Web Exclusives:Features

March 27, 2002:

Faculty File:
Hialeah history
Professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly explores the world of the Cuban immigrant

The sunny climes of Hialeah, Florida, are not your typical, academic research subjects.

But sociology professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly has been so taken with the city, which sits northwest of Miami, and the sociological richness of its predominantly Cuban exile population that she hopes to "place Hialeah on the academic map."

Fernandez-Kelly has written numerous books on international economic development, gender, the labor force, and related topics. She also coproduced the 1986 Emmy award-winning documentary The Global Assembly Line, which took viewers inside the new global economy and the lives of working women and men in the free-trade zones of developing countries and North America.

Fernandez-Kelly says she has been an informal observer of Hialeah for more than a decade. Most of her scholarly has gone into examining the Cuban-American working class in Hialeah and South Florida. Her Alumni Day 2002 lecture was entitled "Hialeah Dreams: The Remaking of the Cuban-American Working Class in South Florida."

Her work on Hialeah covers the history of the city, once envisioned as a playground for the rich. The Hialeah racetrack, which opened its doors in 1925, was the jewel in that playground. But Cuban exiles, fleeing Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, finished the work started by World War II veterans and city planners and turned it into a working-class community. "It became an affordable Eden," she says.

Fernandez-Kelly, who was born in Mexico City and earned her doctorate. at Rutgers in 1981, describes the city as "a place where different groups have left their imprint while trying to create a sample of what life should be like."

Several waves of Cuban exiles, beginning right after Castro's takeover in 1959 and continuing through to the Freedom Flights (1965-1973), the Mariel boatlift in 1980, and the "balseros" or boat people of the late 1990s, have created what Fernandez-Kelly says is the most economically successful immigrant enclave in U.S. history. Hialeah is the only U.S. industrial city that continues to grow, she explains.

Hialeah and south Florida are also home to many practitioners of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, which mixes Roman Catholic and African religions, says Fernandez-Kelly. The city took one church all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the ritual of animal sacrifices, but the court sided with the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye in 1993.

By Argelio Dumenigo