A Case For Study: Alejandro Portes Analyzes Generations of Miami Immigrants


In many respects, Alejandro Portes is extremely well-suited to teach immigration and ethnicity at Miami Law, in a city that for half a century has represented the epitome of the immigrant experience in North America.

A Cuban exile, like so many thousands here, Professor Portes is a new addition to Miami Law's faculty this spring semester, a sociologist of considerable renown who has shaped the study of immigration and urbanization for three decades. His many books include City on the Edge – The Transformation of Miami (University of California Press, 1993), which he wrote with Florida International University Professor Alex Stepick and which, among other garlands, won the Robert Park Award for best book on urban sociology.

Miami Law Dean Patricia D. White described Professor Portes – whose role at UM includes a joint position at the Department of Sociology – as "one of the very leading" immigration scholars in the world.

Although he grew up in Argentina after his family's departure from Cuba and was not part of the diaspora in Miami, Portes said in an interview that he became deeply interested in "the development of the Cuban enclave" here and how it evolved over time. Its salient features included a "high level of entrepreneurship," a pervasive bilingualism and a concentration of activity – initially – in one place, Miami. The situation was vastly different in Southern California, an area Professor Portes also studied in depth some years ago and whose Hispanic immigrant population, he found at the time, was composed largely of Mexican wage earners whose work took them far afield, with limited influence on the region's centers of power.

"Miami was a resort city, and most of its elites were imports from the north," Professor Portes said, describing the years before the Castro revolution. Once that occurred, and refugees from Cuba began to make their presence felt in Miami in significant numbers, the face of the city – and its power base – were forever altered.

"The arrival of groups that were tightly integrated and had business networks and social networks and so on, transformed the class structure and the composition of the elites in the city, in ways that are unique in the United States," he said. After the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when as many as 125,000 Cubans were brought to Florida with Fidel Castro's encouragement, the fragmentation between what Portes calls the "Anglo society" and the Cuban community in Miami became more acute.

"The Cuban elites reacted by claiming the city," Professor Portes said. They saw Miami as having become a world-class city, at the center of Latin American commerce, thanks to them – the Cubans.

Although he is now teaching in Miami, Professor Portes retains his positions at Princeton University, as the Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Migration and Development. He will work half of his time at Princeton and half at UM.

Professor Portes is the author of 250 articles and chapters on national development, international migration, Latin American and Caribbean urbanization, and economic sociology. Professor Portes has published 30 books and special issues. His current research is on the adaptation process of the immigrant second generation in comparative perspective, the role of institutions on national development, and immigration and the American health system.