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Scholar: hurricanes helped shape Cuban culture, history

CHAPEL HILL -- When hurricane season in the Caribbean officially ends Friday, (Nov. 30) many Cubans, especially farmers, will probably breathe a sigh of relief. They survived Hurricane Michelles wrath earlier this month, but the fallout was five deaths and ruined crops, wrecked sugar mills and destroyed homes.

Hurricanes are a fact of life in Cuba, which has historically been hard-hit during the annual four-month Caribbean season. Some may grow accustomed to dealing with the recurring storms, but in a new book, historian Dr. Louis A. Perez Jr. contends that the hurricanes have significantly affected the culture and its people.

My premise is that historians focus a great deal on what people do together, but now and then, the forces of nature overwhelm a culture and affect how cultures become what they are, said Perez, J. Carlyle Sitterson professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nature opens up a new dimension -- weather, calamity -- to historical research.

In Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba (UNC Press, 2001), Perez, a New York native whose grandfather was born in Cuba, examines questions about national character and recurring calamities. What makes the French French? What makes Americans Americans? One factor is environment -- weather patterns, famine, harsh climates, earthquakes, floods are all assimilated into cultural characteristics, he said.

This argument is true of any community facing a recurring threat of calamity, he added. People who live under the shadow of volcanoes or monsoons live in a culture of calamity. Whats fascinating to me is how these cultures begin to adapt to the possibility of catastrophe and to assimilate the peril into their everyday lives.

In Cuba, Perez said, hurricanes have created an overriding sense of being subjected to forces beyond ones control. Many people say, Why spend too much time thinking about the future?
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Contact: David Williamson
david_williamson@unc.edu
919-962-8596
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
29-Nov-2001


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