The World That We Knew: How Cultural Memory of Cuban-Americans and Chilean-Swedes Serves as an Argument for a Spatial Turn of Memory Studies

December 19, 2022
By: Sjamme van de Voort

Mural in Hammarkullen, Sweden. "Natura" by Sebastian Amaya a.k.a. Charquipunk.

Although the piece that is about to unfold here is about my past studies of Cuban migrants in Miami, Florida, as well as my current studies of Chilean migrants in Gothenburg, Sweden, neither Cubans nor Chileans will be its protagonists. The central story here is the structure of the stories that migrants tell about the past, how these narratives generate powerful cultural frameworks, and then the big question about how we can approach these kinds of questions from an academic point of departure.

In 2021, I defended a PhD thesis which began its journey when I was a BA student of history at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and I encountered what I thought of as a hole in the theoretical framework of the course “Uses of History”. During the seminars, we were presented with frames of analysis to approach historical references in contemporary discourse. The focus was, always, on the message containing the historical reference. From the mention of resistance movements against German occupation during WWII in speeches by prime ministers arguing for Danish participation in the Iraq war; imagery of 17th century Danish kings on beer bottles, applying comforting nationalist tropes to drinking culture; and warriors from Sparta in epic Hollywood productions about a clash between an imagined white, civilised Europe and a dark, barbaric Middle East. During the initial seminars of that BA course, I could not understand how a memory scholar with any degree of certainty could make assumptions about the value or role of a given memory in society, without involving the participation of recipients of that memory in the investigation in a methodologically structured manner. This question continues to be the driving force behind my work today.

During my PhD research on Cuban migrants in Miami, I developed a theoretical and methodological framework to build an investigation of cultural memory as a process taking place over both time and space. In order to understand this approach, the first step should be to exchange the notion of truth with the notion of power. The origin story of the nascent field of memory studies is often told with a mention of Maurice Halbwachs and his conceptualisation of the term collective memory. In short, Halbwachs moves the faculty of collecting, storing and retrieving memories away from the individual, and places them in the social dynamics of a collective of individuals. Little over half a century later, Jan Assmann expands on this notion by asking what happens to those memories when they live their lives in that collective, leading to the assertion of the need for a term for those memories that are given a certain status within the collective, as they are written down, carved in stone, composed into songs, performed as rituals – all practices that require the collective to designate certain individuals as so-called ‘high priests of memory’, entrusted with the true interpretation of these memories. In this framework, we can now begin to see glimpses of power. Both J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series as well as Andrew Marr’s A History of 20th Century Britain contain important thoughts about twentieth century England, but only one of them has the power to get you through a history exam. This example might perhaps seem a little arbitrary, but if we transfer its premise to the cases of statues of confederate heroes, set up during the historical context of the civil rights struggles in the US South, these lines of power suddenly become endowed with power of real world consequences.

Illustration from: Hans J. Lundager Jensen’s “Religion, hukommelse og viden – Jan Assmann, med udblik til Durkheim, Rappaport og Augustin

Since the writing of history, and thereby the canonisation of cultural memory, was instrumental in building a revolutionary state on one side of the Florida Straits as well as in the foundation of the Cuban-American diaspora on the other, this work included studying a wide range of sources. Seen as a process, the study of this cultural memory included various steps. This meant that I had to study, first, an origin story of cultural memory, rising from a counter-memory to a hegemonic force in Cuban society. What were first academic theses on how Cuban history inevitably led to the insurrection 1953-1959 and the following revolutionary government, became canonised as obligatory curriculum in history lessons on all levels of the Cuban educational system, as well as far beyond

Following this step, I needed to understand how cultural memory was wielded, and thereby study the activation of this canon at what Walter Benjamin has called “a moment of danger”. When around 125,000 Cubans fled by boat during the 1980 Mariel Crisis, the Cuban state press could swiftly generate wall-to-wall coverage that framed the crisis in the light of a circular historical trope of repeated struggle against foreign invaders coupled with the revolutionary trope of overcoming this circle by having ‘true’ Cubans facing off against those framed as non-Cuban, non-human and, worse of all, ahistorical beings. 

