The central theme at the heart of Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers is that of questioning what constitutes—and what can become—a “home.” As Lizet Ramirez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, prepares to leave her hometown of Miami for her first year at the prestigious Rawlings College in New York, her home life crumbles: the house she grew up in is sold, her parents suddenly divorce, and her family scatters. At college, Lizet finds herself pulled back towards Miami several times throughout the year as a national news crisis concerning a five-year-old immigrant from Cuba threatens to tear her family apart even more. Throughout the novel, Lizet is forced to reimagine what home is, and to wonder, as she watches her family struggling just to survive in Miami, whether the city was ever really a home for her. Ultimately, Crucet’s argument about what constitutes home is folded into her novel’s title: one must often make a home out of nothing and among strangers, discarding all previous conceptions of what home means in the process.
As the book unfolds, Lizet returns to her hometown of Miami three times throughout the school year—and, with each trip, feels the distance between her hometown as she remembers it and as it actually is widening. Lizet is reorganizing her concept of “home” and coming to terms with the uneasy idea that one’s home must often be made or constructed. This arduous becoming reflects the journey of Lizet’s own parents, Ricky and Lourdes, who made their home among strangers in a new country after escaping the dangers of Cuba many years ago. “They had carved their names and address on me, and I would come back,” reads the epigraph to the novel, taken from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. With this, Crucet begins the novel on a note of foreboding and promise, and shows throughout the text how Lizet is pulled home to Miami again and again, even as she is struggling to make a new home for herself, independently from her family, up at Rawlings. Lizet is the first member of her family to attend college, and is doing so with little emotional or financial support from her family. Her parents see her decision to leave home as an emotional betrayal and a financial burden, while her older sister Leidy—a single mother raising her infant son with no help from the child’s father—sees her sister’s ambition as an indictment of her own life choices. When Lizet returns for Thanksgiving in order to surprise her family, she quickly realizes that her presence in Miami is not a celebrated homecoming, but rather something that adds to the tension her fractured family is already experiencing. Lizet doesn’t feel at home in Miami anymore—least of all because her mother and sister have moved into one shabby apartment while her father has moved into another. Both the physical and emotional atmosphere of Lizet’s home have evaporated, leaving Lizet feeling stranded, alone, and indeed homeless. Moreover, Lizet finds that she cannot even communicate with her family in a way that feels familiar. Her sister criticizes her “white girl” speech and her mother, preoccupied to the point of obsession with the story of Ariel Hernandez—a five-year-old Cuban refugee whose mother died on the boat over to Miami, leaving Ariel at the mercy of the US immigration forces—is too distracted to even try to ask Lizet simple questions about how school is going. Lizet begins to wonder whether her home has changed, or she has—a question which will pursue her throughout the novel as she travels back and forth in search of the feeling of home.
Lizet has trouble making a home for herself at college, too; though the smartest girl at her hard-knocks Hialeah high school, Lizet is woefully underprepared for university academic protocol and has become embroiled in a plagiarism charge that threatens her standing within the school, making her feel reluctant to even try to call the place home for fear she could be kicked out at any moment. Lizet struggles socially, too—her roommate, Jillian, always introduces Lizet as her “Cuban” roommate, making Lizet feel othered and uncomfortable for reasons she can’t quite articulate. Lizet only feels at home at college on a few rare occasions; one night, she is invited to dance party, and takes advantage of the chance to dress up as if she is going clubbing in Miami. At the party, though, Lizet has trouble enjoying herself, and finds that she cannot replicate the experiences of her home in her new East Coast college town, surrounded by her new college friends. She is stuck in a remote place between two ideas of home, neither of which really make her feel safe, seen, or supported.
