Emma González gives me hope.
I cannot often say that about my people. I am by turns disappointed in each half of my heritage, but it is my Cuban half that inspires the most sadness. And when I watch Emma González, I feel that unfamiliar rise in my heart, and know that my people will be better than we have been.
The Cuban-American community has, by and large, been a determined ally to the worst elements of the United States. Most of Latin America sends its disadvantaged brown masses northward in hopes of building something better for themselves and their families, and those people usually vote for social programs rather than social conservatism (despite, despicably, valuing both). The Cubans who dominate Cuban America are instead the islands’ white minority, fleeing the loss of comparative privilege as despotism washed across their hills and forests. Many emerged into the US destitute, what they didn’t lose to the revolution taken from them by immigration, but too many of them held on to one precious memento: their position of social prestige. They clung to it, tooth and violent nail, and they clambered over their Hispanic kin from everywhere else and every other kind of person of color to try to claim what it represented.
From the day they arrived, they threw in their lot, not with the large and vibrant pan-Hispanic-American community that their predecessors built, but with whiteness.
That is who they are, who we are, who I had to grow out of being. It’s our foundational cultural myth that the United States betrayed us by allowing the Castro revolution to succeed. It’s part of our collective inheritance to have drummed into our minds that the Democratic Party (and particularly then-president John F. Kennedy) let the Bay of Pigs invasion fail because of secret Communist sympathies. It is part of our culture to imagine that there is no difference whatsoever between anyone who would run or govern with a D next to their name and Josef Stalin himself. We grow up having as our behavioral model a crime family’s mix of obsequious loyalty to those within and conniving, practical cruelty to those outside. The right-authoritarian Batista regime aligned with their principles, and they mourned its loss. For three generations, my people simmered unwavering in their entitled rage, and fed it to us in hopes that we would join them. For two generations, it worked.
And then it didn’t.
Emma González wears a Cuban flag patch on her jacket, and it means neither loyalty to the monstrous regime that currently rules her distant homeland nor vengeful entitlement to the grandeur its former ruling class stole from the Cuban masses. Emma González has involved herself in American politics, not to push callous right-wing ideology and call anyone who doesn’t a traitor to her people, but to challenge the right-wing terrorist body that has made gun ownership a right-wing cultural marker and to keep her friends from dying. Emma González has taken the stage and left room for people who bear oppressions she does not to share in the attention she holds.
She and her fellow Parkland survivors are far from perfect. In their teenage revolt they have picked up some right-wing points of their own, and rightly been challenged over them. Maybe she’ll learn and grow a platform that doesn’t impose surveillance on people seeking mental health treatment or further glut American schools with racist cops. She has the right people around her to convey that lesson and go forward better than she was.
But in her, I already find hope.
In her I find the hope that my people will someday stop being the people who spent five decades mourning the turn of one violent authoritarian despot for another because the new one took things from them. In her, I find the hope that my people will stop being the blight in the American immigrant landscape they have been determined to be, filling South Florida with nascent fascists and obnoxious libertarians, wanting nothing more than the power to hurt others to better themselves. In her, I see the tide turning. In her, I see older generations finally fading far enough into memory that the new ones can see how much better things could be, instead of obsessing over a fantasy of what they were. In her, I see Cuban America finally figuring out who its real friends are.
My people have been defined by resentment. She brings us resolve.
It is not often I let myself feel hope. Hope has been cruel to me, and I do not trust it.
But in Emma González, I see the chance that my people can be better than we have been.
For that, I think I can let myself hope.
Goodbye, Marco Rubio. Hello, Emma González.