Imagine a private fashion show in your father’s living room with the model as his wife, 20 years his junior. Thirty years ago, I was the lone member of the audience as I sat in my father’s well-appointed Miami Lakes home, captive and appalled, as his wife displayed an interminable line-up of mink, chinchilla, and beaver stoles and coats. It was one of many defining moments in my political evolution, pushing me to eventually abandon the Republican Party just weeks before I voted for Obama in November of 2012.
How so, you may say? As I sat in that living room with a bewildered smile on my trembling face, I could only think of the monthly $200 alimony check my father mailed my mother, who used it as part of her meager income from the laundry where she worked. This private, behind-closed-doors celebration of the huge disparity of income between my father, a successful surgeon, and my mother, a former English teacher who supported him through medical school, became symbolic of Republicans.
Today, I can say that the startling and shameful sharp right turn of Republican Party provided the impetus for my unapologetic progressive stance, rejoicing in another four years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Hope and change, the driving forces for the election of the nation’s first African-American president four years ago, still burns in my heart, and apparently also in the hearts of many other Cuban-Americans, who in November split ranks and gave Obama 48 percent of their vote, up from 38 percent in 2008.
Why the turn-around in an ethnic enclave known for its conservative agenda?
I can speak only for myself in saying that the Republican insensitivity to huge segments of the population, fueled by the Old Boys’ Club, misguided Tea Party members and fundamentalist Christians, made wonder if I could lose valuable personal liberties. While the right has consistently extolled the virtues of self-reliance and unfettered capitalism, the nation now is in need of something that transcends this philosophy in which I also deeply believe. Ensuring that compassion and ethics, in short, a more humanistic approach, take their place in America’s capitalist, democratic system must be at the forefront of a well thought out political agenda. It is this vision that Obama’s platform offers to me.
I am celebrating with the president for many reasons. Not only did he choose a Cuban American poet, Richard Blanco, and a Cuban-American reverend, Luis Leon, to take part in the inauguration ceremony, but he has drafted a social blueprint that resonates in a space of my heart and mind reserved for ideals. Obama shows us that the personal is political – a tenet that I learned many years ago as a student at the University of California but that lay dormant for many years: gun control measures; opportunities for Dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants in schools all across America; a woman’s right to privacy in her choice of abortion, shamefully politicized today to serve religious beliefs; the freedom to marry whoever you please; the absolute separation of church and state; the right for women to receive equal pay for equal work, and not 77 cents for each dollar earned by men.
In opposition to these tenets, the Republicans consistently resist social progress, steadfastly hanging on to an obsolete status quo that upholds the absolute rule of the wealthy. The protection of the rich at the expense of the middle class has turned off, not only me, but large groups of voters. “The Republicans have made entire communities feel disenfranchised,” Republican Senator Ileana Ros exclaimed the day after the November elections. “It was a disaster for so many of our candidates. I feel like hitting them upside the head and saying Get With It!”
The word on the street is that the Republican Party today would be unrecognizable by Ronald Reagan, who – perceived to be too liberal — never would have received his party’s presidential nomination. Did you know that the Republican governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, in 1970 supported a state bill giving women the right to abortion? Would any Republican governor do the same today? No, they are too busy busting unions, arresting Mexicans in Arizona and keeping everyone else in their place. Today, many call the Republicans the Fascist Party of America. Perhaps the “communists” are behind this smear tactic?
My father would forcefully nod yes. A middle-class gynecologist – not a landed aristocrat –, he fled Havana in 1959 soon after the communist takeover. He disagreed with the systematic stripping away of human and economic freedoms. As he and the first Cuban exiles made their way to Miami, the horrors of communism made them forget the terrors of Batista, a right wing dictator. They turned their backs resolutely on the Democrats after then President Kennedy refused air cover to brave CIA-trained Cubans who landed in the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 to wrest control from Fidel. The brigade members were killed or imprisoned. It was a big disillusionment for Cubans, one I share. As a result, Cuban exiles aligned themselves with Republicans who imposed the embargo and promised a tough stance against the island. As a child, I listened to my parents talk as ships from the then Soviet Union made their way to Cuba to set up missiles aimed at the United States. Impressed by the passionate outcries of my parents against Fidel and the Democrats, I became a Republican by default.
