The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

What Castro Could Not Achieve: Cuban émigrés Conform to Life in Exile

Friday, January 18, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Rose M. Perez, PhD, Assistant Professor, Fordham University, New York, NY
BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: Enduring nearly 50 years of exile and an ever-receding return date to the island, older Cuban Americans define how they cope with ongoing angst toward the frozen personal and political relations with their homeland. As the political standstill between Cuba and the U.S. continues, the collective emotional nostalgia of Cuban-American émigrés continues. This nostalgia is exhibited in artistic and social media and yet runs with concurrent patterns of resilience in a manner yet to be studied Cuban exiles who left at the start of the revolution and who witnessed dramatic life changing as their homeland changed toward communism. Although immigrants have been described as experiencing “homesickness” throughout history (Matt, 2011), the terms ambiguous loss or unresolved grief (Boss, 2007, 2010) more accurately describe the complicated experience of Cuban American exiles who long for a country accessible only in shared memories. Ambiguous loss is theorized to affect immigrant groups but has yet to be studied systematically. In this research, the importance of understanding the coping mechanisms employed in exile by a nonclinical sample is explored.

METHODS: In-depth interviews with a purposive sample of 11 men & 9 women, 65 years and older, in New York / New Jersey, who left Cuba between 1959 & 1979 were conducted using a phenomenological approach. Participants recruited using snowball sampling techniques were asked open-ended questions for 90 minutes or longer about the experience of leaving Cuba and their adaptation to the U.S. MAXQDA software was used to code details, interesting quotes, and arrive at the invariant coping themes.

FINDINGS: Data showed clear patterns of positive adjustment, coping and resilience, though specific coping mechanisms and styles varied widely across participants. Interestingly, positive coping coexists alongside a thick curtain of unending nostalgia for a once idyllic homeland whose desired return to a democracy does not appear likely in their remaining lifetimes. Participants were generally able to describe both nostalgic accounts and also forward-looking coping—demonstrating they have both the ability to mourn ongoing losses for which there is no closure and also positive adaptation to current and future life events. Asked about the future of Cuba, all participants discuss a remarkable sense of never-ending hope and a pride for their Cuban roots and culture that they feel Castro could never take away from them. Several participants expressed an extraordinary sense of unending loss that defines most every aspect of their existence and yearn to return to their homeland if it changes back toward a democracy.

DISCUSSION: Themes involve an appreciation for the service needs of older Cuban American adults and have significant social work implications regarding forms of collective trauma and loss, which could affect similar displaced groups. Policy analysts and practitioners by understanding the pervasive nature of ambiguous loss and by appreciating the struggles involved in coping can be better positioned to help those affected. The research community can extend the literature on this understudied topic including improving the methods by which ambiguous loss is measured and extending its generalizability to other populations.