This article proposes to interpret Cuban-American autobiographical writing as a human manifestation of similar phenomena in nature, as explained through swarm theory. It does not quarrel with autobiographical theory for describing Cuban-American writing about the self; it simply suggests that swarm theory may strengthen such descriptive efforts. The plan of action is to (1) summarize the important features of the Cuban-American autobiography, (2) compare the results of such analysis with swarm theory and (3) illustrate how autobiographical and swarm theories coalesce in Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy.
Isabel Álvarez Borland offers us a good base line for studying the autobiographical texts of Cuban-American writers. In her book, Cuban-American Literature of Exile: From Person to Persona, she classifies her subjects of study into three categories: (1) Those who left Cuba as adults, (2) those who left the island as children, and (3) those who came as infants or who were born in the United States. For Álvarez Borland, the adult group is mainly concerned with their painful memories of a lost world. This is a generation that “displays indignation and anger toward the traumatic events or individuals causing the exile” (7). They write in Spanish for an exile community. She includes Reinaldo Arenas as part of this group. Next, she lists those individuals who “left Cuba during their early adolescence and thus had Cuban childhoods and US adulthoods” (7). Their main concern is fashioning an identity through autobiographical writing that will bridge their transition from adolescence to adulthood and from a native cultural environment to an adopted one. Álvarez Borland borrows this characterization from Gustavo Pérez Firmat—himself a member of this group—and his designation of it as the “one and a half generation.”[ii] This group writes in both languages for American or Cuban readers. Besides Pérez-Firmat, she includes Roberto Fernández, Virgil Suárez, and Cristina García. She also points to a significant difference among female members of this group. According to Álvarez Borland, the autobiographical essays of Ruth Behar and Ileana Rivero, explore other issues, such as female roles and lack of freedom in society. Álvarez Borland names the last group as "Cuban-American ethnic writers." She claims that they write, in English, simultaneously for American and Cuban audiences. They are not especially interested in the 1959 revolution and she adds, “[. . .] their search will be oriented toward issues of recovery as they set about the task of constructing a U.S. identity that very much needs to take into account their Cuban heritage” (9).
Álvarez Borland claims that, because of a linguistic and cultural break brought about by the 1959 revolution, these writers set about to assert their cultural identity and, particularly in the case of female writers, they engage in issues of gender and biculturalism (159). The autobiography seems their choice method for discovering and asserting their cultural identity. Because of their commitment to the autobiography, our long range interest centers on those Cuban American writers designated as the one-and-a-half and ethnic generations; although, for this article, my inquiry is limited to Carlos Eire.
Researchers of social behavior in nature have offered swarm intelligence as a theoretical approach for problem-solving applications in computer science, robotics and other self-organizing artificial systems. Swarm intelligence also offers the humanities a new perspective into inherited human behavior. Eric Bonabeau, an expert on emergent (self-organizing) systems of behavior among social animals, and a proponent of swarm theory,[iii] marvels over the abilities of social insects to perform tasks that are beyond the capabilities of any singular insect, or as he puts it, “[. . .] ants can collectively find out where the nearest and richest food source is located, without any individual ant knowing it” (Interview 1). As Bonabeau explains it, the social insect model does not offer anticipated or pre-defined solutions before initiating a particular problem-solving task, but rather the solutions emerge from the interactions of individuals with each other and with the environment.
Mitchel Resnick, in Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams, offers the example of a flock of birds sweeping across the sky in a straight line, but suddenly it turns right, then left. To the casual observer, the flock must be following the leader’s orders, as in a combat formation by a squadron of jet fighters. But, the problem with this assumption is that, in fact, there is no leader of the flock. As Resnick explains it, “Each bird in the flock follows a set of simple rules, reacting to the movements of the bird nearby it. [. . ..] None of the birds has a sense of the overall flock pattern” (3). Peter Miller in “The Genius of Swarms,” offers a streamlined, three-rule definition of what he describes as smart group behavior among social animals, “[. . .] decentralized control, response to local cues, [and] simpler rules of thumb [. . . .]” (146b). In other words, smart group behavior can be inferred whenever individuals, reacting to local stimuli, interact with the group with the simplest of means.