As exiles gained power in Miami, they repudiated everything left wing, including the same freedoms they were denied back in Cuba. I witnessed many examples. As a reporter in the eighties, I covered the arrival of Cuban-American playwright Dolores Prida at the Hispanic Theater Festival in Miami. She received bomb threats because she had dubbed the Cuban embargo ineffectual, calling instead for a “dialogue” between the US and the island. The Cuban exile community violated her freedom of speech as surely as if she had been in communist Havana.
As a group, the early Cuban-Americans cannot forget the trauma of living under an oppressive regime, losing homes and bank accounts. Those from the working and agrarian classes – the same people who Fidel promised to liberate — experienced repression as well if they dared disagree with the regime: public beatings, imprisonment, death squads. I absorbed the collective pain from my parents and the community and plodded on as a Republican. I realized, however, that what had not entered the conversation was that many Cubans had supported Fidel. They had rejected the repressive, right-wing tactics of Batista and hoped Fidel’s agenda would bring social justice.
What was not being discussed in the Cuban community was the similarity between Republican right wing tactics and Batista’s repressive strategies. Instead, many believed a liberal agenda reflected communism. What has been left out from the conversation is the conclusion that neither an extreme right nor an extreme left benefits a nation aspiring to economic progress and social justice. The public discourse within the Cuban-American community must expand to include these concepts.
The inauguration holds special meaning for me because it is the culmination of my political awakening. Since a wayward teen, I veered to the left: I believed in sexual freedom, motherhood as a choice, more opportunities for the poor, and protection for the environment. These political stances crystallized when I went to Berkeley: I read Karl Marx’s treatise on material determinism, participated in the Women’s Movement, witnessed the euphoria of Chicano, Black and Gray Power, and attended a Gay Pride parade.
But upon returning home to Miami, the conservative environment engulfed me. I felt torn in my loyalties. Each time I visited my father, he unleashed a venomous tirade upon women, blacks, and the poor. Only the rich were worthy, he insisted. “Foi gras has to be of a very, very high quality for me to like it,” he once said at dinner in a French restaurant. His step-son, a Chilean immigrant eager to please, echoed his astounding words. My father lived the good life, and I wanted to live it too, as I struggled on my own through college — no help there from him — or through demanding media jobs, or as a single mom supporting three children. I struggled outside of his class, yet I wanted to be part of his, the privileges he embodied beckoning like a siren song. I never quite fit in, however, and every once in a while I sounded the gong of liberation.
“I love the poet Milton,” I told my father at one of his sumptuous lunches, “He characterizes the devil as a social rebel.”
“I don’t have that level of culture, Cecilita,” he said frowning, and, as he customarily did, turned the conversation to his Paella recipe when I broached political subjects.
After the fur coat fashion show that evening in Miami Lakes, I reflected on the morality of owning ten fur coats while hordes of people starve around the world. I concluded that there was something intrinsically wrong with owning five mansions and three yachts while others couldn’t buy a winter coat. Do I believe in redistribution of wealth? No. I believe in a free market economy. But I believe just as strongly that it is everyone’s responsibility to temper the outrageous excesses of capitalism. And that means to formulate and enforce humanitarian policies. I see the credo of “the best government is the one that rules least” as nothing more than a weak slogan through which the rich attempt to keep their class privileges. In his inaugural speech, Obama mentioned that it is not only incumbent on government to bring about this change. But can the private sector of wealth rise to the challenge?
