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Back to Blood

We learn in Tom Wolfe’s recent novel, Back to Blood, that in Miami, Florida, white Americans refer to Cuban immigrants derogatorily as “Canadians.”

As a Canadian from Canada, I am curious as to why this might be. The suggestion is that Cuban immigrants escaped an oppressive regime in their homeland and have fled to America, the land of freedom and opportunity, in the same way that, a hundred and fifty years ago, African-American slaves escaping from oppression in the Deep South sought refuge in Canada, thereby becoming Canadians. Canadians are the ones who got away.

It’s not an exact analogy, of course. Post-revolutionary Cuba is hardly analogous to the American South before emancipation. William Styron, grandson of a slave owner, made the point in Havanas in Camelot that nothing in human history is analogous to American slavery, not even the Holocaust. Slavery “was not remotely like the Jewish Holocaust, [which was] of brief duration and intensely focused destruction…” Slavery was also focused, but it persisted in the American South for 250 years.

It’s true that runaway slaves looked to Canada the way Cuban refugees look to the United States. Slave narratives recount how Southern plantation owners painted lurid pictures of the terrors and deprivations suffered by blacks who had escaped to the North, but they weren’t believed. Canada was the Promised Land. In Ishmael Reed’s satirical novel, Flight to Canada – in which the American Civil War is seen through the eyes of slaves – Canada is a lotus land so desirable that it assumes mythic, and therefore unattainable, proportions. When Arthur Swille, a white slave owner (who once had his guest, Queen Victoria, flogged for concealing a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her room), asks his house slave Robin, “What have you heard about this place up North, I think they call it Canada?”

“Canada,” replies Robin, carefully, no doubt thinking of Queen Victoria’s fate, “I do admit I have heard about the place from time to time, Mr. Swille, but I loves it here so much that I would never think of leaving here. These rolling hills. Mammy singing spirituals in the morning before them good old biscuits. Watching ‘Sleepy Time Down South’ on the Late Show. That’s my idea of Canada. Most assuredly, Mr. Swille, this is my Canada.”

Meanwhile, four of Swille’s slaves have run away, heading for Canada.

For Cuban refugees, floating for weeks on oil-drum rafts in the Caribbean, Florida is Canada. Perhaps, when the survivors get there, they are less enamored of their Promised Land than when they had set out. Some observers, speculating on the cause of the unexpected swing of Cuban-Americans to voting Democrat in sufficient numbers to have given Florida and its 29 electoral colleges to Obama in the recent U.S. elections, have suggested that exposure to Canadian Snowbirds may have imbued Cuban exiles with a sense of the possibilities of living in a true democracy, with higher wages, better housing, and universal Medicare. This, the theory goes, made them unreceptive to the Republican vision, which had them standing in line until 1 a.m. to exercise their democratic right to vote.

If that’s true, Cubans in Miami weren’t really voting for Obama, they were voting for Canada. In a sense, that would make them Canadians.