In this Nov. 2, 2010 file photo, Republican Marco Rubio, left, stands with his mother Oria Rubio, in Coral Gables, Fla. Rubio is fighting allegations that he embellished his family's history by saying his parents were Cuban exiles.
"Ghosts of the Past"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
October 27, 2011
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
The strength of Marco Rubio's exile story isn't in the dates
The years from 1956 and 1959 might seem, at first glance, to be irrelevant to the 2012 presidential campaign. But in those three years, Fidel Castro finally overthrew the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. By 1961, Cuba was a self-declared Marxist state. The rest is history. Not exactly. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is already being considered a Republican vice-presidential candidate, had to admit last week that his family's narrative as exiles from Castro may be a little misleading.
Not exactly. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the conservative prodigy who is already being considered a likely Republican vice-presidential candidate, had to admit last week that his family's narrative as exiles from Castro may be a little misleading. His facts were wrong. His parents fled Cuba in 1956 for the same mundane reasons many immigrants come to America: a better life, economic opportunity, and freedom. Life under Batista was no picnic, after all.
Much political significance is being given to Rubio having suggested his parents emigrated later, after Castro's takeover, and the possibility that Rubio's moment in the sun has now faded. Rubio may either have been careless or stupidly misleading. Or he may have never cared. But his error in the specific dates should not minimize the impact of his family's more universal exodus narrative, a mythic and vague narrative that is familiar to many Americans.
Family history, especially for the children of immigrants, is often more about a narrative than just facts. Rubio was not particularly focused on the details. His understanding, as he wrote in Politico.com, was that his parents were exiles from Cuba, a country they left and could never return to permanently because of Castro. They settled in America seeking, over the years, permanent status. This made them exiles, like the thousands who would flee Cuba after Castro came to power.
And, a decade later, Marco Rubio was born a US citizen. What has subsequently ensued between Rubio's office, the Cuban exile community, and various newspapers has been a series of accusations about not only Rubio's honesty, but the meaning of Castro's takeover in 1959. Can Rubio still claim familial exile status when it's now clear that his parents left before Castro came to power?
Rubio's parents were exiles, the exact date of their departure notwithstanding. I just returned from Florida where those familiar with Rubio and the exile community mocked any suggestion that Cubans who left before the start of Castro's seemingly endless reign were less than real exiles. To not be able to return to a country of one's birth, whatever the reason for leaving in the first place, has a deep meaning for Cuban-Americans. It also had meaning for the Rubio family, and an impact on Rubio's political beliefs.
An exile purity debate is not as distasteful as the more race-baiting "birther" debate that still, thanks to Donald Trump and some percentage of the Republican presidential electorate, surrounds President Obama. But the questions about Rubio's authenticity are equally unseemly. It is, indeed, no small irony that the birthers may have turned on the Republicans as well; the whole scandal broke based on an investigation from a birther blogger who wanted to double-check Rubio's constitutional qualifications to be president.
For those of us like Rubio, the children of an immigrant generation that turned its back on the past, embracing America and the future, the gaps in facts are something we accept as part of the family narrative. My family left Lebanon for reasons and by means that have long been forgotten, or simply not related. I do not know under what strange circumstances several of my mother's siblings ended up being born in, ironically, Cuba en route to America.
While verifying family tales for this column, in fact, I discovered that the often-told story of my family's arrival through Ellis Island was just mythology created and passed on by the very people who had lived the experience. An enterprising brother-in-law recently discovered the truth: They had entered through a less glamorous port.
Rubio might have considered the soundness of relying on a family story that surely had changed over time. And the likely future national candidate could use his considerable cachet in denouncing elements in his own party who continue to question the presidentís own personal story.
But the story of Rubio's family is not one that can simply be fact-checked. The gaps in the details are not by accident. The adventures that brought our families here are not about specific boats or dates. They are a different, vaguer, narrative of why they came to America, and why they stayed.
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