If you’ve read Jennine Capó Crucet’s short story collection, “How to Leave Hialeah,” then you already know she’s funny. The Hialeah born-and-raised Cuban American author, who grew up on a regimen of 2Pac, pastelitos, and her grandmother’s jokes, has proven that when you’re talking about Miami, it’s hard not to make people laugh.
With the release of her debut novel, “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” Crucet is telling a story any born-and-bred Miamian could likely identify as their own — Lizet, a 1999 graduate of Hialeah Lakes High, has been accepted to Rawlings College, a prestigious, but kooky, liberal arts college in some uptight town where it snows. She fuddles her way around the world of academia in the same way any first-generation American would: eyes gaping open, completely unsure of what’s normal, and wondering how to proceed.
The home Lizet left behind is quickly falling to pieces: her sister, pregnant and unwed; her parents, splitting up after years of a less-than-ideal marriage; and the arrival of Ariel Hernandez in Miami, a young Cuban boy rescued from the ocean after his mother and fellow rafters died at sea, has jarred the Cuban community in Miami into a full-fledged war against Communist Cuba. If this story sounds oddly familiar, that’s because it should, and Crucet relays it in a way that’s comically poignant and unmistakably real.
But the author maintains that it’s utterly fake, merely inspired by plausible Miami absurdity. Whatever the case, when Crucet writes about Miami, she delivers anecdotes that sound grandiose yet mind-bendingly recognizable, enough to make the reader question whether it did, in fact, happen. “Fiction is freeing in that it lets a writer exaggerate in certain places and harvest a story out of nothing, which then makes it exciting for the reader,” she said.
Crucet’s talent lies in giving her readers a looking glass from which to observe Miami, a city fueled by cafecitos and Castro dissidents. For her, writing stories coming out of Miami isn’t so much about reflecting on her Cuban heritage, but a view towards how Cuban culture has informed the city, and how the city in turn has filtered that narrative.
“I think I connect much more viscerally to Miami, and obviously you don’t have Miami without the Cuban influence, but I do feel like I see Cuba through the lens or the filter of what Miami has done to that story,” she said. “So I’m more interested in the way Cuba has been translated by Miami, and then sort of re-packaged and re-sold. I interrogate those things and wonder what that means for the next generation, who trace their heritage to Cuba as a place that’s part of their story, but not necessarily home the way my parents would see it.”
Finding her own voice within that narrative hasn’t always been easy for Crucet. While she’s always been funny (she credits her humor to her donning glasses in the second grade, which precipitated a need to make boys laugh “so they would like me”), she wasn’t always so sure of giving in to her Cuban roots.
“I think I wasted a lot of time trying to get rid of my culture in my work because I didn’t want to be seen just as a Cuban American writer, and I think actually the way to transcend ethnicity is to be just be honest about who your characters are and where in the world they’re coming from,” she said. “Through that specificity, you achieve universality.” She recalls an instance in which a Kansas woman, who emailed Crucet and said she had “never met a Latino in her life,” had reached out to the author to share her perplexity in finding herself in every story in Crucet’s “Hialeah” anthology.
Crucet’s portrayal of the Cuba/Miami chronicle emerges alongside other Cuban American voices, and her advice to up-and-coming Cuban American or young Latino writers could only be described as quintessentially Crucet. “This isn’t Highlander, there’s none of that ‘There can only be one!’ stuff going on here,” she quips. “Don’t allow that sense of tokenism that’s coming from the top down to discourage you from supporting each other in the community. Remember that there’s room for all of us.”
As for whether you can ever really leave Hialeah, the jury is still out. “In some ways I feel like I belong in Miami most when I’m not here. And then when I come back I can’t figure out where I should be, because it’s not the Miami I grew up in,” she says. “In a way I think that’s what it feels like to be Cuban — you keep your sense of self alive by telling stories, even though it’s a place you can never really go back to.”