The History of a Family and a Nation: A Q&A with Lisandro Pérez, author of The House on G Street

Lisandro Perez

The Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro took place more than 60 years ago.  Why do you think it continues to spark discussion, debate, and reinterpretation?

It’s a contradiction: although Cuba has undergone a complete transformation under socialism, at the same time much of it has remained frozen from the time of the Cold War. 1950’s cars still roll in the streets of Havana and the relationship with the U.S. has largely remained unchanged from the time John Kennedy slapped the embargo on the island in 1962. There is a certain allure about that timeliness, especially since it is also a forbidden place: the U.S. prohibits its residents to travel there, adding a touch of mystery that has created a widespread curiosity about Cuba in this country.

How has writing this “microhistory” about your family’s storied history in Cuba contributed to maintaining for yourself and for future generations of your family a “strong intergenerational self?”

I consider writing this book a great privilege. There are presently some 80 living descendants of my grandparents and with this book I am bequeathing to those descendants a detailed history of their ancestors, making them participants in their own story, a story that if I had not told it, would be lost. But I am also, I believe, making a unique contribution to an understanding of Cuban history.  There is a great deal that is known about the broad historical conditions that inexorably pushed Cuba down the path of revolution, but much less is known about how members of what was then the dominant social class led their lives; how they lived under colonial rule and later adapted to the new social, political, and economic order ushered in by the pervasive influence of the United States; and how ultimately they sowed the seeds of their own destruction. That is the value of microhistory: to understand how historical events played out close to the ground, in the lives of individuals and families.

Your family was part of a stratified, privileged class on the island.  When writing this book, did you have any concerns that their world would seem foreign to a majority of readers?

I give full rein to the elite focus of the book, and I think that it is one of its greatest strengths. The upper classes of the Cuban Republic were displaced, surviving only, and even then tenuously for a while, in exile. They are no longer a factor in Cuba, yet they shaped the world that preceded the Revolution. Theirs is a lost world, and subsequent generations of Cubans, both in the island and in the diaspora, have only the sketchiest knowledge of how members of that social class lived their lives. My sense is that there is great deal of curiosity about that lost world, precisely because it was lost and was so different from the lives of ordinary Cubans today. And there has always been a fascination with the lives of past elites – they lived such uncommon lives that are indeed foreign, yet fascinating to us. How else explain the success of a story such as Downton Abbey or The Gilded Age?    

The house on G Street was a place where you felt a sense of family, security, and love.  How did visiting and occupying that space again decades later as an adult affect you and your childhood memories that had been frozen in time?

When I first returned to Cuba in 1979, the House on G Street was the first place I wanted to visit.  It brought back memories of those Sundays, when my parents, my brother, and I would join my uncles and aunts and their children for lunch at the house. Perhaps it was the sense of belonging that came with those weekly lunches, with uncles and aunts doting over every niece and nephew, and with all those cousins as playmates. The house gave my life a sense of stability, with its spaciousness and solidness. I knew my grandfather had built it and that my father and his siblings had grown up in it. I imagined what it must have been like to live there at the time my father was a child and how the house and its occupants shaped my life in many ways. The house was the physical representation of my family legacy, and once I no longer lived in Cuba, it became in my mind the reference point for everything that had been and would never be again. The house on G Street became Cuba for me.

How did the rampant Americanization of Cuba’s economy and society in the early to mid-20th century contribute to the revolutionary discourse that led to the rise of Castro’s government?

The Cuban Republic, which was established in 1902 and remained in place until 1959, failed to accomplish the lofty goals for the new nation envisioned by those who fought against Spanish colonialism. Among those goals was sovereignty, a Cuba for Cubans. During the Republic, more and more of the economic and political power fell into the hands of the U.S. government and U.S. corporations, fueling an oppositional revolutionary discourse aimed at redeeming what were considered the foundational principles of the nation. Fidel Castro and his followers were not the first ones to advocate for a revolution that would transform the island. It was part of the nationalist discourse that dominated among opposition groups since the very beginning of the Republic.   

Jose Marti and other Cuban patriots fought valiantly for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the late 19th century.  It’s status as a free, independent republic was short-lived.  Why do you think Cubans were unable to establish a lasting, thriving democracy on the island?

When in 1902 Cubans were handed a government to run, albeit with limited sovereignty, public office became the greatest source of wealth given the devastation caused by the wars of independence. When that happened, it led to corruption – using public service for individual gain – and access to government therefore became imperative, and the different political actors would do anything, including armed conflict, to gain power and subvert free elections. It’s easy to blame the U.S. for everything, but the fact is Cubans behaved badly, in undemocratic ways, and that eroded trust and confidence in elections and democracy, paving the way for authoritarianism.  

For close to a century, Cuba had a long and complicated economic relationship with the United States and depended on it for its survival as a republic.  Is there a danger to having an excessive reliance on other nations?

With the Platt Amendment, the Cuban political system became dependent on the U.S., with rival political factions looking to Washington to solve disputes on who should rule. That dependence proved fatal to the dominant classes when after 1959 they faced the greatest threat to their class interests but relied upon the U.S. to make that threat go away.

Cuba received a large number of slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What was the state of race relations in Cuba during the period after slaves gained their freedom and right before Castro’s revolution?  Did racial tensions on the island play any role in Castro’s revolution?

The independence movement in Cuba favored the abolition of slavery, and Afro-Cubans, many of them former slaves, swelled the ranks of the Cuban independence army. But with the establishment of the Cuban Republic the hopes of many black Cubans for full participation in national life were thwarted when they were systematically excluded from taking part in governing the new nation. This led in 1912 to a full-fledged armed rebellion of many black veterans of the independence army, a rebellion that was brutally crushed and its leaders summarily executed. Inequality and unfulfilled promises featured prominently in the political culture that led to the 1959 Revolution.  

You and previous generations of your family attended American schools both on the island and in the United States.  What were the benefits and contradictions of growing up in a binational world where American influence could be felt on your everyday life?

One of the reasons for writing this book was to understand some aspects of my childhood that I always found puzzling, especially the strong American influence on my everyday life. All my immediate ancestors were born in Cuba, and the more distant ones were born in Spain. How did such a thoroughly Cuban child grow up in such a binational Cuban and American world? As I assembled and wrote the story of my family, my childhood made sense. I hope that the reader will be able to appreciate, as I did, that my childhood could not have been other than what it was, a product of the historical processes that enveloped my ancestors and determined the course of their own lives, and mine. I thrived on the bilingual and bicultural world I grew up in, especially in my school in Cuba, and it turned out to be the ideal preparation for my life as an immigrant in the United States.

Today, the Cuban diaspora can be found throughout the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, and the United States.  Cuban identity remains strong among successive generations of Cuban Americans.  Why do you believe it’s important for all descendants of immigrants to preserve their ancestral culture?

I have always had an intense curiosity for the lives of my ancestors and how they conducted those lives in that other place where I was born but no longer live. It is that curiosity that led me to accumulate the trove of family stories, archives, and research on which this book is based. It is hard for me to imagine going through life without knowing where one came from and from whom one descends. Our story is not just contained in our life span, but it is a part of a larger story that precedes us and has shaped who we are.   

For many Cuban-Americans born in the United States to parents and grandparents who fled the island at the beginning of the revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, it would be hard to reconcile the Cuba of today with the one described to them by exiled family members who often remembered a romanticized version of their beloved island. How do you reconcile a Cuba like the one your ancestors shaped and experienced with the one that exists today?

One of the features of this book is that although it deals with the past, I try to describe that past accurately, with all its defects, so I tend not to romanticize it. I am nostalgic for it because I lived a very rich childhood. But it was a country far from perfect, with a dominant class that in many ways sowed the seeds of its own destruction. I also avoid expressing resentment or victimization about the present. It was what it was. And it is what it is.

Cuban-Americans have played an outsized role in American politics, particularly in Florida.  Why do you think Cuban-Americans in Florida have largely gravitated toward the Republican party?  Is there something in Cuba’s political and cultural history that lends itself to affiliation with the Republican party?

The tendency of Cuban Americans to identify as Republicans is a product of the circumstances they faced in the US and also of their self-identification as exiles. In Miami, during the 1980s and 1990s, the then powerful Democratic Party did not welcome them. Cuban Americans aspiring to run in local and state elections could not win the party’s nomination. They found in the Republican Party, which was at the time an empty shell, the vehicle for running competitively in elections. Additionally, Cuban American voters flocked to the Republican Party with the rise of Ronald Reagan, who had a strongly ideological anti-communist rhetoric that countered what had been the policy of the Carter administration to reconcile with the Cuban government. Judging political parties by their stand with the respect to Cuba shows how much Cuban Americans think of themselves as exiles, that is, prioritizing affairs of the homeland. If they were to favor the political party that has done most to help them as immigrants, that is, the party that has helped them most in facilitating their migration to, and their adjustment in, this country, they would be Democrats. All the major waves of migration from Cuba to the US and all major assistance programs that benefited Cuban Americans were authorized by Democratic administrations.    

What was it like to watch your homeland, a beautiful and prosperous island nation, be overtaken by authoritarian governments? What effect did it have on your relatives who fled the island?

Being compelled to leave one’s homeland is a traumatic experience. It has remained my most important life-altering event. My father had to reinvent himself at forty years of age, although he was fortunate (as was I) in that we knew English when we arrived. He went into sales, which was something he had not done in Cuba, and he became good enough at it that he was able to support his family in the US. He worked hard, but never looked back. Unlike many exiles of his generation who found themselves dispossessed of their positions, possessions, and their capital – the life they once knew — my father never became resentful and bitter about what had happened to him. That’s why he did not pass on to me a hatred of the Cuban government, and that, unfortunately, is not something that is typical. Many people have suffered greatly and their passion about the Cuban issue is understandable. Generations-old hatreds and resentments have fueled the longstanding divisions within the Cuban nation.    

Lisandro Pérez is Professor in the Department of Latin American and Latinx Studies at John Jay College, City University of New York and author of Sugar, Cigars, and Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York.

In The House on G Street, Pérez tells Cuba’s story through the lens of a single family: his own. His book relays the tales of two officers who fought against the Spanish for Cuban independence; a plantation owner who smuggles himself onto a ship; families divided by political loyalties; an orphaned boy from central Cuba who would go on to amass a fortune; a fatal love triangle; violence; and the ever-growing presence of the United States. It all culminates with an unforgettable portrait of a childhood spent in a world that was giving way to another one. The House on G Street is a unique depiction of one of the most consequential events of the twentieth century, told through generations of ancestors whose lives were shaped by dramatic historical forces.

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