Out of these and other similar observations in nature, a broader scope for defining swarm theory has emerged. In their book, Swarm Intelligence, Kennedy and Eberhart suggest that the term “swarm,” as presented by Bonabeau, is too restrictive. These writers prefer to describe the group as, “a loosely structured collection of interacting agents.” They offer the following examples for explaining swarms, “traffic is a swarm of cars, a crowd is a swarm of people, an immune system is a swarm of cells and molecules, and an economy is a swarm of economic agents” (102).
As the definition for the swarm concept is broadened, it raises a question concerning autobiographical theory: Is Cuban-American autobiography a swarm of bilingual/bicultural minority writers? Naturally, it may not be very flattering to link our behavior to something resembling a swarm of bees or birds, but as Kennedy and Eberhart point out, social psychology has demonstrated for most of the twentieth century that we are “herding creatures.” They also provide their readers with a poignant distinction: Humans may not perform physical displays similar to those of non-human swarms,[iv] but socially-conditioned human thoughts may do just that (111). The thing to keep in mind, as Bonabeau suggests, is that the accomplishments of social insects “[. . .] can serve as a starting point for new metaphors in engineering and computer science” (Swarm Intelligence 8). It may be equally beneficial for humanists to consider that social animal metaphors may be used beyond technological applications.
Modern humans live in a complex world, where individuals do not grasp where societal changes may take them. Bonabeau suggests that they may find relief in technologies where “[. . .] autonomy, emergence and distributed functioning replace control, preprogramming and centralization” (Swarm Intelligence 22). Mitchel Resnick claims that “local interactions among decentralized components” have ushered a new era, where “[. . .] people are choosing decentralized models for the organizations and technologies that they construct in the world—and for the theories that they construct about the world” (Resnick 3-4). Resnick also cites decentralization of Eastern European politics, in business managerial structures, in scientific models for the mind and for computer science, and—most significantly for us—in literary criticism that credits the reader with the construction of meaning (4). In addition, it would not be a shock to designate literature as a primarily decentralized activity. What may be of particular interest, though, is the degree by which one can predict if such decentralized behavior by Cuban-American individuals, reacting to stimuli from other Cuban-Americans and from their environment, will lead to interaction with the Cuban-American community with an autobiographical response.
Carlos Eire and the autobiography
Georges Gusdorf, in “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” claims that the object of autobiography is simply a “man searching his self through his history” (39). By coincidence, in the Preface to his book, Carlos Eire engages his readers on the importance of writing what is saved in memory, particularly his personal experience with the Pedro Pan Rescue Program[vi] for Cuban children during the early years of the Cuban Revolution (xix). At the end of the book, in the Acknowledgements section, Eire reveals the reason that motivated the project. At Yale University he came into contact with three Cuban colleagues, Georgina Dopico-Black,[vii] María Rosa Menocal and Roberto González Echevarría. Carlos Eire then lists how they helped to cue him to his memory-searching project, “Each awakened me from the slumbers in a different way, but all brought to life within me the same three things: an awareness of the past, an ache for a [Cuban] future forever lost, and a hope for a [U.S.] future yet unrevealed” (386). This confession shows the importance of social interaction with other members of the group. Also in this section, Eire acknowledges his two sons and daughter for their contributions as engaged listeners of what he had written the previous night. Clearly, the implication is that they are part of the future Cuban-American community; consequently, “Because of this and an infinite number of reasons, all of which I pray God that you will find on your own, I dedicate this book to you, John-Carlos, Grace and Bruno” (507).
