Ariel Hernandez, a five-year-old Cuban immigrant, symbolizes the ways in which immigrants’ experiences, opinions, and histories are twisted for personal, political, or ideological gain. Although Ariel becomes in many ways the emotional and political epicenter of the novel, he has no role in its action—he is infantilized, politicized, judged, and used by every major character in the book without having any say in his own story.
Ariel, whose mother attempted to bring him to America but died in the crossing, is found floating off the coast of Miami by fishermen. Paternal relatives in Miami take the child in and insist that he should stay; as the months wear on, however, his father back in Cuba petitions for his return, and the United States government becomes the decider of one boy’s fate. As the U.S. government takes up Ariel’s case, so too do the citizens of Miami, desperate for him to stay. To them, Ariel is more than one boy—he symbolizes their collective experience, the hope for an escape from the brutal regime in Cuba, and the possibility of a happy ending for so many still toiling under a dictatorship.
Ariel Hernandez’s case closely mirrors the real-life case of Elian Gonzalez, a young Cuban boy who came to Miami in a similar way to Ariel, and whose father, back in Cuba, did ultimately succeed in getting his son back. The case was extremely divisive, and the Miami community was torn apart by the painful, emotional spectacle that culminated in a border patrol raid on the apartment where Elian was being sheltered by Miami relatives. Elian, too, was denied agency in his own case; when in America, any picture of him smiling was said to have been manipulated by his paternal relatives to make it seem like he was happy, and when he returned to Cuba, given a hero’s welcome, any joy he expressed back in his home country was said to have been manipulated or forced by the Cuban government.
In using Ariel’s story (and Elian’s) throughout her novel, Jennine Capó Crucet constructs a powerful central symbol that points out the hypocrisy and cruelty inherent in peddling, dramatizing, and scrutinizing a child’s story—or the story of anyone who either cannot speak for themselves or is not given the space, freedom, and respect needed to do so.
Ariel Hernandez Quotes in Make Your Home Among Strangers
—You're too connected to the whole thing.
I tossed the book on the desk behind me and said—too loud and leaning too far forward—What the fuck does that mean, connected? I'm not fucking related to the kid.
—Don’t get ghetto, Liz, she said. I'm just saying that, no offense, but as a Cuban person, you can't really expect people to believe that you'll be completely rational about this.
She held the water bottle loosely now, between only a couple fingers. I tried to match her ease by leaning back in my chair.
—I was born in this country, I said, not knowing what point I was trying to make.
I righted my chair and tried again. I said, Look, I would argue that I - I can speak more intelligently about this than you because I know more about it than you ever could.
—Wow, she said, her water bottle heading back to her mouth. Let's just leave that there before you get any more racist.
The fourth or fifth time [Leidy] accused me of acting white was the afternoon of my second day home, when I told her how, when I'd gone to pick up Dante from daycare, the girl ranked ninth in my graduating high school class was there, working as a teacher's helper and five months pregnant with her boyfriend-turned-fiancé’s kid. Without really thinking about it, I told Leidy that seeing that girl there was depressing. I think my exact words were, It just really bummed me out. She’d said, What the fuck is bum you out? Jesus, you sound so freaking white. […] I'd hurt her feelings without realizing it, which, based on my time at Rawlings, felt to me more white than anything else I’d done since being back […] My inability to get as upset as my mom about Ariel's possible deportation made me for the first time worry that Rawlings could change me in a way that was bad.
—You don't know shit about sacrifice. You don't know shit about shit!
—Zoila's right, you only care about Ariel because what else do you have going on?
She shoved me again and the room spun […]she was letting me fall. So I reached back instead and caught myself, slid my hands against the sandpaper of the wall, pressed my spine against it and sank to the ground, my butt hitting the floor too fast and too hard.
—You can go to whatever college for as long as you want, but about some things, you'll always be fucking stupid, she said.
She tossed the paper at me on the floor and said, You think you have problems? You, your sister, your idiot tía out there? You made your problems.
She turned her back to me and walked out of the room, screaming as she left, Nobody has any idea what Ariel and Caridaylis are going through right this second, but I do. I know what it means to lose so much. None of you know shit because you haven't sacrificed shit for anyone. Selfish pigs, that's what you and your sister are.
