The question of what it means not just to immigrate to a new country, but to assimilate into the fabric of one, is a central part of the narrative of Make Your Home Among Strangers. Lizet, who was born in America, struggles in her hometown of Miami with feelings of being not Cuban enough; at Rawlings College, though, as one of the few students of color there, Lizet’s “Cuban-ness” (and therefore, on the predominantly white Rawlings campus, her otherness) is constantly pointed out to her by her white peers—especially as the story of Cuban refugee Ariel Hernandez grips the country, and Lizet’s peers alternately beg her to offer her “authentic Cuban” opinion on the matter, or dismiss her as being too close to the situation to comment on it objectively. Set against the sprawling, emotional legal battle for Ariel’s protection on American soil, Make Your Home Among Strangers examines the toll that both immigration and assimilation take on individuals, families, and larger communities. Crucet ultimately argues that immigrants—and their children, whether born in their family’s old country or their new one—will be pressured almost nonstop either to assimilate or to resist assimilation. It is at the confusing intersection of these two directives that Crucet’s protagonist finds herself.
Crucet uses her characters—many of whom are first-generation immigrants—to highlight the cruel sacrifice demanded of all immigrants: leave your country, family, and heritage behind and seek a new life, or risk danger and violence in order to stay in touch with the familiar and remain loyal to your roots. Lizet faces this crisis on a much smaller scale—as a first-generation college student, she is being made to choose between her own edification and advancement and her loyalty to her family and her hometown. In choosing to attend college—and not just any college, but the prestigious, far-flung, mostly-white Rawlings—she is decidedly pursuing a course of assimilation. Her parents, Ricky and Lourdes, both refugees, see their child’s choice as a betrayal. In their eyes, Lizet is abandoning the Cuban-American community in Miami to go on to bigger things, and in doing so is choosing a path that will no doubt estrange her from her culture at least to some degree. Lizet longs for more than her family has; in seeking it, she takes a path that she knows will wound them, but sees a liberal arts education and, by proxy, assimilation into the American intellectual mainstream, as the surest way towards her dreams.
Lizet’s family, meanwhile, is caught between the desire to assimilate and the desire to remain loyal to their culture, community, and heritage. Lizet’s mother has recently moved to the Little Havana neighborhood, which Lizet feels is a parody of a Cuban neighborhood; when tour buses drive through, Lizet believes that the Cuban men playing dominos on the street are performing for the tourists in a way, confirming other people’s (white people’s, namely) expectations and in this way both bringing their culture to America and warping it, making it more palatable, by putting it on display. Lizet’s sister Leidy chastises Lizet for speaking like a “white girl” and putting on educated airs, not realizing that her sister, up at college, is held up as a token student of color and often introduced as “Cuban” before anything else. Lizet’s family condescends to her, believing she wants to assimilate and leave them—and her culture—behind, but don’t comprehend the ways in which Lizet will always, in some spheres, be othered, singled out, and prevented from doing just that. The tension between Lizet’s family’s perception of her choice to assimilate and the fact that Lizet alone realizes she will perhaps never quite be able to demonstrates the immense amount of pressure immigrants face. Lizet comes to realize that even in putting her cultural and familial obligations on the backburner, she will still be called upon to speak for all Cubans—and her family—in the mostly white arenas to which her career will take her.
During a visit with her father on one of her trips home to Miami, Lizet’s father tells her she’s not Cuban—she’s American. The confused Lizet struggles to understand how this can be; at school, she is the Cuban girl, the authority on all things Miami and all things Ariel Hernandez. She attempts to explain this to her father—“other people think I’m Cuban,” she says—but her father seems weary and unwilling to debate the matter. Lizet feels pulled in two directions, just as so many immigrants eventually do. Not Cuban enough for her father but so noticeably “other” at her hegemonic East Coast college, Lizet must choose whether to assimilate even further or to try to wind her way back into her roots, even as her own parent suggests she is firmly an American. Through Lizet, Crucet demonstrates the often unattainable, unassuageable pressures immigrants face in their new homes.
Immigration and Assimilation ThemeTracker
Immigration and Assimilation 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.
[…] I started to tell anyone who asked that Omar was a monster. He was an animal—more like an animal than a human. It seemed like what other people wanted to hear. […] Other girls would feel bad for me and claim they understood: the girl who'd made everyone hot chocolate, Caroline, even went so far as to mention she'd read The House on Mango Street in AP English. She said she knew about the kinds of relationships that plagued my community, had nodded in a solemn way when I told her yes, Omar could be rough. […]
I was happy to have something to add to those late nights in the dorm's common room when I was otherwise quiet, to be included in conversations even if I didn't totally understand the part I was playing. When everyone around you thinks they already know what your life is like, it's easier to play in to that idea—it was easier for me to make Omar sound like a psycho papi chulo who wanted to control me. At the very least, it made trying to make friends simpler than it would've been had I tried to be a more accurate version of myself.
—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.
—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.
As much as I was ashamed of my hearing results, by what that long letter stated the committee had decided—that I was the product of a poor environment—I willingly took it: I wanted to be at Rawlings, and I was grateful that they'd taken my background into consideration. I wanted to rise—I used exactly that word in the thank-you e-mail I wrote to the committee after printing out the resource list—to rise above what I'd come from. I'd felt sick as I typed it, felt like a traitor after I hit send, but now at the clash of my mom's bangles as she turned the steering wheel to cut off a car in retaliation for them cutting her off moments before—all the while lowering her window, her arm extending out, then her middle finger at the end of that arm, waving a fuck you as she yelled the same phrase in Spanish at the driver—I knew I'd meant it.
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.
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.
I didn't want to see myself anymore—I recognized it as exactly that, even at the beginning of it, when I couldn't name it: Lizet playing a part. I'd thought a shirt from Leidy's clubbing stash would cover me by not covering me, would turn me back into El, but I was separate from her now, aware I was putting her on, and that colored everything. Omar was grabbing my wrists to stop me from running away again.
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.
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.
—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.
I almost threw the whole thing out. This is too hard […].
But we all know the history, and I'm sure my vote was never counted. I'm sure it sits—even now, probably in that state's capital—in some vault, the envelopes unopened, the paper moldy and dank […].
I wish I'd known as I sat there hovering over that radiator-warmed punch card—having waited until the postmark deadline to commit a decision to it; the little pin that I'd detached from the instructions, which mandated I use only that tool to puncture the spot that proved where my loyalties lay, slipping in my sweaty hand—how pointless it would be. I wish I'd known that no one would ever see it or count it. I wish I’d known, as I pushed through one choice over the other, how little it mattered which side I ended up betraying, how much it would hurt either way.