The Straits of Florida are a unique national border that subsumes the bodies of those who perish crossing it. Empty rafts, husks that bear the traces of the balseros who do not arrive with them, wash up constantly on Florida beaches. In this paper, I argue that visual representations of the Cuban rafter phenomenon in U.S. photojournalism, exhibitions, and memorials produced in the 1990s and early 2000s constructed a false sense of closure by obscuring the then-ongoing nature of these sea migrations.
Beginning with the Straits of Florida, I attend to the way that balseros who die at sea disappear into the landscape. Meanwhile, photojournalistic representations of the rescued obscure the dead from the public eye through a rhetoric of U.S. humanitarianism. The dead, whose number remains undetermined, are further sealed off by stone monuments that seek to memorialize them despite their ongoing disappearance. I turn to the rafts themselves as sites that bear potential for representing the dead, yet occupy a conflicted cultural status as both relics and refuse. They are both systematically removed from the land and seascape like trash by U.S. governmental agencies and historicized in cultural institutions whose modes of exhibition have frequently dehistoricized their origins.
In a climate where migration is one of the most urgent humanitarian issues of our time, it is necessary to examine how U.S. visual culture obscures the deaths that happen at its borders. Resisting false closure, this paper treats absence as a site of potential by proposing the abandoned rafts as sites for alternative memorials to the lost balseros.
A revised chapter of this paper appeared in Sightlines, published by the Graduate Program in Visual & Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, 2015, pp. 192–212.
You can find a copy of this version in the Smithsonian Learning Lab’s teaching collection titled “Cuban Balseros: Using Art and Artifact to Explore an American Immigration Story.” The collection includes lesson materials from Harvard’s Project Zero and artwork by Cuban American artist Luis Cruz Azaceta. It also includes a video that delves into the construction of a raft from the Smithsonian’s collection that was donated in the early 90s by Humberto Sánchez, one of the subjects of the paper.
RELATED CONFERENCE PRESENTATIONS
- “From the Monumental to the Makeshift: Memorializing the Cuban Rafter Crisis After Twenty-Five Years,” New Directions in Cuban Studies, Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami, Miami, FL (October 17-18, 2019).
- “Porous Borders, Watery Graves: Diasporic Memorials to the Migrant Dead,” Twelfth Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, Cuba and Puertoa Rico: Two Wings of One Bird?, Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, Miami, FL (February 14-15, 2019).
- “Relic or Refuse?: The Rafts of the Balseros in New Fiction by Achy Obejas,” (Un)Moorings, Emory University, Atlanta, GA (April 20, 2018).
- “Echoes off the Straits: Images and Ephemera of the Lost Cuban Balseros,” Tropical Exposures: Photography, Film, and Visual Culture in a Caribbean Frame, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA (March 10-12, 2016).
MENTIONS / LINKS
“Achy Obejas’ The Tower of the Antilles and a literary life in retrospect” (Sarah Margarita Quesada for Latino Studies 18.1)
“Q&A: Achy Obejas on Being Cuban-American, Sexuality, Exile, and Her Short Stories” (The National Book Review)
“Immigrant Identity, Lesbian Sexuality Intersect in The Stories of Achy Obejas” (Rigoberto González for NBC News Latino)
“Smithsonian Learning Lab Collection: Cuban Balseros: Using Art and Artifact to Explore an American Immigration Story” (Philippa Rappoport for the Smithsonian Learning Lab, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access)