How 1983’s ‘Scarface’ Transformed the Way Cubans Were Perceived in the US

'Scarface' still courtesy of Universal Pictures

I was about 16 or 17 years old when I first watched Brian De Palma’s 1983 film Scarface. The boys at school had become obsessed with it, one of them even wore a T-shirt of the poster to school. One charming personality thought it would be cute to ask me where the drugs were every time I stopped by my locker to change books.

My Cuban mom had forbidden me from watching it. She was in high school, a few years removed from her Mariel boatlift to the States, when her classmates’ teasing ramped up from making fun of her English to making jokes about the movie’s depiction of Cubans as drug lords. Scarface had co-opted her immigrant story for popular entertainment and painted thousands of political refugees as criminals.

Almost no two Cuban-Americans feel the same way about De Palma’s movie. It makes my skin crawl just watching it, but others are proud to watch Tony Montana take over Little Havana.

A former Cuban-American drug dealer, who only spoke with us on the condition of anonymity, remembers that Miami was going through major changes when Scarface arrived. “In the minds of Americans, Cubans were cleaners or superintendents,” he said before the Mariel boat lifts. “When Scarface came out, I thought at least they consider us hardcore, badass drug dealers now! They feared us, and they feared Miami.” The bad reputation stuck, and it would plague Cuban newcomers for years.

Alex Fumero, a TV producer and writer, remembers watching the movie when he was growing up in Miami, but once he moved to New York City for college, his opinion of the movie changed. His friends had Scarface posters on their wall, and “their favorite thing to do was quote Tony Montana using the shitty accent.”

“There’s the whole Marielito thing, which non-Cubans rarely have a concept of,” Fumero said. “Scarface reinforces the stereotype that they’re all criminals.”

Michael Bustamante, a professor specializing in Cuban history and Cuban-Americans at Florida International University, had a similar disdain for the movie. “As a Cuban-American, I think you have a love-hate/hate-hate relationship with the film,” he said. As he studied that period in Cuban-American history, he realized how much Scarface leaned into the popular narratives of Marielitos as dangerous criminals at the time, but one aspect rang true for Bustamante. “There’s still a big discord between those who came earlier and their descendents versus those who came in 1980 or after,” he said.

Filmmaker LeAnne Russell only recently watched Scarface for the first time. “Over the years, I had seen scenes on YouTube and countless reenactments by white guys asking me to ‘say hello to their little friend.’” She’s more disappointed in the film now that she’s seen it.

“Seeing and hearing Al Pacino imitate a Cuban accent, phrases, and mannerisms in such a cartoonish, blatantly culturally insensitive way really made me wonder why so many Miami Cubans find pride in this film,” she said. “For Cuban-born actor Steven Bauer – also in the film – to dismiss what he calls ‘old-school Cubans’ who took offense to the depiction of Cuban refugees in the film and say that it is ‘only a movie’ is naive and sad to me,” she said.

“I’ve seen people get tattoos, I’ve seen people get fades with Tony Montana” Sergio Lobo-Navia, a video projectionist who grew up in Miami, said. “From what I’ve talked to people about, they’re not offended. They’re proud Pacino played a Cuban guy,” he said. “Every pizza shop in Miami has the poster up on the wall. I like to joke that no one in Miami talked like Tony Montana until after Scarface.” He said there’s at least one big screening of Scarface in Miami that sells out every year.

Although he now works in law enforcement, Alexander Llaurado found in Scarface a boyhood hero when he was 14 years old. “I felt proud to see my people portrayed as so strong, macho, determined and fearless.” He says he still enjoys quoting the film and swapping impressions of Tony Montana if anyone brings it up to him.

“I still love this movie, and feel it captures the bravado and drive of the Cuban exile community,” he said. “However, I can understand how some people, especially Marielitos or family of Marielitos may find it exaggerated, stereotypical, and even offensive.”

Like others interviewed here, Llaurado recognized the film’s staying power among non-Cubans. “I believe it appeals to everyone who strives, hustles, and dreams big,” he said. Bustamante explained, “On the surface, it’s a rags to riches story, but one outside legal norms. Coming from certain underprivileged backgrounds, you gotta do what you gotta do to get ahead and achieve your version of the American Dream.”

“It’s hard for young people [who are] not into movies to talk about old movies,” Lobo-Navia said. “I think crime movies transcend that in a way. [You can see that in] the influence of Scarface, The Godfather on hip hop and rap culture. The romantic outlaw is still alive.”

For others like Russell, the limited scope of the on-screen Cuban experience continues to frustrate her. “It’s incredible and disappointing that 35 years later many people’s perception of Miami and the Cubans who came over during Mariel is still shaped by the film,” she said.

As with everything else in the Cuban exile community, it’s complicated.

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of its original release, Scarface returns to theaters across the country in June. More details here.