These two steps of the investigation are based on archival sources, and give an understanding of cultural memory in the migrants’ home country. However, the final, crucial step of the methodology rests on the analysis of oral history interviews conducted with people who have been subjected to the mnemonic discourses above. The choice to conduct this step of the investigation among a diaspora has two main advantages. As an analytical approach, it gives an insight into how cultural memory and the wielding of its many elements, is an elemental aspect of diaspora cultural, social and political life. In terms of theoretical and methodological considerations, research into cultural memory in diasporas exposes not just another layer, but an entire new dimension of the concept, as migrants are forced to imagine their pasts not just across time, but also across space. The reference par excellence here, that takes these thoughts from their particular case study to a general thesis on diaspora culture, must be Immanuel Kant, who defined imagination as the human faculty to make the absent present. 

The spatial dimension, that every study of migration naturally has at its core, is one that is also fundamental for understanding Cuban and Cuban-American history, as the Cuban-American diaspora very much played a part in the very formation of Cuban national identity. During Spanish colonial rule, especially the last part of the 19th century, large groups of workers from Cuba settled in Florida, as manufacturing of raw materials from Cuba moved there. Francis Sicius has written about how, in 1896, a group of Americans succeeded in getting the train station along which they had settled to be recognised by Florida officials as a city called Miami. Among its 700-800 residents, there was a small group of Cubans. Decades later, when Miami began to take shape as a city in the 1920s, it did so with one eye on Havana. Not only were streets given names after Cuban people and places, buildings designed to look particularly Spanish, but even building materials were imported from Cuba, where people earned good money by stripping their houses of old tiles to be sent to the new city. The work of Louis A. Pérez is full of further examples of this shared and reinforcing historical processes. The key point here is that Miami was Cuban long before the revolutionary government took power in Cuba in 1959, and recurring waves of migration came to the city that was already part of the national narrative.

1959, with the instalment of the revolutionary government in Havana, together with 1961, when the failed US-backed invasion at Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs, play not only a the role of temporal symbols, indicating a rupture in time, but also as a rupture in Cuban and Cuban-American space. Whereas several of my interviewees could tell stories of travelling back and forth across the Florida Straits, as if in one big Cuban space, their stories become fractured both in time and space after the turning point of 1959. This narrative is not only repeated in history books, but is all but omnipresent in the urban space of Miami. The nostalgia towards a Cuba before 1959, the condemnation of political forces in Cuba after 1959, and the celebration of those who opposed or overcame oppression in Cuba is the guiding trope in everything, from memorials and rum commercials to cafés and street names. All tell the same three part story of a glorious pre-1959 Cuba, the disaster of 1959 and 1961,  respectively, that led to the Cuban presence in Florida, and finally the politically laden message of a ‘Cuba libre’, that can be achieved, only if you follow a certain political agenda – the latter more often than not being closely related to the US Republican Party. As in a song with Frank Sinatra, the refrain of Cuban-America seems to repeat: “Over and over I keep going over the world we knew.”  

The paradox at hand here is that the Cuban nation was diasporic before it was fully conceptualised as a nation. Inter-Caribbean and inter-American commercial activity, especially directed towards the United States, along with displacement during the rebellions for independence and neo-colonial dominance by the United States were among the main factors that spread people from Cuba across the eastern US, with particularly concentrated centres in Florida and New York. When state borders became more fixed and the political interests of the United States and Cuba came into conflict on a state level, the trans-national nationalism survived, albeit side-by-side with nationalism that limited identity with state borders. In my interviews, remnants of this nationalism can be found explicitly expressed in the interview with Rafael, as he says: “Nací en Cuba, en el Vedado, en una geografía. Pero incluso yo tengo una teoría de que todos los cubanos somos cubanoamericanos.” [“I was born in Cuba, in Vedado, in a geography. But even I have a theory that all Cubans are Cuban-Americans.”]

Another interviewee, the artist Yovani, told me a story about how he himself aspired to live a life of independence, creativity and progressive values, but that: “…no me puedo sustraer de una realidad que es muy fuerte. Una realidad muy fuerte.” [“…I cannot escape from a reality that is very strong. A very strong reality.”] What Yovani here called a ‘reality’ is what Jan Assmann would call a canon: a series of authoritative signs out of which he reads himself into a historical narrative. Again, it is hard to overstate the omnipresence of these signs in Miamian urban space. Yovani mentioned shops. After 1959, Cuban small businesses moved to the city, putting the same name to their shops. He mentioned the language, as Spanish is spoken everywhere with the distinct Cuban accent. He mentioned the building, radio stations, plants, birds, even the weather. 

