Review: A Cuban-American Novel on the Pain of Living in Two Worlds

By Madeleine Blais

Make Your Home Among Strangers

By Jennine Capo Crucet

St. Martin’s Press, 399 pp., $26.99

Make Your Home Among Strangers tells the story of Lizet, a young daughter of Cuban immigrants. She has applied to the prestigious Rawlings College in secret, thinking her family would be thrilled at her admission.

Like all young people, Lizet imagines herself to be a shiny new coinage, but eventually she discovers she is not as original as she thought:

Like any good first-generation college student, I planned to follow up my biology degree with a stint at med school, followed by whatever came after med school, followed by me opening my very own clinic back home, where I’d see everyone for free and give kids shots without making them cry.  It was a good plan, one I believed in even after I heard it come from the mouth of almost every other student at the Diversity Affairs orientation meeting.

This lively, sharply observed, and often humorous novel shows what it is like to suffer from “bilocation,” to feel as if you belong to two places at once, a kind of geographic bigamy. Readers of the author’s previous collection of short stories, How to Leave Hialeah, can now look back on it as the template for this richer, more mature work.

Lizet’s first few months at Rawlings are rocky. They include a hearing at which she is accused of plagiarism, jeopardizing her continued enrollment.

She has to appear before a board of stern elders who take into account that she attended “an underserved high school.” Lizet figures this was “a nice way of saying a school so shitty that the people at Rawlings had read an article about it in The New Yorker.

That isn’t so far off the mark. The narrator remembers a few great teachers from her pre-college years (Teach for America recruits who hung around after their two years were up).  Most, however, were more like the honors world history teacher who believed in a curriculum that alternated silent reading with movies like The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, and the entire Roots miniseries.

Lizet hadn’t planned to go home for Thanksgiving. (In Cuban-American culture, it is a confusing American holiday, featuring bland, heavy food and Pilgrim outfits),  But her classmates keep talking it up and Lizet blows her savings just so she can surprise her family.

They are more offended to see her than joyful – a reflection of their overall unease about Lizet’s decision to seek fame and fortune at a school so far away. (As her father puts it, “reading books all the time on a four year vacation.”) If she had married her high school boyfriend and gotten pregnant (in either order) or gone to Miami Dade or Florida International University, her parents might have been more supportive.

The home she came back to was now a fractured place.

Lizet’s father took his anger at her leave-taking as permission for him to leave as well. He sold the family home, forcing his now-divorced wife and Lizet’s older sister Leidy, unmarried, with baby Omar, to move from Hialeah to an apartment in Little Havana, which was a demotion.

Little Havana is, as the narrator says, “more reffy,” an adjective that is pure area code 305, meaning filled with refugees who are obvious as awkward newcomers.

Once home, dying to tell her mother and her sister about her troubles at Rawlings, Lizet senses, rightly, that they have little interest in her current life. So she sticks to superficial information about her new school: it has the best salad bar in the Northeast!

Lizet does not confide the degree to which she feels like an awkward newcomer herself.  At college, when she discovers that she qualifies for federal aid in the form of work-study, she ignores that line in her information packet, thinking it might mean she has to join the Army or perform some other governmental duty.

She can’t believe the tutoring sessions at the Learning Center are unlimited, finally deciding to sign up for as many as possible, figuring they were like those free perfume samples at the mall.  Eventually, with enough of them, you might actually have a full bottle.

Lizet resists telling her family that up north her lifelong nickname of El has been thrown out the dorm window and her roommate Jillian has rechristened her as “Liz-She’s-Cuban,” and that well-meaning new friends try to build bridges by telling her how much they enjoyed reading The House on Mango Street in AP English.

Lizet finds it hard to speak “Rawlings” and to understand references such as “legacy student” and “Middlebury.”

What keeps this novel from being either a standard coming of age story, or worse, a woe-is-me-I-got-a-great-education-but-didn’t-always-understand-the-new-and-challenging-terrain-of-privilege, is the brilliant way the author weaves the story of Lizet with that of Elian Gonzalez, barely disguised here as Ariel Hernandez.  On the very day Lizet arrives home, little five-year-old Ariel is found at sea.

