Miami noir

July 24, 2006

In preparation for this week’s long-awaited release of Miami Vice, I am indulging in Joan Didion’s Miami, a collection of essays that explores the outer reaches of invisible underworld power and the comma splice. It’s a fantastic read during the steamy summer and I know it’s getting me ready for a dose of seedy violence backlit by my beloved neon skyline. Didion writes about Miami via Cuba, or how Miami in the last half of the twentieth century was pretty much an alternative Cuba, a second stage for the passions of revolutionary politics, and all the while Cubans ran the show while white Miami (or as Didion more accurately refers to them, the Anglos) ignored them. We’re talking 56% v. 44%, Hispanics equalling the larger part, and at that time, Cubans being the better part of that. There was a fundamental schism in perspectives on. Anglo Miami assumed that the Cubans were a group of immigrants, settling down and starting businesses and generally assimiliating. Cubans, on the other hand, never relinquished the mental status of exile. Tomorrow was always the day they were going home, provided that tomorrow the US had made good on its promise to invade the island and shut Castro down once and for all. No matter how much money they made here, how much English their children spoke, or what passport they carried, they were renters, not immigrants. The result was literally two worlds: the world of el exilio, self-policing true believers in a Castro-free Cuba or death, and the world of Anglos who hadn’t yet realized they were the literal minority population, esconced in their traditional network of whites-only restuarants and a newspaper which published two editions in two languages and few overlapping stories.

20 years later, I wonder if my perception that a lot has changed is, yet again, merely the ignorance of an Anglo circulating in the middle class. You certainly don’t read about as many bodies turning up in parking lots, although the recent and continuing Vamos a Cuba fiasco apparently generated a bunch of death threats for school board members. I know plenty of Cubans, and I’ve still only met one who was willing to say good things about communist Cuba. I have driven through a lot of the neighborhoods Didion was advised never to enter, but then again rarely has a weekend gone by this summer that I haven’t opened up a Herald to find out about a poor black child shot on a drive-by in Opa Locka. There might be more than two worlds now. We all might know less about all of them, but that’s probably growing more broadly true than just in south Florida, now that the Internet hooks everyone up with their filtered cultural information, no browsing through stuff you don’t agree with required.

I can say for certain that one thing has actually changed, though. Didion writes about scores of new condo buildings remaining unoccupied as downtown violence loomed on a daily basis, new units unsellable at any price. Ha! Those must have been the days. Too bad I had no money when I was six years old, I could have retired already.

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