This kind of experience suggests that, when Cuban-Americans—particularly those of the one-and-one-half generation—come into contact with each other, they probably engage in an exchange of memories from their Cuban childhoods, and contrast them with later and present memories in the U.S. Encounters such as these become cues that open the memory door for an introspective look at the self. Once that is done, as in Eire’s case, their response is quick and autobiographic. Autobiography is the “[. . .] simplest of literary enterprises and the commonest of rules of thumb,” as James Olney assures us in “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment” (3). Therefore, whenever these writers are externally challenged by the cultural environment, they respond with a reaffirmation of the internal self as the way for reclaiming their cultural identity.[viii]
When Carlos Eire begins this introspective look at what his memory holds, he will zero-in on his childhood home life within the context of historical events in post-1959 Cuba. Among these experiences, one stands out: a bitter story involving his troubled family. Eire’s view of his family is colored by his resentment at not being able to enjoy a normal relationship with his father. He begins his narrative with, “The world had changed while I slept,[ix] and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me” (1). Thus, his narrative starts from the disruption caused by the collapse of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, an event that will frame his identity search, and it is mirrored by internal disruptions within the family. The implicit message is that as a child he was helpless to prevent those events. All of this, of course, is the reworking of an eight-year-old child’s memory by the adult autobiographer seeking to justify[x] his inaction throughout the period under review. Eire adds, “Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning” (1). He was a child then, at the mercy of others, and now he must deal with the consequences for himself.
If a troubled family life is the backdrop to his Cuban childhood, then the aftermath of having been sent with his brother to the United States will serve as the stage for his forced adaptation into U.S. society. From the outset, Eire introduces his parents as King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. It is quite clear that the object of his resentment is his father, whom he describes as aloof and distant from him. Eire repeats this sentiment throughout the text; such as, when Santa brings him his brother’s old bike, repainted, to the infinitely more serious matter of a legally adopted son with whom Eire had a mutually hateful relationship. As if this was not enough, the adoption is concluded against Eire’s mother’s wishes and only legally possible because of Eire’s father’s nearly omnipotent status as a judge. Furthermore, his father devotes himself to this adopted son to the detriment of his two natural sons. His relationship with his wife is also damaged and in time she will leave him to join her sons in the U.S. Several years will pass before he reunites with his mother, but he will not ever see his father again. For a short while before his mother arrives, Carlos and his brother find a home and some stability in their lives with an uncle’s family in a small Illinois community (194). However, when the brothers later are reunited with Mom in Chicago, he cannot help but feel alienated from his mother, not just because of their lengthy separation, but also because the brothers’ menial jobs keep them apart from her. Also, a physical handicap makes her unable to hold a job, and thus it places an additional economic burden on the two sons (i.e., Carlos Eire works full time while attending high school). He is not unhappy with his mother, but he is nevertheless examining how his forced exile from Cuba has impacted his life and, by extension, the lives of other Pedro Pan children.
Another aspect of his introspective look, leads him to consider his name. If he altered his name from Carlos Nieto to Carlos Eire[xi] (his mother’s maiden name), and if he ended up physically separated and/or emotionally distant from his parents, we can infer that this was beyond his control. He was just a child, not responsible for the actions by the adults around him. He clearly needs to justify his “self” as a boy and as a son cast from his family and country. As readers we can surmise his message: if Castro betrayed Cuba, Louis XVI betrayed his family. Eire’s pain comes through when he questions, “Father, Father, why did you abandon me?” (88). As a religious person, searching for God’s presence in his life, he gives this question a double meaning by capitalizing not just the “F” in the word “Father” that begins the sentence, but also the second one. Is the first “Father” standing for his biological father? One can only speculate. What is clear, though, is that his pain as an outcast from his family and culture is hurting him deep in his soul, and it causes his cry for God’s soothing compassion. Ultimately, the question he poses, then, is a cry for help for his self, writing about his life, filled with despair about family, God and nation.
Eire also offers his readers a view of a Cuban society that is strongly influenced by American popular culture, including birthday parties where “Happy Birthday,” was sung in broken English (70), where games included cowboys and Indians (71), where Cuban boys played with David Crockett trading cards (101) and with toy soldiers from Woolworth’s (123). He also regularly went to see American films (207), and often played imaginary scenes in his head[xii] about the film The Vikings (216). He understands the value of these components of Cuban popular culture, and we can assume that initially they helped with easing his entry into American popular culture and later fashioning a Cuban-American identity.
