Author Jennine Capo Crucet was recently invited to speak at Georgia Southern University. She accepted the invitation and the focus of her presentation to the students was white privilege. Some of the privileged white students at the school objected to a Latina speaking on that subject and they staged a protest during which they burned her first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, which had been published in 2015. When I read that story, I knew I had to read that book.
Crucet is a Cuban-American with ties to the Miami area. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Nebraska. The protagonist of her novel is a Cuban-American young woman from Miami named Lizet Ramirez. She is the first of her family to go to college.
She had secretly applied to an elite (fictional) Northeastern school called Rawlings College. And she was accepted! This causes consternation in her family. Her parents are separated and not on good terms and she has an older unmarried sister who has a baby. Her family had expected her to get a job after high school and get married to her long-time boyfriend and help to support the family. Instead, she is leaving home, going far away to college and continuing to be a financial drain on the family. They are not encouraging or supportive.
Still, she goes, and with financial aid, the work-study program, and some help from her father, she cobbles together a way to pay for her education. But she is woefully out of her depth, having graduated from a less than stellar high school and also having limited social and cultural experiences to guide her in this new environment. In the book, an older and wiser Lizet narrates the events of this difficult first year of her college experience.
That experience is complicated by what is happening back home in Miami.
When Lizet goes home on her first school break, a young Cuban boy has just been rescued from a raft at sea and brought to Miami. His mother had been with him on the raft, but at some point, she had been swept away and lost. The young boy - here called Ariel Hernandez - was alone. (If this sounds familiar, it should. It is a fictionalized telling of the story of Elián González, the young boy whose story and fate consumed Miami in late 1999 and 2000.)
Lizet's mother becomes obsessed with Ariel/Elián to the neglect of her own family and job. She is passionately involved in the movement to keep Ariel in America and spends all of her time protesting and organizing. Meanwhile, news of her activities has made the national news and Lizet sees her on television back at Rawlings. She is appalled.
Crucet's telling of this story is heartfelt. Her observations of the Miami Cuban culture are sharp and the dialogue among her characters is one of the strong points of the novel. The plot is actually developed through those dialogues.
I could identify with Lizet from the beginning because we shared some of the same experiences. I came from a farm family with no background of going to college. I was the first of my family to attend college and I came from a poor rural school which certainly did not prepare me for the experience. So, yes, I could identify quite easily with Lizet's story. And I could understand the stress of a Latina student, one of few, struggling to make it in an elite school with mostly white students.
What I don't understand is why those Georgia students were so incensed that they felt impelled to burn her book.
Well, actually, maybe I do understand.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars