"This is what America sounds like."
I heard the line last weekend at a dinner theater that found a way to open near my home. All the actors wore face shields, the tables were socially distant, and the patrons wore masks when not eating. As this is Florida, my wife and I were twenty years under the average age for the diners (I'm 55), so just about everyone was vaccinated. And they were playing a feel-good show, one highlighting the "successful immigrant" story that has been pushed as a founding American myth for most of our history (some interludes of racist nativism excepted).
I took the title of this post from a line voiced by an actor playing Emilio Estefan (the show was On Your Feet, The Story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan). The record company mid-level exec tells Emilio he won't be promoting the Miami Sound Machine's record because they recorded it in English, and America wasn't ready for that sound. Emilio's response was that of a proud Cuban immigrant declaring himself and their sound as American as anything else being pushed by the record company.
Indeed, the story of two kids who conquered the music business has universal appeal. But was it true?
Gloria Estefan's father was shown as a young man, a soldier in Vietnam, listening to his daughter's voice on tapes. As an old man, he's shown as bed-ridden. The girl whose Dad inspired her but then faced tragedy is meant to inspire.
Well, I looked up what actually happened to her Dad. After fleeing Cuba because her family was in with the corrupt and oppressive Bautista dictatorship, he fought in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. He then enlisted in the regular army, went to Vietnam, and was exposed to Agent Orange, which was thought to have triggered onset of his multiple sclerosis. Largely abandoned by a VA unwilling to admit culpability, he died, his family penniless.
A much more honest immigrant story than the one portrayed.
And what of Gloria's Mom? Born into a patriarchal family in with Bautista (this is becoming a theme, isn't it?), her father refused to let her travel to America where a Hollywood studio wanted her to play the voice acting role needed for dubbing Shirley Temple movies to be sold in Latin America. Gloria's grandfather said no. So, mom decided to become an academic and get a Ph.D. in education. These folks aren't campesinos. Still, tragically, she has to flee to the US, and nobody is willing to hire her at a university with a Cuban Ph.D. So, she becomes a K-12 teacher.
In the show, it's implied she's a low-wage worker, which, to be fair, describes teaching in Florida well, but it's not what an audience would have guessed. And she doesn't want her daughter to go on the road with the band and give up college. Well, in real life, Estefan would only do gigs on the weekends because she didn't want to miss classes, and she graduated from U. of Miami, but that doesn't lend itself to the immigrant starting from nothing follows her dreams and becomes a star tale, so they changed it for the show. The mom is presented as a horrible person who refuses to speak to Gloria for two years, thinks Emilio is a thug, and only returns after Gloria is in a very serious van accident.
Okay, I've taught a lot of Cuban kids, and stubborn Mom who won't give in is somewhat believable, albeit no more so than many moms I've met of my own heritage (Jewish), so I'll give that detail a pass.
What if the story told was instead closer to the truth? Families cozy with an oppressive dictator flee a Revolution. The country is kept impoverished by economic imperialism, especially the secondary boycott (a boycott of any company that does business with Cuba), that has lasted to the present time without resulting in the overthrow of the government because well-off exiles have enjoyed their wealth in Miami while agitating for a return to exploitation that is not desired by the Cuban people. (The Cuban literacy rate went from 49% to near-100% under Castro, and their medical care is universal. Sure, dissidents in prison, yadda, yadda, but the US at the time segregated its people and killed civil rights workers. Those of us in glass houses shouldn't embargo other countries, to badly mix a metaphor.)
These privileged folks find themselves in Miami. Dad is dumb enough to trust the US Army, who kill him. He suffers before he dies. Mom is forced to work as a public-school teacher (HORRORS!). The kids get to go to college and pursue their music career. Okay, they face a bit of racism here and there—big surprise, this is America, in the South. And Gloria is hurt in a traffic accident, but she gets boutique care and gets better.
That wouldn't pack the theaters.
I've got a better story: virtually all of Latin America suffers invasion after invasion by the Gringos out for cheap bananas. Impoverished and suffering under corrupt dictators, some of these countries are not very safe. Racism compounds the problem as those with darker skin are persecuted by the puppet governments. But then, because of global climate change caused largely by the US, a horrible drought leads to famine. These folks trek, often on foot, to the border, but they are turned back by a reality show huckster President who manipulated racism and xenophobia to win.
Yet, a couple sneaks through. They work three jobs at sub-minimum wage while instilling in their children the need to get an education. The kids graduate high school, attend Miami-Dade Community College (a huge place responsible in many ways for the success of less well-heeled Cuban immigrants), become gainfully employed, buy homes, and raise families.
And over that time, the country evolves so the younger generation couldn't conceive of how their elders hated people of color or any other sort of people. They listen to music that fuses all of the cultures that claim Miami as their own.
I'm not hearing that sound yet.
Today, the newsfeeds scream headlines of the crisis at the border—brown people coming. They don't mention the Banana Wars and further imperialist adventures that destroyed these folks' countries or the climate change that left drought and famine. Nor do they mention that the US could afford to absorb the entire population of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—certainly the percentage who feel they must leave their homes.
The ones who make it to America work in low-wage industries such as landscaping, and, where I live, more often than not, their boss is Cuban. And he speaks perfect English. And he votes Republican. And he talks about the need to turn back immigrants and refugees at the border and save America for the Americans. Like him.
That's what America sounds like.
But you won't hear it on stage. It wouldn't make a good musical.
Oklahoma or South Pacific would sell more tickets. They wouldn't challenge the audience.
And the theater could go back to lemon meringue pie on the desert cart—the white eighty-somethings weren't crazy about tres leches, anyway.