Duke University Alumni Magazine

Living On The Hyphen
Gustavo Perez Firmat
by Bridget Booher

Home away from home: Perez Firmat behind his high school in Miami, where the Cuban loyalist began his American odyssey
© The Miami Herald / Carl Juste

Thirty-six years after his family fled Fidel Castro's revolution, a professor has written of the difficult journey to reconcile his ties to Cuba with his life in the United States.
he photographs and newspaper clippings are faded, but the light-blue scrapbook has held up well over the years. Baby books like this one, particularly those of the first-born, quickly fill up with the magic and minutiae of an infant's arrival into the world. Locks of hair from the first haircut are still carefully attached. Christmas morning photos show a shiny tricycle or a new sibling. As he turns the pages, Romance Studies professor Gustavo Perez Firmat sees the moments of his life add up. It's been a bittersweet journey.

     Born in Cuba in 1949, Perez Firmat spent a typical, happy childhood in Havana. His father, Gustavo Perez Sr., owned a profitable food wholesaling business and his mother, Nena, managed the household with kind but firm resolve. There were lively, all-night parties and sympathetic siblings and comic family dramas. Fidel Castro's revolution of 1959 changed all of that. For nearly two years, the Perez family held its breath, hoping that the new regime wouldn't implement its emerging communist doctrines. But on October 14, 1960, the government confiscated the wholesaling business and the elder Perez's bank account, and impounded the family's assets. Ten days later, the Perezes packed their bags, headed for the pier, and joined the nearly 100,000 other Cubans who had already fled the country.

      It was supposed to be temporary. This revolution, they believed, would surely falter. In the meantime, Gustavo Sr., Nena, and their four children would re-create Cuban life in Dade County, Florida. The children enrolled in school, Spam replaced steak, and the older Perez landed a job as a car salesman. Even though the family knew English well enough to acclimate, and socialized with friends and acquaintances who had also fled Cuba, there was never any doubt that the arrangement was makeshift. But an interim visit turned into thirty-six years.

     Perez Firmat stops at a photo of his mother in front of her Havana house. Nena is smiling as she holds her oldest son, while neighborhood children gather arounda pi–ata. Her precise handwriting recorded the details of that long- ago birthday party in Cuba. "I don't like to read what my mother has written here," Perez Firmat says, "because she was so happy in her house, and right now she is very un-happy. Kafka once said that life is a series of small-scale victories and large-scale defeats. That's true for her, and I think that's the case for most of us."

     Sitting in the living room of his airy Chapel Hill house, Perez Firmat seems momentarily out of time, an average suburban guy lost in a murky, foreign past. And in many ways, that is exactly what he is. Ever since he stood on the deck of the City of Havana ferry as an eleven-year-old watching his native country disappear on the horizon, he has grappled with the perplexing dilemma of having two homes and none at all. In Next Year in Cuba, his autobiographical book published last fall by Doubleday/Anchor, he describes this lifelong tension of never completely belonging to a particular culture, community, or country.

      Neither entirely Cuban like his parents, nor totally acculturated to American life like his two children, Perez Firmat calls himself a member of the "one-and-a-half generation, that is, Cubans who were born on the island and came to the United States as children or adolescents." Next Year in Cuba is his attempt to reconcile himself fully --finally--to his life as a Carolina Cuban, an identity that includes a love of Padron cigars and Durham Bulls baseball games, an appreciation for musicians Willie Chirino and Billy Joel, and pride in his Cuban machismo and his American wife.

      The book's title refers to a popular end-of-the-year toast among Cuban exiles, a wishful (and willful) assertion that the Castro regime is only temporary and they will all be together-home-back in Cuba as soon as he's gone. For people like Gustavo Sr. and Nena, who left the island as adults, "next year in Cuba" implies a sort of waiting, putting one's life on hold. During his adolescence, Perez Firmat admits, he was of the same mind. "The still-life of exile," he writes, "made it too easy for my brothers and me not to grow up and move on. Living in exile was comfortable. It gave me an identity and justified my unease, the nagging sense of not belonging anywhere. I wasn't a Cuban, I wasn't an American, I wasn't a professor, I wasn't a businessman-I didn't have to beanything because I was an exile."

      It wasn't until Perez Firmat moved to Michigan for graduate school that reality hit. After earning his undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Miami, he found the harsh climate and rigid scholarly lifestyle unsettling. Not only was the Cuban-American not in Havana anymore, he wasn't even close to Little Havana. He recalls the five years at the University of Michigan as "miserable." He says, "It seemed like the sun never shone, and I hated it. I holed myself up in the library and worked." (His doctoral dissertation was on Hispanic vanguard fiction produced in the Twenties and Thirties.)