Many theoretical works have touched on the role of space in the production of culture and thereby also about the cultural framing of perceptions about past times and places – from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Naples, Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place, Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space – but what is perhaps most the most enlightening reference here is Anne Marie Monchamp’s research on how indigenous Australians read the past of their culture from the landscape they inhabit. If the premises of these scholars are transferred to the case of Miami, we begin to understand the reach and political implications of this extensive canon beyond conventional understandings of historiography. 

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, although I do care passionately for the stories of the migrants that I record in my work, my primary academic interest lies in the theoretical and methodological world of memory studies. The value of my PhD research above all lies in the reproducibility of its approach to other cases of migrant communities. Since I found myself living in Gothenburg, Sweden, at the time of finishing the thesis, I began looking around for what cin the harder sciences would be called a control study – and I did not have to look far. 

When the armed forces of Pinochet conducted the military coup in Chile on 11 September 1973, the Swedish ambassador in Santiago was a man named Harald Edelstam. As the violent and brutal nature of the repression of even slightly leftwing Chileans became clear, Edelstam began an undertaking that can only be described as heroic, as he managed to get hundreds of refugees safe haven, first in the embassy, later in Sweden. Although Edelstam was declared persona non grata in Chile in December 1973, Sweden kept receiving Chilean refugees and thousands followed in the following decades. In Gothenburg, about 30 minutes north from the central station in tram, a new housing development was being built in the areas of Angered. As part of the One-Million-Homes-Programme, the area consists of a series of concrete high rises, and already from its planning phases, it was criticised and framed as a place of crime and foreignness. As the project offered affordable and spacious housing, at the time when many Chileans gravitated towards Gothenburg, it ended up being a home for many of these refugees. 

During my time at the Institute for Language and Folklore, as Bernadotte fellow of the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy for Swedish Folk Culture, I conducted a series of life story interviews with Chilean refugees who arrived in Sweden in the aftermath of the military coup that is coming to its 50th anniversary. The analysis of this case is similar to the Cuban-American case described above. Historical tropes underpinning the narrative in these interviews are compared to those underpinning those presented in historical material of influence in Chile during formative moments in the interview subjects’ life. Given the limited time and funding of the project so far, the analysis has, for this part relied on the digitised material available through the Chilean National Library, which, for example, gives access to a series of periodicals of the Leftist Revolutionary Movement [Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionaria, MIR]. However, since Sweden was one of the few places where those belonging to the most leftwing organisations of Chilean politics could find asylum, most of the interviews I conducted were with people who had had some form of ideological affiliation to this organisation. 

Although the project in Gothenburg is very much a work in progress, a series of hypotheses are arising from the interviews that I have conducted. As you walk around the large buildings of Hammarkullen, you notice the large murals covering their side walls. Inspired by Mexican muralist traditions, they are colourful, and most have a hint of a political message of one kind or the other. What is striking, is how the faces of the people painted in the murals reveal facial features, colour patterns and even natural references to plants and birds, characteristic of southern cone Latin America. This, along with the store fronts on the bottom floors of several buildings with names such as Chile Lindo, or Radio Salvador Allende, give the impression of a large Chilean community. Curiously, however, although the neighbourhood has indeed been characterised as Latin American one, Chilean migrants have never comprised more than 5-6 % of its inhabitants. What is likely the case here, is that the first wave of Chileans arrived to this recently completed urban space in which they found room for the modes of organising they were familiar with. My interviewees recount how they in their first years in Gothenburg met in circles comprised of other Chileans from the same or similar political organisations, their Latin American friends and Swedish love interests, and how these meetings transformed from initially serving as a sort of support groups. Here, recently arrived migrants were able to speak their mother tongue and share experiences of how to navigate their new country – in terms of housing, work, education, etc. – but very quickly, these groups became focal points of networks of organisation. 

At first, these organisations had a clear political purpose in the name of solidarity. Empanadas were baked and sold and Chilean folk songs sung at all sorts of events, from Lucia Feasts in the Swedish church to retirement homes. Although the initial idea behind these activities reportedly was to gather money to send home to surviving organisations in Chile, from underground resistance networks to family members of those imprisoned, murdered or dissappeared, they seem to develop into primarily social gatherings over the years. Overnight, local community centres became dance halls where cassette tapes with cumbia music was played and familiar songs sung. 

