Scoundrel Time

Searching for Safety and Home: My Family’s Story of Migration

It is 1931. I picture my grandmother, Annie, standing on a wharf in Santiago de Cuba awaiting a ship. I see her with a hand beneath her pronounced belly. Her two older daughters, Inez and Pearlena; two young sons, Herman and Ragland; and husband, Eustace, stand with her. Their trunks, black with metal clasps and hinges, are nearby. It’s a chaotic scene: English, Jamaican patois, Haitian creole intermingle with halting and fluid Spanish. The sun’s heat bears down on them; my grandfather, dripping sweat, removes his hat—for he was never without his hat—to dab a handkerchief across his brow. I picture my forbearers on the ship, the island of Jamaica emerging, my grandparents pointing out the blue-grey hills to the children, and the children looking back across the waters to catch a glimpse of Cuba, the only island they had ever known.

My grandparents returned that year to their homeland Jamaica after roughly a dozen years as migrant laborers in Cuba—my grandfather as a cane cutter and grandmother as a domestic worker. They met and married there, and built a life for their children before giving it up and fleeing deteriorating economic and political conditions, and a country that was becoming increasingly dangerous for immigrants like my family. In later years, my grandmother told her children of one fearful incident that lingered in her mind: peering through a window and seeing la guardia beating a Jamaican man, and, when he cried out, putting a machete into his mouth. My grandmother was a small woman, a shade over five feet tall, but feisty at times. I can imagine the rage in her as she watched, her fear of the possible outcome for the man, and for herself and her family if she intervened. She could do nothing to help. Even my grandfather, whose hard work in the fields earned him the nickname Antonio Leon—Anthony the Lion—feared that his strength wasn’t enough to keep his family safe.

Violent acts like what my grandmother witnessed, along with rumors of imminent revolution, finally drove my grandparents out of Cuba. Choosing to return to Jamaica in 1931 proved prophetic. In November of that year, the Cuban government prohibited imported labor. By 1933, conditions for immigrants deteriorated significantly, fueled in part by the implementation of the 50% law, La Ley de Cinquenta Porciento, that decreed that half of all laborers had to be Cuban. Once-desirable laborers from Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean were no longer welcome; thousands were forcibly removed, others repatriated at the expense of the governments of their respective countries. As the global depression deepened, the immigrants who remained in Cuba were demonized, blamed for depressed wages and the economic misfortunes of the local population.

Between 1880 and 1920, about 146,000 Jamaicans migrated in search of work, some to the United States and Cuba. In 1919, at the height of the sugar boom, 24,000 Jamaicans and 10,000 Haitians arrived in Cuba. Having convinced Cuban government officials that cheap labor to harvest sugar cane outweighed the “evils” of black migration, North American-owned sugar companies set about recruiting black laborers throughout the Caribbean. According to Philip A. Howard’s Black Labor, White Sugar, after 1912, North American-owned sugar companies spent between $50,000 and $150,000 annually to obtain a surplus of black Caribbean workers to cut, load, and haul cane. Through their agents, the companies advertised in newspapers and nailed fliers on buildings and on telegraph poles in port cities throughout the Caribbean.

My grandparents were part of that wave of immigrants looking for a solution to poverty at home and hoping to earn the higher wages Cuban employers promised. Migrating in search of work was by then part of our culture. My grandparents’ generation had witnessed the ‘Colon Man’ or ‘Panama Man’, who left Jamaica to help build the Panama Canal and returned home with the swagger of newfound wealth, a gold time piece and silk shirts. For them, the rapid expansion of the Cuban sugar economy promised similar prosperity.

For many immigrants, though, their dream of prosperity was overshadowed by anti-immigrant rhetoric and nationalist ideas in Cuba that came to a head in the early 1930s. The ideas behind the demonization of black immigrants in Cuba sound achingly similar to what I hear in America today. Despite evidence that proves otherwise, the current populist thinking that immigrants lower the wages of American workers persists. Cuban scholars touted similar ideas in the early twentieth century, and in doing so attempted to pit black Cubans against black immigrant workers.

In Cuba, the nationalist campaign against Haitian and Jamaican immigration was encapsulated by the slogan “Cuba for Cubans.” Today, America’s nationalist and isolationist ideas are encapsulated by the slogans, “Make America Great Again” and “Take our country back.” Trump’s disparaging labeling of Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” echoes the language nativists and racists used in Cuba to limit immigration of non-white people to the island. In 1922, an editorial in Cuba’s La Prensa asked, “What good will preventative measures do as long as the ports of the country are wide open to Chinese, Haitian, and Jamaican immigrants, who bring in malaria and smallpox?” Trump himself has been quoted as saying, “Why do we need more Haitians?” and Haitians “all have AIDS.”

Then, as now, one group of people bore the brunt of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and was singled out for mass deportation. Throughout the 1930s, Cuba forcibly deported nearly 38,000 Haitians. Today, Latinos in the United States are more likely to be detained and deported than any other immigrant group. For example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics show nearly 150,000 Mexicans were removed from the U.S. in fiscal year 2016 and nearly 130,000 in fiscal year 2017. In addition to Mexico, the data shows the top four countries of citizenship for those removed include Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

America has its own long sordid history of expelling and demonizing immigrants; this is nothing new. But one thing is clear: the demonization of immigrants seems to ramp up once a host country’s economy falters. Immigrants become “undesirable aliens” who are seen as “takers” rather than “givers.”

Some studies have linked the acceptance of Trump’s populism and nativist ideas to anxiety about an economy that has left a portion of the middle and working class behind. Yet others cite fear over cultural changes as the definitive reason so many Americans continue to support Trump’s divisive agenda. Perhaps both of these perspectives have had an impact. Indeed, the Democracy Fund’s study of the 2016 election indicates Trump’s supporters are not a monolithic group. Instead, they fall into five unique clusters and share complex and contradictory attitudes on a variety of issues, including immigration.

Yet, there is hope. Despite the racial discrimination in Cuba and concerted efforts to rid the island of black migrant workers, several thousand managed to settle there permanently. Today, Haitian Creole is the second most-spoken language in Cuba.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric took its toll, pushing my grandparents out of Cuba. They didn’t return to Jamaica flashing newfound wealth, like the Panama Man or the Colon Man. But they had saved and sent money home throughout their twelve years in Cuba.

When my grandparents returned to Jamaica they first settled in Westmoreland, my grandfather’s birthplace, before relocating to Anchovy, a small town eight miles outside of Montego Bay. In Anchovy, my grandparents built a house on a hill and called their little house “Hope View.” The house looks down on a sloped piece of land where my grandparents grew a range of crops—banana, coffee, and coco alongside towering breadfruit, coconut, and avocado trees. The house itself is small, built so close to a rock outcropping that it looks like it rises out of the hillside. Two concrete columns hold up a small verandah and frame a door to a cellar. To the right of the columns, a set of concrete steps rises up to the red floor of the verandah and the aqua railing that hems it in. To the rear, the kitchen and dining room back up to a small cliff, with only a sliver of space in which ferns and moss grow.

The house still stands, and each time I walk up the hill, I picture my grandfather standing on the verandah as he did when I was a child, and looking down on the crops on the hillside and valley below, seeing the way he wanted his family to live: in hope of something better and with a view of what is possible. That is the reason they migrated to Cuba, and the very reason they chose to leave it.


Image By: Donna Hemans (The view of the valley from the verandah of the author’s grandparents’ house)