Christmas in Cuba: the Perez family in their Havana home

      As Perez Firmat admits, the geographical distancing from Miami had a symbolic element as well. While his parents held on to the notion of regreso (return) as if it were a true option, rather than an aging dream, Perez Firmat had decided to move on with his life, to find "a refuge from exile. "Married to a Cuban-American woman, he still made regular visits to the family home, and relished episodes of I Love Lucy. But as he immersed himself in literary criticism and theory, he soon found that he was sublimating facets of his personality. Words, which had always been a form of freedom and exploration for him, became dry, utilitarian tools for advancing an argument or interpreting text. "Graduate school," he says, "has ruined more lives than rock and roll. For me, it almost killed my love of language, my love of literature."

      Perez Firmat came to Duke in the fall of 1978 and soon became involved in the usual flurry of academic activity. He served on various committees and boards; organized and participated in panel discussions in his field; published dozens of articles, reviews, poems, and essays; presented papers; taught graduate and undergraduate courses; and won a number of awards and grants, including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He also wrote and edited scholarly books that established his reputation in the field of Hispanic studies, three of which were published by Duke University Press (Literature and Liminality: Festive Readings in the Hispanic Tradition; Idle Fictions: The Hispanic Vanguard Novel, 1926-1934; and Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?).

Happy days: Nena, left, holds her oldest son
at his third birthday party

     But as he rose through the ranks, Perez Firmat grew increasingly uneasy with the constraints of writing and living in the style of a university professor. "It's different now," he says, "but until several years ago, you weren't even supposed to say 'I' in your [academic] writing. You were supposed to say 'one' or use the passive voice. I remember getting back critical articles from editors with all my "I's crossed out." A bigger upheaval was taking place in his personal life. Separated from his wife, Perez Firmat fell in love with a married adminis- trative assistant-an americana-in his department. As he writes in Next Year in Cuba, the subsequent years of their courtship were tumultuous. He was treated as a pariah by departmental colleagues. His family begged him to reconsider. Gustavo Sr. even took his son aside and said that affairs were one thing (and perhaps the problem was that Gustavo Jr. had been too faithful in his marriage), but it was another thing entirely to leave his family for another woman. And an American woman at that.

     "Hearing them talk this way," Perez Firmat writes, "I wondered whether they would have changed their tune had Mary Anne been a Cuban exile like us. I don't think their problem was simply my impending divorce, but the fact that my relationship with Mary Anne threatened our integrity as an exile family. By leaving a Cuban woman for an American one, I was not only changing spouses, I was putting our family on a different track. In effect, I was behaving like an immigrant, not an exile."

      Eventually, Perez Firmat and his family both came to terms with the situation, and he and Mary Anne married in 1991. This midlife turning point had an unexpected and welcome effect on his writing as well, he says. "Derek Walcott says to change your language you must change your life. Well, I changed my life and I changed my wife, and I began to write more freely and perhaps take more chances than I had before. Plus, by then I was a tenured professor, so they couldn't fire me!"

      Gladly embracing the spheres of "I" and "we," Perez Firmat wrote a book called Life On the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way, which was published in 1994. Part pop culture, part first-person-exile exploration, the personal criticism essays appealed to a broader readership than his previous academic offerings. Using literature, music, television, and movies, he explored and explained what it means to be a cultural hybrid. His insightful interpretation of Desi Arnaz's role, both on and off camera in I Love Lucy, for example, brings a nuanced and loving reading to the man's life, and to how the American viewing public formed opinions about Cuban culture. The book won the Kayden University Press National Book Award and earned honorable mentions in the Modern Language Association's Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize and the Latin American Studies Association's Bryce Wood Award competitions.

      After the book was completed, but before its publication, an editor at Doubleday wrote to Perez Firmat to see what he was working on. The query was prompted by a series of reviews he wrote for The Washington Post Book World, including a scathing, dead-on critique of a poorly informed book about Hispanic-Americans. The editor liked Perez Firmat's moxie and wanted to know what projects he had lined up. The timing was fortuitous; Perez Firmat suggested a more personal version of Life On the Hyphen and the publisher accepted the proposal.

      Next Year in Cuba is an intimate and candid read. "For the first time in my life," he says, "I was writing sentences that hurt." Perez Firmat talks frankly about the Perez family's foibles, his own sexuality, his private fears. In places, the reader may feel like a voyeur, peeping in the window of his parents' house in Little Havana or his and his wife's bedroom in Chapel Hill. The approach had its disadvantages. His mother, embarrassed and upset that he described cramped living conditions in the early years of the family's exile, has threatened to write her own version of events, Lo Que Gustavito No Dijo (What Gustavito Didn't Say). "I don't regret anything I wrote because it was the truth as I saw it," he says. "As I tell my mother, it's my life, too. And I have the copyright to my life." As far as Perez Firmat knows, Gustavo Sr. has not read the book.