These are the people lauded for their ability to create jobs, but studies show that the extra money they make on tax cuts usually doesn’t go toward hiring more workers. Maybe toward buying another diamond necklace? Why can’t the wealthy tighten their belts like the rest of us? Indeed, Obama’s proposal to tax the wealthy has seen such opposition from Republicans it’s frightening. If the rich cannot help reduce the deficit by foregoing, let’s say, one mansion, one Jaguar, one Cessna, then their moral bankruptcy must be held in contempt. Driving home one afternoon, I heard Obama on NPR: “I’m not going to balance the budget on the backs of the poor or the middle class,” he said, “when people like me who make more than $250,000 a year don’t pay a dime more.” Is it all about paying a bit more on taxes? Or is it about keeping class status and privilege, about engaging in class warfare?
My turn around wasn’t about Romney’s short-sighted comments on keeping a “binder” full of women, or about the 48 percent, or about saying that illegal immigrants will just self-deport. I already knew that these beliefs were ingrained into the fabric of Republican values, and that Romney was mindlessly parroting the dominant thinking espoused by his party. The crucial moment that spurred my political liberation arrived one hot April afternoon in 2008.
I sat in my work car, a brand-new Ford Taurus, with the air conditioning blasting cold, lined up in a parking lot along with half a dozen other co-workers in front of the Palm Springs Medical Building in Hialeah. We were all on our cell phones listening to a teleconference that announced that I had lost my pharmaceutical sales job.
“The B team is being dissolved,” Merck Vice President Jo German told us, “other selected reps will be reevaluated as well.” Why? The stockholders demand it. In corporate America, the loss of a penny in year-end profits sends ripples of self-hatred through the sales ranks – not to mention the dread of mass firings – as managers deliver punishing blows, usually in the form of low work performance ratings and an individual improvement plan, forever appended to our personnel files.
But what if a force more powerful than the talent of an individual sales rep is causing low sales? What if the crumbling economy is at fault?
“No. It is the rep’s failure if he or she is not selling,” a much despised manager once sneered in my face. So in one short teleconference, hundreds of reps lost their jobs along with managers, support staff and other personnel. Joe German took early retirement. It was the start of massive layoffs throughout the nation, already reeling from foreclosures, bailouts and lengthy wars.
A few months later, the CEO of Merck added millions of dollars to his income through a generous bonus for “having the balls,” as one observer claimed, to pare down the cost of labor. I pondered over this outrageous move as I, a single mom with three high school children, along with thousands more, scrambled to find another job.
How were the rich withstanding the depression? “It hasn’t touched me,” a doctor and a client told me.
As I became more vociferous, my Cuban friends looked at me askance. Was she a communist, they asked with their eyes?
“You can’t be a communist because you live in Weston,” one said. Huh? Does my place of residence determine my social consciousness? Does it mean that I would begrudge a raise in taxes if I could well afford the hike?
In October, I shed the chains. I called the Broward County Elections Supervisor and changed my party affiliation. In November, I voted for Obama, freed at last from my father’s politics. The pieces tumbled into place. I was not among those in the privileged class. Although highly educated, I was – for all intents and purposes – part of the working class. Although sexually liberated, I was still a woman subject to a variety of prejudices. Although I spoke English without a trace of an accent, I was still an immigrant. The Republicans had nothing to offer someone like me.
Florida, still purple, had just become a bit bluer because of my vote. At the same time, the first Democratic congressman from Miami-Dade, Joe Garcia, received the votes needed to send him to Washington and join South Florida Republicans Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz Balart and Ileana Ros, who, by the way, started her political career as a Democrat, switching parties when she realized she couldn’t survive in the Cuban community.
Apparently, the majority of the people of this nation agree with me that the extreme right is not the place to go. Even if Obama’s election was not a landslide victory, it was nevertheless a triumph for progressive change. My mother, a Republican, surprisingly agreed: “He’s a pleasant man. Knows what he is doing and has done a good job so far.”
Nearly a million people converged on the Capital Mall to hear Obama’s public swearing in today, twice as many as those who made the trip for the second inaugurations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. When pop singer Kelly Clarkson took the microphone after Obama’s speech, this line had special meaning for me: “From every mountain side, let freedom ring!”