Cuba lecture kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month

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Silvia Pedraza, a professor of sociology and American culture at the University of Michigan, visited SVSU on Sept. 21 as the Hispanic Heritage Month lecturer for the Visiting Scholars and Artists Series.

Pedraza’s lecture discussed the disparate generations of political exiles from Cuba.
Pedraza was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and immigrated with her parents to the United States at the age of 12. Her ties to Cuba certainly influenced her chosen fields of study, those largely being the sociology of immigration, race and ethnicity in America. She has also recently studied the sociology of Cuba’s revolution and exodus.

Pedraza has written three books and many research articles. Much of her SVSU lecture was influenced by her 2007 book “Political Disaffection in Cuba’s Revolution and Exodus.”

Pedraza’s research pertains to the five political generations of Cuban exiles. In particular, she focused on the latter two phases, which were eligible for the Clinton Administration’s “wet feet, dry feet” policy. This policy was U.S. recognized between 1995 and 2017, when President Barack Obama undid the policy.

When in effect, the policy gave any Cuban who made it to the U.S. – therefore having “dry” feet – protection under the Cuban Law of Adjustment. This permitted them citizenship one year and one day after they first arrived on American soil. Cubans who were caught before they reached America – therefore having “wet” feet – were sent back to Cuba by the U.S. Navy.

It was the latter group that Pedraza visited in one of her trips to Cuba.

“When I entered the block that they lived, it was like it was cold,” Pedraza said. “This is a very hot, tropical country. But they were so isolated, so marginalized. People will not come near the family of a political prisoner. I felt a chill.”

Pedraza also discussed four generations of Cubans who decided to stay in the country.

“I think that Cubans in the island have made enormous efforts to adjust to living on the island,” Pedraza said. “Sometimes that means they use the black market to eat better … that they sometimes become taxis or rent homes to tourists when they are in fact professionals at universities and doctors; that they rely on the remittances their families send, and they take pride in that ability to preserve.”

Pedraza tries to visit Cuba every 18 months so she can see her family and conduct research.

“If I get back too often, I get too involved, too emotional,” Pedraza said. “It’s too hard. As it is, I always leave with a lot of sorrow even though the trips have become normal trips since there is the expectation that I will return.”

Much of that pain comes from childhood memories of leaving Cuba for the United States.

“I still suffer from having to leave them, especially since, when my parents first left, I was not able to return for 20 years,” Pedraza said. “My uncle died during that time. My grandmother died during that time.”

When visiting, Pedraza tries to make her family feel normal despite Cuba’s abnormal situation.

“I try to do things with them that a normal family would do, such as watching television together, even though I have to say I don’t really care for Cuban soap (operas),” Pedraza said. “As much as possible, we try to remain a normal family to one another.”

Pedraza ended her lecture with a discussion on the difficulties with conducting research in Cuba.

“The first question I asked (interviewees) was very simple,” Pedraza said. “’What kind of exchanges do you expect to take place in the near future?’ I never asked about any of the ‘isms,’ like democracy or socialism or anything like that. The second question was, ‘In the Cuba of the future, what sorts of things would you like to keep, and what sorts of things would you like to change?’”

Those are the only two questions Pedraza asks in the rather-informal interviews she conducts with the few Cubans who are willing to talk to her.

“I cannot interview people in Cuba like I can in Miami,” Pedraza said. “I cannot turn a tape recorder on. No one would say anything. I cannot give them any consent form for research. It’s outside the bounds because people are still afraid of telling the truth and the consequences of that.”

While many people continue to leave Cuba, Pedraza hopes that younger generations will instead stay and voice their concerns about the political and social policies of their country.

“I think it is particularly true (that mass exoduses rob societies of the ability to change), especially when it is the young people that leave,” Pedraza said. “Everywhere in the world, social movements and revolutions have been the work of the young, as they were, once upon a time in Cuba.”

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