The grades in bio and chem meant that I'd done so well on the finals that I'd counteracted my earlier failing mid-term exam grades, but the B-minus in my writing seminar meant both that I'd done well on the final paper and that my professor had shown mercy. I latched on to that last aspect—mercy—and instead of basking in the idea that these grades were a huge accomplishment, I sobbed: they'd all let me off easy. I remembered the tone of my hearing and thought, They want to keep their Cuban above water for another semester. […] But almost as quickly, another fact pushed that feeling away: the exams in the chem, bio, and calc courses were graded blindly—we were assigned ID numbers, and only those appeared on our answer sheets. So those scores were, in a way, pure.
Her version of our life made me more Cuban than I technically was, degrees of Cuban-ness being something I'd never thought about until Rawlings, until the Where Was I From From question. Mami's invented version made me a more authentic Cuban, and part of me wanted to hear her tell it. I wanted to see how she pulled it off—if she had to convince herself before she could convince anyone else, or if just saying something and having people believe it could make it real.
I felt in that moment the power he held and wielded by accident. He was more than a cute little boy. I had the very strong desire to carry him myself, to fold him into a little ball that fit in the circle of my arms. Hidden behind the pebbles of his baby-toothed grin, you sensed a loss so profound it made anyone want to hold him, to cradle and rock him and say you were so sorry, over and over again. For so many people there, he was a mirror, some version or idea of yourself, some Baby You, fresh off a boat or a plane and alone but still hopeful that what's been set into motion around you is just fine.
[…] Did you see that? There’s something so special in her. God bless her, she is trying so hard.
[…] My mom knew I was the first student from Hialeah Lakes to go to Rawlings even though she never acknowledged it. In the grand scheme of human achievement, I recognize this is not a big deal, but still, when I eventually showed Mami the acceptance letter and pointed out the handwritten note near the bottom stating I was the first, she’d said, Maybe you’re just the first one who ever applied? […]
—Mom, I said. It's not the first time someone’s taken care of a kid. I mean, I get it, but it's not like what she’s doing is actually that hard. She's – she's a glorified babysitter.
She released my arm, almost threw it back at me. Her now-shut mouth, the way she rolled her shoulders to push out her chest, the ugly flash of a tendon in her neck: I knew then this was the wrong thing to say. I didn't even really believe it, but I needed to say it to her. I was trying hard. What I was doing was fucking hard. My mom stared at me so long that her eyes seemed to shake in her head.
I slapped my own chest and yelled, Why don't you watch the news and figure it out yourself like I did?
—That’s why you're mad at me? EI, what the fuck were you gonna do from up there?
I pointed at him and said, Exactly, Omar! That right there, what you just said? That's exactly why I'm here. To fucking do something since you and Leidy obviously didn't.
—Oh! Okay yeah, he yelled. So now you know how to handle everything, huh? You got it all figured out, don't you. You think you're so fucking smart.
He threw the car in reverse, shook his head as he turned the wheel. I'd made it halfway up the concrete leading to my dad's door when Omar lowered the passenger-side window and yelled my name, made me stop.
—Whose fault is it that you weren't here, huh? Maybe you need to think about that.
—We get the news, you know, up there […] do you have any idea how the rest of the country is seeing this? I'm tired of it. We look like a bunch of crazy people.
—What's with this we crap? he said. I'm not with her, you're not even here.
—We as in Cubans, I said. He smiled with only one side of his mouth. He laughed again.
—You're not Cuban, he said. This hurt me more than anything else he could've said—more than Who cares what anyone up there thinks, more than Like there’s anything coming down here is gonna do—and I think he saw it in my face, saw how impossible what he’d just said sounded to me.
—Don't look at me like that! he said. You're American. I'm wrong?
—Yeah, I said. I'm—what do you mean I'm not Cuban? I was born here, yeah, but I'm Cuban. I'm Latina at least, I said.
—Latinos are Mexicans, Central Americans. You're not that either he said.
—What? Dad, are you—other people think I'm Cuban.
He stood up from the bed and moved out through the door, leaving me alone as he said, Okay, sure you are. Whatever you say, Lizet.