014 and made their way to the U.S. According to The Los Angeles Times, “over 11 months ending in August, 38, 573 Cubans showed up at the southwestern border without visas. That’s six times the number of Cubans who arrived in 2009.” After January 12, Cubans, unless they have the right documents, will now be deported. Cubans are fast learning that they no longer hold a special place within the U.S. imaginary.

And yet, as I write this, I am aware that President Trump could easily undo Obama’s executive order. I doubt he will.

I begin with this scenario: it adds another layer to the long, involved, and what I call “unknowable” history of Cubans in the United States, a history where the seemingly fixed and knotted can so easily be unraveled. Often what we know or think we know of Cubans in the United States has been defined by a specific political time. Lodged memories and experiences, there has been little room for stories that depart from the sanctioned narrative of anti-Castro Cubans who arrived in Miami after 1959.

But this too is unraveling.

We know that not all Cubans left as a result of the Cuban Revolution. Cubans, like other immigrants from Latin America, have been migrating to the United States for centuries. Yet, we continue to be focused on those who left as a result of the Cuban Revolution. How would the narrative change if we were to include the experiences of Cubans who left in 1883, 1936, and so on? Would our understanding of US-Cuban relations shift if we were taken into account the history and experiences of those who left for economic, personal, and political reasons that had little to do with the Communist Revolution of 1959? What about those who chose not to live in Miami? Is it possible to imagine a history outside of Miami?

I have spent most of my adult life fascinated by those stories. The ones that do not fit, the ones that make us uncomfortable, and are never told in mixed company. Those stories, that barely rise above a whisper because you never want certain people to know what you really think.

I became an historian by accident.

My mother wanted me to go to law school. So I applied to law schools close to home and didn’t get in. Secretly, I applied to history graduate schools far from home and got accepted. The truth is, I wanted to be journalist. One of my undergraduate advisors strongly recommended that I study history if I wanted to become a journalist. So I did.

A year later, I left California for Michigan.

My plan was to complete a Master’s degree in history and move back to the Bay Area and apply to journalism school.

It didn’t happen.

Convinced by my graduate advisor to stay and earn a doctorate, I began to do research. In the process, I met Melba Alvarado and conducted what I thought would be one oral history for my dissertation. Instead, we ended up having a 25-year relationship that included three major oral histories, countless conversations and interviews, a trove of papers, photos, and sources, and a promise to write a book.

I still remember how I met her.

In the early 1990s, while doing research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I complained to one of the archivists that there were no sources on Afro-Cuban women. She agreed and handed me Alvarado’s phone number. She suggested that I call her and see if she would be willing to speak with me. We made plans to meet. The following day I was in the South Bronx with a bulky tape recorder and a large microphone (this was the 1990s) interviewing someone who was about to influence how I thought, researched, and wrote. Interviewing Alvarado was never easy. She never told me the whole story. The first interviews were full of half-truths, missing information, fragmented memories, and a complete disregard for another point of view.

She didn’t know me, and to her credit, didn’t trust me.

It was only when I confronted her with archival sources that she acquiesced. At times, she would admit that she forgot, misremembered, or that she just didn’t want to tell me. At other times, she would hold the papers up, and say, “you believe this? Mira nena, I’m not so sure. Piénsalo.” It was only through photographs that we found common ground. Looking at the different photos, she recounted histories that I had never read in books or heard in lectures. She would tell me secrets and share gossip.

After close to a decade, she learned to trust me. When I asked her why it took her so long, she smiled and told me, “I wanted to be sure you meant it.” It was not lost on me that such tellings are designed to protect and safeguard.

To understand her experiences, I needed to expand my historical imagination and acknowledge her reading of events, whether I agreed or not. There were times that I didn’t believe her. But I listened and asked questions. And then, I would find a note, a letter, or a photograph that proved her point. At other times, I was convinced, but couldn’t find sources to corroborate. It didn’t mean, of course, that it wasn’t true. It just wasn’t archived.

I ended up writing a history that encompassed over a hundred years of Cubans in New York.

Much like everyone who does this work, I am constantly questioning why such a history is not part of our larger historical memory, archive, and discourse. I’m not only left with wondering what it means to write an unknowable history—for that is an everyday reality for scholars who write about communities that do not fit traditional historical narratives—but how this shapes our thinking about ourselves, our communities, and the fact that we have a long, varied, deep, and complicated history in the US, regardless of what we are told.

I tell this story, because working with Alvarado changed my entire thinking concerning not only research and writing, but also being. Her life was a reminder that we need to allow ourselves to be expansive and think differently. To take risks, and more importantly, take nothing for granted. Policies change, walls come down, new presidents are elected, and old leaders die. What you believe to be true can change in an instant. What you thought could never happen, will happen and even be broadcast in a press conference.

We are currently living in such a moment. We are in a period of deliberate half-truths, post-truth, no truth. There are benefits to forgetting what so needs to be remembered and erasing inconvenient histories that challenge the dominant narrative. It has never been more important to hold on to what we know to be true, while at the same time expanding our consciousness and historical memory to include all stories and experiences. We need to yell at the top of our lungs those stories, which continue to be whispered, which are deemed dangerous, for those may be the ones to save us in such wretched times.
Nancy Raquel Mirabal is the director of the U.S. Latina/o Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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