The bus says Belén
On diversity and tribalism in America
Los cubanos están entre vosotros, pero no son de vosotros. No intentéis conocerlos porque su alma vive en el mundo impenetrable del dualismo.
The ‘Colegio de Belén’ was founded in 1854 under royal charter from Queen Isabel II in what was then the Spanish colony of Cuba. Perhaps its most notorious alum Fidel Castro shuttered the school in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, and the Jesuit fathers rebooted the school—as the Cuban diaspora did the rest of pre-revolutionary Cuban society—in the suburban Miami sprawl of my childhood.
Despite the somewhat illustrious history, we the students—at least in our pre-smartphone 90s versions—were uncontrollable imps of obnoxious bedlam. We got kicked off the plane on that ‘Close Up’ trip to Washington DC that was popular with schools in the 90s. Field trips for film viewings were 50/50 on whether we’d even make it to the end. Overnight stays in hotels were rowdy bacchanals of smuggled beer and the odd late-night brawl, followed by some apologetic administrator paying damages the next morning.
Such bouts of havoc were typically punctuated by screams of ‘bayú!’ (brothel2, in Cuban slang), as some sort of deranged war cry. The whole howling mob resembled a preppy version of a Huron war party getting themselves jazzed up for battle, or perhaps Confederates charging at Gettysburg with the rebel yell.
Why we acted, always and everywhere, with such lunatic fervor, I’m not sure3. But at some point in the outing, as a last-ditch appeal to civilization, whatever poor soul had been dispatched to chaperone the war party would stand up inside the school bus and exclaim:
THE BUS SAYS BELÉN!
The idea being that we were presenting a horrible picture of the school to the outside world as we rolled down the street in a bus spewing profanities and school detritus from the windows, and visibly labeled with the school’s name.
“Bayuuuuú!”, replied the Cuban Catholic schoolboy chorus4.
Fast forward ten years and I’m a junior quant on the Goldman Sachs trading desk working into the wee hours on yet another busted derivatives model. Adam T. Hayes, the Midwestern straight arrow with a PhD from Caltech who sat next to me, suddenly turned and asked:
“You were raised in that whole Cuban thing in Miami, right?”
“Well, I was at the Knicks game last night…”
As part of the standard trading-floor patronage, the managing director on our desk doled out Knicks tickets from his season-ticket box, and Hayes had gone with his wife.
“There was a group of school kids from Miami next to our box. They caused such a loud disturbance, the announcer called them out and threatened them with security if they didn’t quiet down. From their jackets, they went to some school called ‘BAY-lehn’. You know about them?”
Madison Square Garden in New York at a Knicks game….and the ‘bayú!’ reigned supreme.
“Well, yeah…actually, that’s the school I went to.”
The bus still said Belén, and I was still on it.
The new EliteThink cosmology places ‘whites’ (variously defined) as this big, burning, guilty sun at the center of the social solar system, around which planets of various ethnic amalgams—AAPI, Asian, Black, Latinx, BIPOC—orbit. Like gravity itself, white privilege is the powerful force that keeps the ensemble spinning in its predictable orbits.
This idea of your tribe as an independent vehicle, among a highway of such ethnic conveyances, is completely antithetical to how mainstream culture (read: mostly White social elites) chooses to understand the various Others.
The new EliteThink cosmology places Whites (variously defined) as this big, burning, guilty sun at the center of the social solar system, around which planets of various ethnic amalgams—AAPI, Asian, Black, Latinx, BIPOC—orbit. Like gravity itself, White privilege is the powerful force that keeps the ensemble spinning in its predictable orbits. As with the Ptolemaic cosmology, which had to invent stopgap ‘epicycles’ to explain the odd movement of bodies that violated its flawed premises, this new diversity cosmology has to rationalize away such mysteries as Asian academic excellence or Indian economic success. The Carl Sagans of diversity like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo are handsomely paid to explain the complex intricacies of albuscentric cosmology via bestselling books or lucrative speaking gigs. As with the geocentric model of the universe in the Middle Ages, this ethnic cosmology is avidly defended by a right-thinking clerisy of media inquisitors; Galileos are few and far between.
