To live in Miami is to be immersed in Cuban culture, but how many of us really know the tale of our neighbors, our ancestors, and ourselves?
José Enrique Pardo had enough of romantic Hollywood depictions and took matters into his own hands. With only two short films under his belt, he set out to document what drove millions of Cubans to leave their home, to send their children more than 90 miles away -- perhaps never to be seen again -- and to answer the equally important question of what these first-generation immigrants have done with their freedom.
What gives him the right? It's his story too.
"I think the most important thing that came out of the film is that we as Cubans were able to tell our own story with our own words and our own characters," Pardo says. "It's the story of our exile, the truth of our exile, as we perceive it."
Cubamerican will make its television debut on PBS Thursday, September 4, at 8 p.m., and all Miamians, Cubano or not, would be wise to tune in. It's incredibly enlightening for people of all backgrounds. It sheds light on the revolution and the big waves of immigrants in a way that's never been portrayed. But it's also incredibly personal as we watch Pardo and 21 other first-generation "Cubamericans" journey through their souls and put into words the struggle of families torn part, histories lost, and a people stuck between two nations.
"I always had in the back of my mind that what we were doing was something that was going to gain value over time," Pardo says. "I wanted to create this visual record so that in the future, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren can appoint themselves with the story of their ancestors and their coming to the United States and under what circumstances."
It's a tale that mirrors the experience of anyone who's been forced to leave their home, a classic tale that each and every American family can relate to at some point in its past.
"It's happened to many, many people; still happening to many, many people; will continue to happen to many, many people ," he said. "I've had Iranians, Palestinians, Jews all come and tell me 'this is my story, too.' It happens in a microcosm, told in the form Cuba, but it's really the same story."
Yet it's also incredibly timely. With so much controversy surrounding immigration reform and constant headlines of parentless children crossing the Southern border, it's hard not to draw parallels.
"We see a lot of immigrant bashing going on and we wanted to tell a pro-immigration story," Pardo said. "We wanted to say 'look, this country was made great by immigrants, and here we have people that have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Arts and Humanities Medal, the National Book Award. Look at these contributions they've made to American society. How can you say that immigration is a bad thing for the United States?' These people started from scratch. They realized the American dream in one way or another. The film is really a testament to freedom, the privilege of living free and that anything is possible when you have freedom."
In the aim of giving his subjects credibility, Pardo sought to reach a diverse group of successful Cuban immigrants, some who came over, as he did, at such a young age they can hardly remember the place of their childhoods. Those who escaped during the next great wave of emigration in the 1980s have fresher memories of post-Revolutionary realities to tell.
Some of the subjects are artists or world-class ballet dancers; others are professors or University directors, even from our own backyard at Miami Dade College. Some of them are celebrated authors and sportsman, while are some politically recognized but otherwise unknown philanthropists who've dedicated their lives to ending hunger, disease, and poverty here in the U.S. and around the world.
"I wanted to bring people to the forefront that perhaps had never been given their due, for lack of a better term."
Of course, the common link of inspirational achievements and utter gratitude for the chance to follow their dreams runs throughout.
"There's no opportunity no ability to dream (in Castro's Cuba), so I think coming here, then growing up and looking back and going 'wow, I'm glad I can dream and make things happen here,' spurs you on," Pardo said. "I think it spurred all these people on and all these folks have contributed in big ways and they're invigorated by this freedom. They probably did greater things here, but they might have been even better in Cuba had Cuba stayed that way."
Juxtaposing the sad reality of their pasts with the bright and seemingly endless possibilities for their futures is touching, but it's more compelling when you realize that sadness and joy are impossible to separate. It's a bittersweet feeling their American-born children will never quite understand, one they don't necessarily want them to know, but it is a legacy that shouldn't be ignored.
"The film, again, is another way to try to preserve whatever Cuban feelings, connection, soul -- Cubanía as we say in the film -- the young Cubans may have, as a way to not only preserve but almost transmit it to them in some way.
"It's a different reality for Cuban Americans, or Cubamericans as I call them, growing up in South Florida than it is for them to grow up in Chicago," he said. "Because the concentration permeates the culture and the culture has become vibrant. There's numbers in the culture, so I think that clearly makes a difference. Ultimately it comes down to the parents and the way these children are raised, and I think the film is a tool."
In addition to personal accounts and interviews, Cubamerican uses loads of primary sources such as newspaper articles, old television interviews, and video footage from both the pre-Revolutionary era and after to tell its story. For Pardo, the educational angle was just as important as the emotional connection, and he hopes the documentary becomes a learning supplement for anyone trying to learn more about the Cubano experience.
"Ideally, I would like to see this film make in-roads in the educational market and educational community, so that it can be shown at universities and kept in reference," he said. "When people are teaching courses on Latin American studies and they get to Cuba, they can look at Cubamerica as a reference tool for them, and not at Scarface, not at Che, or not at the Fidel documentary that Oliver Stone did -- not at those kind of romantic forays of the Hollywood folks."
Cubamerican is a complex film that provides many things to a people who continue to struggle with their equally entangled cultural situation, but Pardo is confident that above all else, he achieved his goal of taking ownership of the Cuban story and finally giving his generation the chance to tell it in their own voice.
"I'm hoping that the message will be broadcast loudly by putting it on public television," he says. "We'll reach audiences that haven't seen the film, that will want to connect with them, that will want to buy the film as a keepsake for them to have for their family and get the message across. And hopefully in the end, I can make another one."
Cubamerican airs on WPBT2 Thursday, September 4, at 8 p.m. Learn more via cubamericanthemovie.com.
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