His search for clues to his cultural identity does not stop with the American influence in the island. He also dwells on native Cuban social customs. Prominent targets for his critique are Cuban notions about preventive health measures. He cites the beach outing as a good example. He deplores how much the family feeds him at the beach, yet expects him to stay out of the water for three hours so as not interfering with the food’s digestion (139) all the while they are engaged in a stone-throwing battle-contest resulting in a bloody nose for his adopted brother (143). This writing exercise in the autobiography serves Carlos Eire as an exploratory tool in his search for the cultural components of his bilingual/bicultural identity.[xiii]
Cuban-American cultural sociology
Jeffrey C. Alexander, in The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology, analyzes how expression through ordinary language can help people to reflect on an experience that may be traumatic for them, even when that may not be the case for others. As he puts it, the experience can be “[. . .] an abrupt and unexpected, sometimes not even particularly malevolent, experience of social transformation and change.” The important thing is that the individual is taken by surprise and is traumatized by it. He adds that this “language of trauma” is used on behalf of the individual and the collectivity to which they belong (85-86). Therefore, when political and family factors cast both brothers out of Cuba, a “trauma process” (Alexander 93) was initiated that involves separation anxiety and ultimately leads to their marginalization as “spicks” (Eire 344). It must be remembered that children of immigrant parents routinely have to endure what Carola Suárez-Orozco, in “Immigrant Families and Their Children: Adaptation and Identity Formation,” calls a wide range of negative stereotypes which force them to respond either by overcoming the obstacles, as Eire does, or as may have happened to his brother, by giving up and accepting their inferior status (Suárez-Orozco 135). It is important to point out that the typical situation faced by immigrant children, as presented by Suárez-Orozco, does not adequately describe Eire’s predicament. It is universally accepted that they came from the middle and upper echelons of Cuban society, and thus were not bringing with them socio-economic attributes that would condemn them to the typical immigrant ghetto. The most distressing aspect of Cuban children entering the U.S. under the Pedro Pan Program was that, in most cases, they were unaccompanied by parents or adult relatives. As Carlos Eire tells us, they were subjected to precarious and short-lived housing arrangements where a stable home environment was the exception, and where camp-like facilities, at times plagued with shortages or inadequate food, were often the norm (Eire 126-27).
Suárez-Orozco states that the “[. . .] urge to define oneself vis-à-vis society” (137) is greatest during adolescence, but as Alexander points out, “collective actors,” as the role in which Eire, the writer, seems to be performing, can exhibit a time gap between the traumatic event and its later manifestation as an adult, writing for the Cuban-American community. Alexander adds that the group does not actually experience trauma, but rather it links its group identity to a perceived wrongful act. Collective actors “represent social pain” as a means for demanding “[. . .] emotional, institutional, and symbolic reparation and reconstitution.” (Alexander 93). Thus Eire recognizes that he is no longer the same person he was:
Eventually I acquired English. It’s mine. I bought it word by word on credit, the American way. And English owns me, too. I think in English; I even dream in English, except when Louis XVI shows up. Spanish stopped growing and is now a homely, misshapen dwarf. An all-wise and almost mystical dwarf, keeper of the keys to my soul, but a dwarf nonetheless. (350)
Here Carlos Eire bears his soul to the pain that bilingualism/biculturalism often inflicts on the adolescent: the anxiety of not fully belonging to either culture.[xiv] His new troubled identity is the result of having been exiled from his childhood home, and not being able to claim his cultural legacy (248). His memoirs are a denunciation of those responsible and are meant to serve as a collective cultural legacy to his children and to the Cuban-American community.
Traditional critics of the autobiography have pictured the genre as motivated and responding to the individual’s concerns; however, as we have seen, Carlos Eire’s efforts in fashioning a new identity in the United States, is best explained by more recent autobiographical criticism. As previously stated, Susan Stanford Friedman, Nancy K. Miller and others have raised significant objections to Gusdorf and other critics who had championed the modern individual as the true autobiographer; namely, that the self-bio-writing genre, as written by female and, in this case, by Cuban-American minority writers, is a tool for fashioning a collective identity. Such dynamic relationship between the individual and her/his social environment has become a major line of research in psychology. In a 1993 study, Levine, Resnick and Higgins reached the conclusion that social interaction is the basis for all mental activity (604). Kennedy and Eberhart also cite further psychological research which indicates that all of the three major components of memory—transactive memory, the content of memory, and collaborative recall from memory—are strongly dependent on social interaction.[xv] Thus, when Carlos Eire searches his memory for those experiences that define his identity, he brings forth shared experiences that help shape a Cuban-American identity.