Which is of course not at all the lived experience of actual ethnic minorities who’ve got some tribal bus they’re riding. Thinking White Privilege is the center of American ethnic existence is the Whitest thing in the world, even if you manage to recruit a few non-Whites as window dressing along the way. How flattering it must be, even if in a backhanded way, to think yourself the motive force of society: we all really want to be cast as the villain in the movie.
Tribal identity as it’s lived in the real world isn’t some convoluted ethnic orrery, but a simple binary about who’s on or off the bus and which way it’s headed. Take your random anecdote about this or that everyday drama: Any story in Cuban Miami always started clearly stating which character was Cuban and which was not. Take something as mundane as shopping: You’d selectively patronize Cuban businesses over non-Cuban ones, as a way to support the tribe. Take the evening news: If someone with an Hispanic name got nabbed for some crime (which in Miami in the 80s/90s was synonymous with Cuban), you’d lament their stupidity at sullying the entire tribe’s name (‘The bus says….’). If something happened to the tribe, you felt as if it had happened to you, and it inspired proportionate amounts of either pride, guilt or rage.
Whites (‘anglos’ as they’d be called in Miami), other than the rustics who lived just outside the Miami bubble, were a distant abstraction like New York City or the Peace of Westphalia. Sure, there was some conception of a mainstream non-Cuban society beyond Miami, particularly around future college prospects, but it was functionally irrelevant to everyday life.
To the degree there was anything like a complex and conflicted attitude toward that mainstream world, it fluctuated between two contradictory positions: insecurity and superiority. Insecurity at the economic and political precariousness of your existence, particularly compared to the world you left behind, combined with this manic urge to rectify the situation via social advancement.
Alongside that insecurity there was a contradictory feeling of superiority. You’d look at the Great Big American Mainstream Blah—a little bit of creation myth and exceptionalism and lots of bullshit marketing jingles masquerading as culture—and you’d reflexively think “we might be here due to political or economic happenstance, but my culture is too important to let die, and I will spare no expense or effort to ensure it’s perpetuated via my offspring.”
Every Jew who sends their kid to a Hebrew school or Chinese parent who makes sure to send their child to a Mandarin immersion school implicitly makes the same bargain with their new homeland. You salute the Great American Experiment and hope to make your children at home in it, and you also reject its imperious blandness, its implacable and utterly un-self-aware tendency to reframe the world along parochial lines.
My parents did the same with Belén and me, though with the touchingly improbable belief that I needed a full Spanish language education to go back to Cuba after Castro died. Here on the Miami Cuban bus we fly the American flag, voted for Reagan in the 80s and still support a muscular American foreign policy, speak wonders about American openness, rule of law, and prosperous business culture…and then utterly reject every aspect of popular American culture or mainstream politics, to the point the city is absolutely foreign to anyone north of Fort Lauderdale. That’s life on the tribal bus doing 80 MPH on Miami’s 836 highway, yelling ‘bayú!’ the whole way5.
Tribes living outside the White/PoC solar system are discussed only to mock or castigate their backward customs in need of fixing or abandoning; for example, take this condescending piece on Hispanic males and their unsavory traditional views around masculinity, or every piece The Times has ever published on Orthodox Judaism.
To the extent intransigent minorities appear in the discourse other than as curiosities or objects of pity, the anxious discussion is about how to get all these little tribes into the Ivy-League-attending/NYT-reading pipeline as quickly as humanly possible (for their own good of course).
This picture of renegade and self-reliant ethnic life is of course loathsome to the cathedral of mainstream discourse around identity.
There, tribes living outside the White/PoC solar system are discussed only to mock or castigate their backward customs in need of fixing or abandoning; for example, take this condescending piece on Hispanic males and their unsavory traditional views around masculinity, or every piece The Times has ever published on Orthodox Judaism. To the extent intransigent minorities appear in the discourse other than as curiosities or objects of pity, the anxious discussion is about how to get all these little tribes into the Ivy-League-attending/NYT-reading pipeline as quickly as humanly possible (for their own good of course). The thought that some group would eschew the flattened, fake and insipid ethnic buckets anointed by the clerisy and choose to remain a colorful square on the patchwork quilt of the national culture instead—something real liberalism could accommodate—is utterly unthinkable. All those tribes might get their hands on some electoral votes after all.
