In Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jennine Capó Crucet explores what it’s like to be part of a second generation: in this case, through the fictional account of Cuban-American Lizet Ramirez, born and raised in Miami, who leaves home against her Cuban-exile parents’ wishes to attend an Ivy-League college in the Northeast. It’s a decision that will carry ramifications for the rest of Lizet’s life.
At the fictional Rawlings University, Lizet is thrown into an unfamiliar, upper-class, mostly-Caucasian culture. There are “arch sings.” There is snow. It’s no wonder that she misses home, misses her parents and her sister Leidy and her sweetly macho boyfriend Omar. Was leaving Miami a terrible mistake? Has Lizet damaged her relationship with her parents, sister, and Omar forever?
And if she builds a future for herself in the process, is that a fair enough trade?
Lizet’s college experience–alternately confounding, humorous, disorienting and surreal– is convincingly written by Crucet, who similarly moved straight from Miami to upstate New York to attend Cornell University. Apparently, her writer’s eye didn’t miss a thing.
The skewering of Ivy League culture through the eyes of an on-the-fringe Latina is amusing, but it’s only the funny veneer over the heart of a deeply thoughtful novel. This book aches with loss.
The difference between Lizet and her family may not just be that she left home and they stayed; it may be that she even thought about leaving. The moment Lizet voices her intentions, she becomes suspect. She cannot go home again.
But she tries. At first, she’s optimistic: she’ll fly back to Miami on break. Omar hopes to save his money for a visit (an idea which never feels entirely probable). The effort she makes is touching, and, heartbreakingly, never reciprocated; it’s an effort we, as readers, bear witness to as her family willfully ignores it. Her natural loyalty to them is constantly, unfairly at odds with her desire to gain an education. Life at Rawlings is endlessly humbling for her and yet still offers more potential than any other path she might take.
Back in Miami, her people are hotheaded, loyal, clannish. Leidy greets her surprise visit with, “What the fuck are you doing here?” and the expectation that Lizet will watch her baby. Omar is startled and thrilled at her arrival. He wants to marry her. More immediately, he hopes she will wear a skirt and have sex with him in his Integra (a desire Lizet, against her better judgment and ethics given her hesitation about their relationship, shares). Her mother wants her to come along to the next Ariel Hernandez [Elian Gonzalez]rally, and her father’s just plain M.I.A.
They all have opinions about Lizet, they each have their own brand of love. But none of them seem to know exactly what to do with her.
Complicating matters, her first visit home is concurrent with the arrival of Ariel Hernandez (the aforementioned, fictionalized version of Elian Gonzalez) from Cuba, rescued by the Coast Guard after watching his mother and all but two others on his raft drown on the voyage.
At first, Lizet is only moderately curious about the case, which galvanizes Miami; she’s mostly interested in catching up with her people. But then her mother, recently divorced and dealing with Lizet’s inexplicable, faraway move, takes up Ariel’s cause to a degree that Lizet and her sister find uncomfortable and embarrassing. Soon it seems that her mother has almost found a new family with the Gonzaleses — bringing up painful feelings in Lizet and Leidy. Did their own family leave so much to be desired that their mom must go out and cast her lot– publicly, no less– with a new one altogether?
I remembered the Elian Gonzalez case to some extent, though of course, taking place in 2000, it was soon overshadowed in my memory, as news stories go, by 9/11. I had never been to Florida and had no stake in the whole story, but still, I recalled that it was everywhere. Make Your Home Among Strangers deals with the case intriguingly enough that I was inspired to read about it again. I was reminded what a truly big deal the story was at the time, even outside the Cuban-American community. This photo, in particular, jogged my memory,
and gave me a goosebumpy insight into Crucet’s fictionalized account of the raid on the Gonzalez home, in which INS agents removed the young boy at gunpoint. Crucet’s retelling of the raid is particularly intense and illuminating, and after learning more about the Elian Gonzalez affair, I went back and re-read it. The scene holds up well against the actual events of the raid; being told through fiction, it offers a personal, cultural, significant look into the event that a Wikipedia entry could never give. I felt like I could see the house, its closets and picture frames and stuffed animals, the distraught crowd, the terrified boy.
I should explain that, although her intentions are generally good and she’s trying her best, Lizet is no martyr. She can be sour and myopic; she’s catty about the white girls on her dorm floor, who are, to a girl, embarrassingly stupid. But that is what makes her real. And so too is one heartbreak of the novel, which is her dodgy, never-quite-one-hundred-percent betrayal of Omar, who is perhaps too loyal, too unquestioning, and too kind for her. That she recognizes this is painful — and not just for Omar.
That first semester of college…I started to tell anyone who asked that Omar was a brute…It seemed like what other people wanted to hear. Omar looked the part, with his earrings and the close-cut hair and goatee, the wide shoulders, the dark brows, him leaning on his Integra and throwing a sideways peace sign in almost every photo of him I owned. The girls on my floor would ask, Is that a gang sign?, and instead of saying, No, you’re an idiot, I said, Maybe, who knows with Omar?…When everyone around you thinks they know what your life is like, it’s easier to play in to that idea–it was easier for me to make Omar sound like a psycho papi chulo who wanted to control me.
Lizet’s bittersweet dismissal of Omar is sad, but there are other, greater aches in this novel as well. I don’t want to give them away here, but the ending of the book is downright perfect– opening into a scale just broad enough, just tender enough, to make you feel a pang as you close the pages.
Home and family are everything–Lizet makes that clear. But for some people, they need to be overridden. Moving past the very things that made you you may be, if Lizet’s story is any indication, one of the most unsparing afflictions of humankind, one of the most American, the most common, the most dreaded, the most necessary.
Crucet, Jennine Capó. Make Your Home Among Strangers. St. Martin’s, August 2015.
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