Miami by Joan Didion

Meanwhile the construction cranes still hovered on the famous new skyline, which, floating as it did between a mangrove swamp and a barrier reef, had a kind of perilous attraction, like a mirage.”


Miami.  My hometown and current city of residence.  To many people, Miami conjures images of Scarface, Miami Vice, and the Cocaine Cowboys. Miami in media seems to be stuck in the 1980s as tropical drug-infused “Wild West.” 

I was born in the early ’90s, shortly after the end of the heyday of the Cocaine Cowboys.  My mom’s family is Cuban, as were a lot of kids in my classes.  In school we learned about the Native Americans who lived in Florida, the Spaniards who built forts made of coquina rock, and how Flagler built the railroad that connected us to the rest of the United States.  Nobody really talked about how Miami was established or how it grew to become a booming international gate-city to Latin America. 

Last year, Joan Didion’s book caught my eye at our local bookstore: Books & Books. The burning orange and pitch black colors on the cover reminded me of a Miami sunset behind darkening palm trees. I had read Salvador and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and appreciated her straightforward reporter’s tone that let the well-researched facts signal what the reader should feel.  They weren’t easy books to read, but they were interesting (and at least Salvador was very short). 

The first couple of chapters instantly drew me deep into Joan Didion’s vision of Miami, almost as through a time-machine.  Miami’s character felt familiar, but the facts were all new and astounding, as if Joan Didion’s Miami in the ’80s was a rowdy pretentious college student with anger issues, and my Miami had calmed down, grown up, and inherited his family’s lucrative business.  

Joan Didion’s Miami is like a mirage, a city surrounded by water, heat, and such wild stories that when you finish the book, you wonder if any of it was true.  It’s like the feel of Miami in Scarface, full of fuchsia sunsets, gunfights, and zinging techno music. 

This is Miami, even the Miami of today.  Rumors, or chisme, is a natural characteristic of anyone from Miami.  It’s comfortable and expected.  When you hear someone is talking about you, you talk to everyone else about it.

Short on memory?  Joan Didion was the first to tell me about the McDuffie riots, a shameful and violent moment of Miami’s history.  Why had I never heard about it?  Why does nobody talk about it?  I thought segregation was something that belonged to the South, and Miami is NOT considered the South.  When I lived in Tallahassee, I was shocked to see multiple instances of racism and the clear segregation.  I was glad to be from Miami where I didn’t see that, but I hadn’t been paying attention. 

Joan Didion says, “On my first visits to Miami I was always being told that there were places I should not go.  There were things I should and should not do.”  I remembered when I began driving, everyone told me to not drive through certain areas, but I never realized why.  Nobody talked about the reason this was such a reiterated caution. 

In 1979, Arthur McDuffie was killed by white police officers.  The police officers were acquitted by a jury, of which black citizens were excluded, in the summer of 1980.  After the riots in Liberty City, Overtown, and the Grove, eighteen people had been killed.  “[E]ight of them whites who had driven down the wrong streets and had been stoned or doused with gasoline and set afire.”  Race tensions erupted, and those killed were white and black. It’s like I had found the origin story of the advice I had been given; however, it feels shoved down, hidden, like if we don’t discuss it, we don’t have to come to terms with it. We just avoid it.

It’s not the only thing we avoid about our history.

Since reading the book, I’ve talked to several other Miami-born people my age and hardly anyone had heard of the McDuffie riots.  When I would ask people who lived in Miami in the ’80s about it, they would all answer with, “Yeah…you didn’t know about it?”  How could I if we don’t discuss it?

From Miami, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the history of the United States.  Hardly anyone in Miami truly feels American.  As Joan Didion described the Mariel exodus, which overshadows the McDuffie riots in our collective memory, “Some were American citizens and some never would be, but they were all Cuban first, and they proceeded equally from a kind of collective spell, an occult enchantment…”  In my classes, we had talked about the history of the U.S. as if it belonged to someone else, everyone else in this country, but not us.  I came to believe that Miami was a town of mostly swamp-people until the Cubans came and built everything.  That was wrong.  

Maybe it’s the Cuban mindset.  We consider ourselves different, separate from the Americanos.  Our collective history doesn’t mention the McDuffie riots or the history of Miami before the 1950s.  Our history, as it was taught to my generation, begins with Batista and continued with our collectively held breath waiting for the Castros to die.  The “collective spell” and “occult enchantment” of Cubans was aptly described by Joan Didion: “from that febrile complex of resentments and revenges and idealizations and taboos which renders exile so potent an organizing principle.”   Even now thirty years later, Cubans focus on Cubans – mostly the community in Miami – not on the entire history of this city that is our home and its context in patterns echoed through the United States, such as racism. 

This is not to mean that Cubans are separate from the divisive politics permeating the United States. True to the descriptions in Miami, we always have to have opinions. The policies, arguments, and politicians may have changed from those in the book, but one thing has not changed in seventy years of the Cuban presence in Miami.

The rest of the book delves deep into the motivations, thirst for revenge, and the discussions of endless intellectualism of Cubans of the 1980s in Miami.  At least, those seem to be the only Cubans Joan Didion mentions.  She describes assassinations and explosions of anyone deemed a communist, but to me, the book had lost the magic of the beginning when she talked about mirages and descriptions of forgotten Miami history.  Even Joan Didion seems to lose herself in the constant Cuban obsession of political theories.  

bibliotrips photo

It seemed like Joan Didion struggled to push out of the strong undercurrent made of trick mirrors that were political theories and resentments in Miami.  

Reading the book, I felt I learned so much of Miami history that should be included in our current discussions.  I loved her imagery of mirages and trick mirrors, even though I think Miami’s atmosphere has cleared as it has grown into its own personality, one of permanent residents, not just exiles.  Maybe our Miami now has become too boring for Joan Didion, but it still carries scarred vestiges of these histories in her book.    

I am proud to be from Miami and of Cuban descent, but perhaps discussions of the past of our city, such as those mentioned in Miami, could be better used to inform our present.

A song for Miami: Blinding Lights by the Weeknd. I recommend listening with the song on loud while driving around your city imagining all the debauchery of Miami in the ’80s and fuchsia sunsets.

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