In the end, Crucet does not go easy on Lizet—or her readers. Lizet’s next two trips home, for Christmas and for Easter, mirror the first trip in that her family continues to grow apart from one another while Lizet becomes increasingly desperate for the trappings of her home and her childhood, even as it becomes evident that though she can return “home” to Miami, she will never be able to truly return home again. Ultimately Lizet must distance herself even farther from home both physically and psychologically in order to make a new “home” for herself; when she takes a coveted internship position in Santa Barbara, California instead of traveling home to Miami for the summer, she abandons one home in hopes of making a new one among strangers—just as her parents did when they came to America from Cuba so many years ago.
Home Quotes in Make Your Home Among Strangers
Even to someone from Hialeah, Little Havana was a joke back then, the part of Miami only the most recent of refugees called home, a place tour buses drove through, where old Cuban men played dominos for tourists and thought that made them celebrities. But none of these geographical distinctions mattered at Rawlings. There, when people asked, So where are you from? and I said, Hialeah, they answered: Wait, where? And so I gave them a new answer: Miami, I'm from Miami. Oh, they'd say, But where are you from from? I was from from Miami, but eventually I learned to say what they were trying to figure out: My parents are from Cuba. No, I've never been. Yes, I still have family there. No, we don't know Fidel Castro. Once I learned what I was supposed to say, it became a chant, like the address I'd memorized but didn't think of as home.
—So our decision to place you on probation is based on things like that, [Dean Geller] said, which taken all together means that we think your old school didn't foster something that we're calling a culture of success. […]
The old man […] half barked, What she's trying to say is we believe you sincerely didn't know better. You haven't been given, at any point in your academic career prior to coming here, the tools to know better. So yes, you are guilty, but you are also blameless, and so that requires a more nuanced penalty.
—Lizet, we feel strongly that, having admitted you, it is our responsibility to help you succeed. And we see no better place for you to do that—
—Remaining at Rawlings, the old man interrupted again, is the fastest way we can see you overcoming these deficiencies.
The balding man and Dean Geller shifted in their chairs, and Dean Geller fixed her eyes on the old man until he met her glare. She seemed embarrassed for me, but I felt humiliated enough on my own, though I didn't really understand why.
I was exhausted and very near tears, actually. I was shocked to find that it did not feel good to be home, to have seen her standing there in the airport. The entire three hours of the last flight, though I’d been nervous about seeing her, I mostly felt very happy to be getting away from Rawlings and that first semester. But spotting her before she saw me in the terminal—in that fake gold outfit, her face oily, her hands fidgeting with the rings on her fingers—had made my stomach turn […] I'd seen my mother in that moment as not my mother; I saw her as a tacky-looking woman, as the Cuban lady the girls on my floor would've seen, alone in an airport. And I did not like that I suddenly had this ability to see her that way, isolated from our shared history.
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.
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.
Mostly I was disappointed in Leidy and Omar for not recognizing what was really going on with Mami: she was becoming her own person finally, trying to learn who that even was via a newfound passion. So maybe she’d retrofitted the circumstances of her life to fit in to her new surroundings. So what? I of all people couldn't fault my mom for having the wherewithal to adapt her behavior, for being a creature thrust into a new environment and doing perhaps exactly what it took to survive there.
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.
I already know what each would say should I ever have to tell them about an upcoming research trip to Cuba: my dad would talk about being a little disappointed in me, about the unfairness of me being able to travel to a country he can't enter, but he'd mostly not say anything, only leave me guessing at his meaning […]; my mother would bring out familiar words—betrayal, loyalty, traitor—words that have come to define our relationship no matter how much time passes but whose sting has faded and turned into something I can manage […].
To tell them would also mean inviting them along in a way. We still have family there. […] And when I tell them there'll be no time for that, that this is a work trip, that I'll mostly be on the water, in or under a boat, that what they want me to do takes me clear across an island I don't know: Oh, I see. You don't have time to take a piece of paper and a crayon to your grandmother's headstone? You don't have time to do that for me who will never see it? Oh, that's right, of course you don't. I should've remembered how busy you always are. I shouldn't have even asked.