There are other Cuban-American autobiographies by the one-and-a-half generation that need to be analyzed in terms of swarm theory as a way for strengthening the hypothesis of a connection, but they are not included here due to the preliminary stage of this study; however, other such narratives are under consideration as follow-up to this work. Mirta Ojito’s Finding Mañana, offers an excellent opportunity for exploring the subject. Hers is a text that traces the author’s background during her Cuban adolescence, her departure from the island during the Mariel exodus, and her efforts to create a new identity in the United States while searching for the boat captain who had brought her and her family out of Cuba. Will Mirta Ojito’s narrative show that the “Others” in her identity are different from the “Others” in Eire’s identity? That is the theoretical question posed by Nancy Miller; namely, if it is possible to differentiate in terms of gender how individual identity is linked to the “Others” in group identity (18). If so, how would swarm theory help in establishing such measurement? In addition, analyzing writing strategies among Cubans living in other countries (i.e., Manuel Díaz Martínez in Spain), may further support this line of study.
[i] Isabel Álvarez Borland states that Cuban-Americans, who write outside of Cuba, have to “rely on their own experience as inspiration for their writings, hence the predominance of autobiography and autobiographical fictions tracing these writers’ struggle to understand themselves” (157).
[ii] Read Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s own words concerning this generation in Life on the Hyphen, p. 4
[iii] Eric Bonabeau credits G. Berie and J. Wang as the first to use the term “swarm intelligence” back in 1989 (Swarm Theory 277).
[iv] However, Resnick does offer “the wave” events in sporting arenas as a good example of human self-organizing behavior, where the individual with minimal interaction with other individuals accomplishes a unique group (flock) display (131).
[v] He is the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin (1986); From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth Century Spain (1995); and co-author of Jews, Christians, Muslims: An Introduction to Monotheistic Religions (1997), plus numerous scholarly articles.
[vi] See Yvonne Conde’s account of the untold story of a secret operation that resulted in the exodus of 14,048 Cuban children.
[vii] Carlos Eire does not explicitly identify his Cuban colleagues at Yale University, but there is no question that he means Menocal and González Echevarría. There is a little uncertainty with regard to Georgina Dopico-Black. In 1995, she earned a Ph.D. at Yale University, but she is currently teaching at New York University. It can be assumed that she was in a temporary teaching capacity during her Ph.D. work at Yale.
[viii] In another section of his book named, A Conversation with Carlos Eire, the author claims that the Elián González affair was the “most immediate trigger” for writing the book (389). This would be in keeping with autobiographical theory, which supports the notion of a trigger-type of event (Weintraub 20a).
[ix] The reference, of course, is to Fulgencio Batista’s fleeing Havana while the city slept in the morning hours of January 1, 1959.
[x] Weintraub offers a range of possible subgenres of the autobiography. At one end of this range, he designates the kind of autobiography that reflects a purely internal view of the self, as in St. Augustine’s Confessions. At the other end of the range he places the autobiography that exclusively reflects the external actions of the self, as in the res gestae. He then places the self-justification slightly toward the “pure” autobiography (19b).
[xi] It is interesting to note that in his academic publications his name is listed as Carlos M. N. Eire; whereas in his autobiographical text under consideration here he lists his name as simply Carlos Eire.
[xii] Furthermore, the film’s murderous story about competition between a son and an adopted son parallels Eire’s own story (220), and by his confession of wanting to murder his adopted brother (221).
[xiii] Eire is very conscious of language issues. One example is that in the original English language edition, he numbers his chapters in Spanish, while in the Spanish translation he numbers them in English.
[xiv] But he considers himself lucky when compared to his older brother, whose professional, physical and emotional life in the U.S. has not been successful (162). He, contrary to his unfortunate brother, has a family, a career, a room in his house decorated Havana 1958, and he keeps a table in the shape of a boomerang (379-380).
[xv] The three components of memory are: (1) transactive, or shared memory, as when a husband and wife jointly recall different parts of an experience; (2) content, is made up of social actions and experiences, unless the individual has been isolated unnaturally from others; and (3) collaborative recall, characterized as when the individual anticipates, acts upon and has full confidence in the group’s consensus for recall and for course of action.
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