Marketing and Communications

Peña traces forbears of Miami gay culture in ‘¡Oye Loca!’

It is hard to conceive of a ragtag band of flamboyantly homosexual Cuban men as the progenitors of Miami’s prominent and wealthy gay population. But as Dr. Susana Peña found, these mostly poor, stigmatized men in all their flouting of societal norms were at the root of the gay culture that has come to be so inextricably associated with the city, and especially its South Beach neighborhood.

Peña tells the story of Cuban gay men who came to the United States as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift.  They faced discrimination because they were Marielitos, and because they were ostentatiously gay.

These locas, as Peña refers to them in her new book, “¡Oye Loca! From the Mariel Boatlift to Gay Cuban Miami,” presented a big challenge for both the Cuban and U.S. governments. The Cuban government was eager to get rid of potential dissidents but also feared the public perception of so many Cubans wanting to leave the island. If the U.S. government chose to exclude them due to their sexuality, the locas could not return to Cuba. However, mainstream America and many Cuban Americans considered this group “undesirable,” and they were scorned for their openly “gender-transgressive” behavior, as Peña describes it. Their presence touched off a maelstrom of conflicting beliefs and ideologies that forced the city and the country to confront their basic premises.

And all this was in an election year, particularly bad timing for then-President Jimmy Carter, points out Peña, director of the School of Cultural and Critical Studies and an associate professor of ethnic studies.

Published by the University of Minnesota Press, “¡Oye Loca!” began as an examination of Miami in the 1990s as America’s epicenter of gay culture. As Peña’s research progressed, it became clear that that culture began with the Marielitos, who changed forever the staid if slightly dilapidated neighborhood of her childhood. Having grown up among elderly Jewish immigrants, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, and some Cuban American families, Peña remembers when the character of southern Miami Beach began to change.

“It was a very tense time in Miami,” she said. “New immigrants were arriving, the economic situation there was not strong, and the city was changing in many different ways.”

The locas represented a “very different way of being Cuban, or Cubanidad,” Peña said. It became normal to see men with dyed hair, dressed in women’s clothes, on the streets and in the stores. “They challenged the daily life of the city,” she said.

Escaping from the harsh repression of the Cuban revolution, which viewed effeminate men as products of bourgeois capitalism, and attacks by the Castro regime, the men perhaps imagined a life of free expression in the U.S., Peña said. Instead, they were met with disapproval not only by the American public and politicians, but even by more conservative gay men who were offended by their refusal to abide by accepted norms of male behavior.

Peña also argues that while the locas were not typically political activists, their very behavior in the face of such condemnation constituted a political act.

As her study deepened from personal interviews with Miami residents in the 1990s and conversations with those who lived through the Mariel time into archival historical research, Peña became more convinced of the central role played by the locas in defining Cuban gay culture. However, credit was only very grudgingly acknowledged by her research subjects, who still seemed to want to distance themselves from the “undesirable” population.

“I was struck by the silences around the Marielitos,” Peña said. “Men of all generations did not want to talk about Mariel.”

“Susana Peña carefully and sensitively excavates through layers of historical and cultural abjection in order to persuasively demonstrate how the loca’s stigmatized exilic trajectory is intimately connected to the advent of a Cuban American gay culture,” wrote Martin Manalansan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign of “¡Oye Loca!”

Aimed at students in Latino, gender and sexuality, LGBT, immigration and ethnic studies, “¡Oye Loca!” provides a look at a complex moment in American history and its unlikely heroes.

(Posted October 21, 2013 )