The story of Elian in brief: On Thanksgiving Day 1999, a five-year-old boy who escaped from Cuba on a raft with a group that included his mother and her boyfriend was found alive by a fisherman who at first mistook him for a doll. The others all perished.  The myth soon arose: he had been kept afloat and guided to safety by dolphins and angels.

Elian became an instant symbol for many Cuban Americans.  It helped that his rescue coincided with the Christmas season, resulting in his inevitable conflation with the Christ child.  For many Cuban Americans, a child arriving in the United States on his or her own struck a deep chord.

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, many families, believing rumors (allegedly spread by the CIA) that Castro and his operatives had plans to kill children and eat them alive, sent their offspring to the United States on their own as part of the Pedro Pan exodus.

The American Catholic Church helped place the children with guardians and in schools where many were eventually reunited with family members.  For a certain vocal segment of Cuban Americans, freedom, even in the absence of family, is better than life and/or death under communism.

What seemed like common sense to Elian’s Cuban American supporters – keep him here, for goodness' sake, his mother died trying to make that wish come true – was interpreted as lunacy by others.

The further from Miami, the more lunatic it seemed.  After all, the child had a living, involved, competent, and caring parent in Cuba—and a telegenic one, at that – who wanted him back.  It was an easy case, unless you were Lizet’s mother or her compatriots.

In the novel, young Ariel’s arrival inspires hysteria in Little Havana, where relatives of the child clamor to take him in.

Lizet’s mother finds herself more and more involved in the boy’s redemption, showing up with placards at demonstrations, speaking on his behalf to the media, and eventually even losing her job to devote herself to “la causa.”

Leidy tells Lizet that their mother has forgotten her own relatively undramatic story of arriving in America and now believes that she and her two girls reached America on a raft and that her milk dried up at sea, turned to dust.

When Lizet returns to Rawlings after Thanksgiving break, the school puts her on probation, saying part of her problem is that Hialeah Lakes High School did not foster a “culture of success.”

Lizet’s college classmates are as riveted by the living telenovela of Ariel/Elian as everyone else. Lizet finds their views of Cuba condescending and misinformed. Kids at Rawlings hang up Che posters “not knowing that most Cubans know him as a murderer; they talk about the excellent health care system in Cuba,” not believing Liz/El when she patiently describes her mother’s monthly care package of “antibiotics, Advil, soap, Band-Aids, and tampons to my aunts who still live over there.”

Lizet loses it when a student says she “feel[s] like” Ariel “needs to go back, get back to his life, to his school and stuff.”

You feel like? Let me tell you, what kind of life do you think he’s going back to in Cuba? Tell me. You really think he can go back? He can go back to school and say to the kid next to him, Oh in Miami I had a puppy and I ate steak every day and we had soap and toilet paper and freedom of speech and the air inside the building was freezing cold? You really think Castro’s gonna allow a liability like that on his island? In a place where the news is censored? You’re telling me that can really happen? After how good he’s had it here?

The Ariel/Elian story provides not just the backdrop to the novel, but a crucial competing plot. Both children, Ariel and Lizet, lose their mothers in different ways.     

While Ariel tries to make his home among strangers, Lizet tries to figure out how she now fits in at home, where suddenly everyone treats her like a stranger, owing to her time away at a fancy college – where she is also lost, a stranger in a strange land.

So many Americans live in two worlds: one they were so uncomfortable in that they felt a need to leave, and a new one that they never quite fully fit into.  In the end, Lizet’s wistful wish is that all along she had known the one hard truth as she “pushed through one choice over the other, how little it mattered which side I was betraying, how much it would hurt either way.”

Madeleine Blais is Professor of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where serves as Honors Director in Journalism. She won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing while on the staff of the Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine and she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

She is the author of The Heart is an Instrument, a collection of journalism, and In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle, which was chosen as a finalist in the category of general nonfiction by the National Book Critics’ Circle. Her memoir Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family was selected by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) for its annual “Ken” book award and was also chosen as Massachusetts Book of the Year.

For eighteen years she has been Director of the Williston Writer’s Workshop Series at the Williston Northampton School, bringing in prominent writers to present to students and the public four times a year. She is also a faculty mentor in the Goucher College low-residency Masters of Fine Arts in Nonfiction program in Baltimore.