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Forgive Nuñez's Freudian slip. She momentarily mistook Cubans for some minority

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Wilfredo Lee
/
AP
Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez speaking in Little Havana earlier this summer.

COMMENTARY As record numbers of Cubans come across the U.S. border alongside "illegals," it's perhaps getting harder for Cubans in Miami to set them apart.

The woke mainstream media think Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a Republican Cuban-American, recently said right-wing GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis is set to bus even Cuban migrants to Delaware if they’re undocumented.

OK, maybe that is what literally came out of Nuñez’s mouth on Miami Spanish-language radio last week. But it was actually a Freudian slip — one I had to reach back 22 years to understand.

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The day before Easter in 2000, Cubans in Miami erupted in sometimes violent anger on the streets of Little Havana to protest the feds’ seizure of six-year-old Elián González. At one point I waved away the police tear gas long enough to ask one demonstrator: Why?

Why the petulant insistence that international child custody law (most Cuban-Americans, you’ll recall, were furious about Elián being returned to his father in Cuba) somehow didn’t apply to them? Why were they now throwing rocks at cops after they’d left the feds no choice but to raid the house of the little boy’s Miami relatives and whisk him away?

“Because,” the young Cuban-American man told me through the choking haze, “we’re not going to tolerate being treated like some damn minority.”

READ MORE: Immigration Incoherence: Havana keeps pouring the whine, Miami keeps fermenting it

As a journalist relatively new to Miami at the time, it took me hours if not the next few days to process that.

At first it sounded, well, admirably defiant. Cubans had chafed under their share of anti-Latino bigotry here; Miami-Dade County had only recently repealed its law mandating government business be done solely in English. A lot of Cuban-Americans believed they were, as many kept repeating during the Elián drama, “as persecuted as the Jews” or Black Americans.

Except they weren’t. Which is why I realized that what that young Cuban man was really telling me was this: “We’re white, too.” Not Latino — not “some damn minority” — so how dare America treat us as if we’re anything less privileged than that.

To understand Nuñez's gaffe, I had to reach back 22 years, to the moment when a Cuban-American protester advised me he wouldn't "tolerate being treated like some damn minority."

And who could blame him for feeling that way?

Since they began arriving here en masse in the 1960s to escape the communist dictatorship in Havana, Cuban-Americans have been anything but “as persecuted as the Jews.” Jews fleeing Nazi genocide being turned away by the U.S. in 1939 — after their ship had first been snubbed by Cuba — that’s what “persecuted as the Jews” means. Cubans, in stark contrast, enjoy a Cold War fast-track to U.S. legal residency — until a few years ago they only had to set foot on dry land here — that desperate migrant groups like Haitians can only dream of.

It’s why so many Cuban-Americans have come to consider themselves something other than, something whiter than, Latinos. And it’s why by extension they’ve long considered Cuban migrants something light years apart from other Latin American and Caribbean migrants: entitled refugees, not invading “illegals.”

JOSÉ MARTÍ OPTICS

That is, perhaps, until the past few years — when the lion’s share of Cuban migrants are showing up not by sea in Florida but by desert in Texas. And this is where Nuñez’s radio rhetoric discharged that subconscious slip.

When Cubans come here by boat or raft, it carries a certain heroic cachet. Even the 125,000 who arrived in the 1980 Mariel boatlift — a horde whom many first-wave Cuban exiles still look down their noses at — were eventually issued their enemy-of-Castro credentials.

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Christian Torres
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AP
Cuban migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border at Texas.

But the record number now coming by foot, alongside all those “illegals” from Central America? The optics just aren’t as José Martí, y’know? No matter that they too are fleeing Cuba’s political repression and economic depression. It’s just too hard to tell them apart from Hondurans and Salvadorans and Guatemalans. It is, bottom line, just a lot harder to set them apart — the way that protester in Little Havana demanded Cubans be set apart 22 years ago.

Which helps explain why Nuñez, the daughter of a first-wave Cuban exile, made her gaffe while talking to Cuban-American radio host Augustin Acosta — himself a reactionary disinformation-monger who never misses a chance to tell listeners that President Biden is letting millions of “illegals” into the U.S. to make them Democrats and replace white Americans.

You see, when Nuñez said DeSantis was itching to boot those Cuban migrants out of Florida once they arrive here, she was just unconsciously mistaking them for some damn minority.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.