Within these musical elements of Chilean migrant heritage, a couple of interesting dynamics are emerging at this point. All of my interviewees have told me how these events, in the first years after arrival, centred around traditions of cueca (danced here in a video from the national Chilean championships of 2019). Similarly, all of my interviewees, although they did talk fondly about the events, seemed to think of this music and dance as slightly boring. The explanation for this music and dance to play its important role in the initial years seems to be twofold. On the one hand, it seems to have had a nostalgic function, as a way of briefly travelling back in time to a Chile before the upheaval of the early 70s, but on the other hand it must have played a role in the labour of legitimising the Chilean migrant identity towards local Swedish society. This hypothesis seems strengthened by the fact that cueca was mostly performed in contexts where Chilean-ness had to be performed for a Swedish audience, whereas the dancehall music was mostly cumbia. 

In a similar way, the stiff and serious cueca was quickly abandoned in favour of the colourful polyrhythm of samba in the celebration of the annual carnival in Hammarkullen. Some interviewees insist that they personally knew the person who suggested this change, while others merely mention that samba was more fun than the cueca. Today, the carnival is a large celebration, where the many nationalities populating the area parade with dances and music traditions they feel belong to their community. Since it began more or less spontaneously with only a few groups of children participating, it has today made it to the official list of intangible Swedish heritage. Although accounts vary as to who came up with the idea behind the carnival in 1977, all highlight how the Chilean community was fundamental in its inception. 

Besides the performance of Chilean-ness for a Swedish audience looking for exotic Latin American socialist refugees, the musical performance of the Chilean cause for solidarity was an arena of mutual reinforcement. Several of my interviewees have told me how progressive  Swedish folk-rock icons of the 70s/80s, such as Mikael Wiehe and Björn Afzelius were frequent guests at their parties. Swedish scholarship on folkloristic music traditions has emphasised the substantial influence that Chilean musicians such as Victor Jara and Violeta Parra have had on the development of popular rock-music traditions of those decades – either as topics or in direct translation. What is interesting from the interviews, however, is how the interviewees use their relation to these musicians and their music to legitimise their position as valid political forces within the community focussed on solidarity with Chile. One interviewee even mentioned how she served as inspiration for the politically charged songs written by these musicians. The political influence of the Chilean migrant organisation has been investigated in several contexts, as in the general political as well as the academic Dutch case. My interviews, however, suggest that this influence was mutually reinforcing. 

“Gracias a la vida” performed by Arja Saijonmaa (1988)

At this point in the project on Chilean migrant cultural memory in the context of the Hammarkullen, my work could go in several directions. There are aspects of postmemory in the layering of narratives told to second generation migrants, institutional memory, in the transfer of organising capabilities from Chilean politics to Sweden, entangled memories, in the meeting between memories of multiple Latin American migrant experiences within the  hegemonic Swedish cultural memory. Many of the accounts from the interviewees’ life in Chile are full of horrific experiences of physical, sexual and political violence. Imprisonment, murder, torture and exile suggest that special attention be payed to previous research on traumatic memory. On the other hand, this framing would overshadow the stories of parties, carnival, finding love and raising successful children – as has been the argument of a thematic edition on the memories of joy by the Memory Studies journal. 

I hope that by adding not another epithet to the term memory, but rather a new dimension, I might offer these various modes of remembering a frame in which one theoretical argument does not overshadow, but rather reinforce another. The argument behind the spatial dimension of cultural memory asserts that memories in socio-cultural take place – i.e., they are, simultaneously, situational instances of semiosis across time and space, while also being dependent on the structures of culture canonised in the space around the subject doing the remembering.

Sjamme van de Voort

Sjamme van de Voort is currently Bernadotte fellow at The Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy for Swedish Folk Culture, working from a secondment at the Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore in Gothenburg. His most recent work focuses on the oral histories of Chilean migrants to Gothenburg, as well as the development of methodologies to include urban space in frameworks of memory studies. He received his PhD from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Research on Cuba, where his thesis conceptualised a methodology of memory studies and oral history through the theoretical framework of geographer and philosopher Gunnar Olsson’s idea of cartographical reasoning, applied to a case study situated in the Cuban diaspora in Miami. In his teaching capacities, Sjamme applies his research experiences on a variety of levels, from theoretical approaches to traumatic histories at the MA in history at the University of Gothenburg to guest lectureships on freedom of speech and human rights in the Americas for various educational institutions in Denmark. As a member of the design research platform The Imaginary Agency, van de Voort continues to explore the relation between cultural memory, urban heritage, creative practices and other modes of knowledge production.


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