There’s a brilliant scene in the film The Good Shepherd, where Matt Damon plays a blue-blooded founding member of the CIA who’s traveled to the Long Island sticks to ask an Italian mobster, played by Joe Pesci, for help on an operation. The Italians gawk at the starch-shirted, briefcase-carrying Damon almost as if an exotic species of tropical parrot had flown in through the window (which is how we would have greeted an ethnic-studies Ivy Leaguer had one appeared on the Belén bus in the 90s).
Pesci, trying to make sense of this odd bird, asks Damon:
“We Italians, we’ve got our families and we’ve got the Church. The Irish have their homeland, the Jews their traditions…what about you people, Mr. Carlsen? What do you have?”
Damon, every inch the WASP with his pomaded hair and horn-rimmed glasses, coolly responds:
"The United States of America….the rest of you are just visiting.”
The latter-day Mr. Carlsens of the current Establishment, intellectual heirs of the constipated and judgy Protestantism that once ran the CIA and still largely animate elite discourse, are quite happy to exclude these weird ‘ethnics’ who are just visiting. Their reaction to your curious customs has simply gone from a stiff and indifferent dismissal to a little pat on the head and gesture toward the appropriate ethnic filing cabinet. Don’t for a moment think you’re anything other than a cardboard cut-out in an elite struggle these lapsed Mainline Protestants have going on with the Evangelical Protestants on the other side of the political aisle. Assuming you’re on a bus to begin with, abandon it and it might not be waiting for you when you realize the alternative is nothing but a mirage. Then, all you’ll have left is playing a cameo in some elite’s neurotic fantasy about the world. Anyone figure out how to pronounce ‘Latinx’ in Spanish yet?
León had the unique distinction of having both taught future president Bill Clinton at Georgetown and having been a classmate of Fidel Castro (Colegio de Belén, ‘44).
In French slang, the analogous term for a scene of intense, clamorous disorder is also ‘bordel’. “C’est le bordel!” (it’s a brothel!) is accepted usage in reference to a messy room, botched project or traffic snarl. Just what scenes transpired inside Cuban and French brothels to create this association with chaos is intriguing to imagine.
Kids these days have no idea how much you used to be able to get away with before everyone had networked cameras in their pockets and society became a mob of gleeful snitches. Fire 9mm pistols wildly into air at midnight in Miami for buena suerte while drinking sidra? No problem. Drag race recklessly down suburban streets on the way to school? Dále. Kids these days live in balls of paralyzing anxiety watched over by the worst tattletales among them (both young and old) while engaging in none of the excesses on the drinking-and-screwing-around front that previous generations managed to survive. The scolding safetyism that’s now taken over every aspect of society is all the younger generation knows. Even the protective father in me finds it sad.
Mind you, discipline inside the school was exacting and iron-fisted. All this external mayhem was like British sailors on shore leave: drunken mayhem on land, and the lash on board. Some of the Jesuit fathers were known to grab you by the neck and throw you headfirst out the door if you disrupted a lecture. The school had so-called ‘disciplinarians’—stern, barrel-chested men who were often lay members of holy orders—whose sole duty was patrolling the halls and enforcing the dress and grooming code. The sole female disciplinarian was into breeding Rottweilers and acted like one. Almost nobody fucked with them; if you did, well, don’t do the crime if you can’t serve the time and take your lumps.
The more interesting long-term question is around that first transitional generation born in the United States to immigrant parents, and whether there’s enough of a cultural critical mass to keep the identity going. Indian-Americans have a cute acronym for their version of this demographic: ABCDs, or American-born confused desis. On the Hispanic side, large fractions of the demographic are simply dropping the identity and merging into the all-encompassing ‘White’. Nothing necessarily wrong with that; to an extent, the speed with which immigrants get to White—consider Asians who aren’t PoCs for Silicon Valley diversity bookkeeping purposes—is a measure of their success.