Cultural crossing: Gustavo Senior and his
two oldest sons on the City of Havana ferry

      Whatever his difficulties with the academy, Perez Firmat is clearly enamored of teaching. Toward the end of Next Year in Cuba, he waxes romantic about the relationship between student and professor, how it can build from nervous, superficial beginnings to a mutually rewarding exchange. At times, he admits, his classes can be tense because of recurring themes of sexual politics and gender relations found in Hispanic literature and life. When this happens, he says, he encourages students to talk honestly about how they interpret the content of thetext, the culture in which it was created, and the intent of the writer.

      His prodding has paid off. Last December, Perez Firmat was named the University Scholar/Teacher of the Year, Duke's highest teaching award. He calls the honor "the best thing that ever happened to me at Duke." Because he invests so much of himself in the classroom, he says, he takes student interest and progress very personally. "It's risky," he said at the time, "because when I'm teaching, I'm putting myself on the line in a way that I don't do when I write. I'm one of those professors who doesn't read student evaluations-the bad ones shatter me. For me, teaching is a form of autobiography; no matter what I'm teaching, I'm always teaching myself. So it's important to me, because if students reject the material, they're rejecting me."

      Although Perez Firmat became an American citizen in 1977, has an American wife and American stepchildren, and is a popular teacher and respected scholar at a prestigious American university, his Cuban patriotism still thrives. On trips to Miami, he catches up on news from Havana, listening to Radio Marti with his father. In March, he flew home for the funeral of his high school friend, who was one of the Brothers To the Rescue pilots shot down by the Cuban military. And although he is registered to vote, has children in public schools, and pays taxes along with everybody else, he says he cannot bring himself to cast a vote in any election, local or national. Rationally, he knows it's his right and duty as an American. But in his heart, he says, such an act would feel like a betrayal to his homeland.

     "People always ask me, what's the big deal? But for me it is very hard. Like a lot of Americans, I'm fed up with American politics. And like a lot of Cuban exiles, I'm a one-issue person, and that issue is Cuba. And I don't think politicians on the right or the left have been particularly respon-sive. Maybe one day I'll be able to vote in Cuban politics, but for now, Mary Anne casts the family vote."

     If Perez Firmat is unable to take that one extra step in the direction of assimilation, at least he's facing forward on the path. That's not the case for his parents, who still live in Miami and talk of returning to a Cuba that long ago ceased to exist. Except for their third child, who got into serious legal and financial troubles and now lives at home, the other Perez children have dispersed to Atlanta, Chicago, Chapel Hill. The siblings talk to one another less frequently as the years pass. "By now all of us realize that our best chance to have a real family is to start one," Perez Firmat writes in Next Year in Cuba, "to bet on the future rather than the past, on the United States rather than Havana or Little Havana."

     It's a settlement of sorts, the kind of balancing act that he's managed since he left Havana thirty-six years ago. It's life on the Cuban-American hyphen, a swirling middle ground of cross-cultural currents. And if Perez Firmat can't quite fuse these constantly shifting influences, he's found a way to plant his own proud, patched-together flag where he's standing.

      "People who were thirty years old when Castro took over are now sixty-seven years old," he says. "Sociologists are always doing surveys asking how many Cubans would go back if Castro died or was overthrown. But it's not a realistic question to ask. If you were to ask my father he would say, of course I'm going back. But if he actually had to get on a flight the next morning, it would be, well, where am I going to live? Where will I get money? He will probably be buried in Miami."

     As for the younger Gustavo, the possibility of regreso is an elusive and sometimes cruel tease. "I wake up every morning and ask myself what the hell I'm doing here," he says. "You feel divided for so long that you long for wholeness. And you think you will find it in Cuba. But another part of me realizes that is not true, that I'm not going to feel any more whole in Cuba than I do here. I think long-term exiles are sort of damaged goods, the walking wounded. And I'm a walking wounded looking for a place to sit down. And if I were to go back to Cuba, what happens to my kids? What happens to my American wife? My past is Cuba, but I'm not sure that it's also my future. It's different spending a month in Miami and a lifetime in Havana. So my life is here-I think."

Last Mambo

    In Miami Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.
    I have mixed feelings about
    Name your tema, I'll hedge;
    name your cerca, I'll straddle it
    like a cubano. I have mixed feelings about
    Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.
    Vexed, hexed, complexed,
    hyphenated, oxygenated,
    illegally alienated,
    psycho soy, cantado voy:
    You say tomato, I say tu madre;
    You say potato, I say Pototo.
    Let's call the hole un hueco,
    the thing a cosa, and
    if the cosa goes into the hueco,
    consider yourself en casa,
    consider yourself part of
    the family.
    (Cuban-American mi:
    I singo therefore I am, si.)
    Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones,
    un pure de impurezas,
    a little square from Rubik's Cuba,
    que nadie nunca acoplara.

      - Gustavo Perez Firmat

Reprinted from Life On the Hyphen:
The Cuban-American Way
by Gustavo Perez Firmat,
Copyright © 1994.
Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.

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