In her collection of non-fiction essays, My Time Among the Whites: Notes From an Unfinished Education
(2019), Cuban-American author Jennine Capo Crucet explores her experience of being a Latinx woman in the United States, particularly since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. The Los Angeles Review of Books
calls My Time Among the Whites
"a remarkable entry" within a genre the magazine refers to as "post-Trump Latinx literature."
In the first essay, "What We Pack," Crucet delves into some of the unexpected challenges she and her family face as Jennine, the child of Cuban immigrants, is set to become the first member of her family to attend college. For example, in 1999, when Jennine, her parents, her younger sister, and her abuela prepare to drive from their hometown of Miami, Florida to Ithaca, New York where Jennine has been accepted into college, the family is confused about what they should pack. In the first orientation session, Cornell's dean ends his speech with a joke: "Now, parents, please go. Your child is in good hands. Time to cut the cord. Go home." When Jennine's sister translates this to her mother and abuela, they are bewildered. "But orientation just started," one says. The author goes on to detail a litany of misunderstandings during orientation week, all of which are compounded by the fact that no one in Jennine's family has prior experience with anything like this.
Crucet lists the two questions she receives every time a person discovers she is Cuban-American in "Nothing is Impossible in America!" As the daughter of two Cubans with comparatively light skin, Jennine often passes as a white woman. When people learn of her heritage, they usually begin by asking if she has even been to Cuba, a question to which the author invariably responds, "Why would I have ever been to Cuba?" Next, they ask why her name doesn't sound very "Cuban." In pondering this, the author considers all the prejudices her parents experienced because of their ethnic first names alone. It is perfectly reasonable, therefore, for her parents to want to spare their daughter at least some of the racism they faced. Crucet goes on to consider this within the context of the American Dream, which counsels that anything is possible in America as long as you are willing and able to assimilate into the American idea of whiteness. On a surface level, this is a privilege Crucet enjoys as a light skinned Latinx woman. Doing so in more intimate interactions with her white classmates at Cornell proves to be more difficult. Nevertheless, Crucet finds that her classmates' willingness to speak easily about their ambitions has a positive effect on the author. During a dorm room pizza party during her freshman year, Crucet's roommates go around the room, discussing their future plans after graduation. When it is Crucet's time to speak, she says she wants to be an English professor. "The minute I said it, I knew it could be true." This exchange reveals the extent to which the American Dream, for so many immigrants and children of immigrants, only begins to feel attainable once certain circumstances align.
Crucet reflects on the significance Disney World held for her in her youth, filling her with immense joy every time the family visited. She reveals that when she began writing the essay "Magic Kingdom," she expected to craft the kind of glowing tribute to Disney World that could earn her a lifetime pass to the theme park. However, as she considers the reality of Disney World through an adult lens, Crucet becomes deeply ambivalent about the park: "During the days you spend in the parks, Disney will pretend you are white, American, cisgender, and straight, and everyone and everything around you will pander to assert this understanding of the Disney fantasy." And while that fantasy can feel great to a nonwhite child who is treated as an outsider in much of her everyday life, the author feels that the Disney World experience reinforces unhealthy attitudes about the premium American society places on whiteness and the privileges that come along with it. Moreover, an adult Crucet can't help but perceive Disney World's gender politics as deeply regressive and even outright misogynistic, citing the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in which animatronic women are held in chains before a group of leering animatronic men.
While the spectrum of Donald Trump looms large over every essay, nowhere does Crucet so closely examine Trumpism and anti-immigrant rhetoric than in "Going Cowboy." Upon moving to Lincoln, Nebraska for a position as an Associate Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska, Crucet learns to herd cattle from a rancher. A committed Fox News viewer and ardent Trump supporter, the rancher bemoans the arrival of Central American immigrants and the children they give birth to in the United States, warning they will "take everything, everything." The rancher does not realize that Crucet is the daughter of Cuban immigrants. While much of the anti-immigration rhetoric the rancher hears and recycles centers on crime, the author concludes that women like her—productive members of society who are active in their community—comprise the real threat the rancher perceives. What the rancher fears most is excellence, not criminality. Crucet also argues that while Trump's rhetoric and actions make life harder for many immigrants, he is a symptom of prejudice in America, not the disease itself.My Time Among the Whites
is a powerful and smart examination of the American Dream, whiteness, and the immigrant experience.