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Rachel Pohl '11
Rachel Pohl '11

Rachel Pohl '11 Studies Assimilation of Cuban-Americans

By Allison Eck '12
Posted July 2, 2009
Tags Student Research
As President Obama eases travel restrictions between Cuba and the U.S., curbing the tension between the two countries will become a priority. The conflict dates back to 50 years ago, when Cubans flocked to America following Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. The exodus forced immigrants to reshape their core beliefs, and caused both countries to become engulfed in changing attitudes. Rachel Pohl '11 will work with Assistant Professor of Women's Studies Anne Lacsamana to study how assimilation affects an ethnic group's philosophy and perspective. She is primarily interested in the differences between Cuban feminism and Cuban-American feminism, and how these changes came about. 

Pohl arranged to conduct most of her research in Florida, where she has already begun interviewing second and third generation Cuban-American feminists. Although her target age range is about 18-30, Pohl has met a handful of older women. One woman spent most of her life in Cuba before fleeing to Miami with her husband on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. For her, the difference between the two countries must have seemed enormous. 

For many of the men and women who left Cuba during the Revolution, life in America was far better than back home. In Cuba, only American tourist markets were stocked, while the shelves in the Cuban markets were empty. Life in Florida afforded a higher standard of living, even if their new pleasures were seldom and scarce. The drastic changes applied to their lifestyle altered the face of feminism. 

"In Cuba, women of poorer backgrounds did not have time to soul search or think about gender equality because they had to think about basic survival and putting food on the table for their families," Pohl said. "From my interviews so far, many Cuban women don't see eye to eye with feminism, because in their opinion, it is too American and bourgeois." 

Furthermore, Cuban-Americans relished the American mantra of individualism and choice. As with many women of color, both Cuban and Cuban-American women could not understand why white women in the United States were so bent on achieving equality in the work place. Cuban-Americans were nowhere near as concerned with the right to work as they were with the right not to work. Feminism for Cuban-Americans not only grew, but it worked itself around a new environment, while bearing in mind what they had carried with them from their home country. 

Pohl says that the American experience also transformed familial relationships. The concept of "machismo," or masculine superiority, was translated into American society. However, the idea is slowly disintegrating. Fathers have begun to take a more active role in the family, when previously they had considered themselves immune to any kind of domestic duty. Their views on fidelity have also changed – cheating was acceptable in Cuba, but not anymore. 

Hypocrisy and contradiction are not uncommon in Cuba, but Pohl says that this is typical of their culture. She remembers one interviewee said she was punished as a child for bad grades, but when she went to graduate school, her mother told her not too get too educated because then she wouldn't attract men. Women also have access to free abortions, which comes as a shock, given women's submission in a "machista" culture. But Cubans feel that abortion services are necessary to keep the population down and prevent unwed mothers. 

Pohl says both the U.S. and Cuba should acknowledge each other's customs and policies. 

"I don't think that many people examine relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and how that affects women," Pohl noted. "It's timely because of what's happening with Fidel and Raul right now, and it's so entrenched in Florida." 

Pohl is considering graduate school after Hamilton. She is also leaving for Madrid at the end of the summer for the Academic Year in Spain – a program that is coordinated in conjunction with Williams and Swarthmore Colleges. The program is in its 36th year and aims to give students a chance to become fluent in the Spanish language and in the culture and history of Spain.

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