This is piece of creative writing about the Cuban migration to Miami, by special section editor Elisa Baena.
The Acevedos got to Miami during the most putrid month of the year. It was poinciana season and the stench of rotting flowers seeped into my food and laundry. Before the Cubans came, we lived in the oldest house in Shenandoah. It was characteristically old Miami, built entirely of local pine and crowded with wicker. Our front yard was bookmarked by copper gumbo limbos, and our driveway was generously patterned with peacock excrement. As a child, it seemed like Shenandoah belonged to me, but it wasn’t home year round. Winter and spring were in Miami, and on the first of every May, it was back up North to my birthplace in the eastern valley of the Catskills.
We weren’t the only snowbirds. Almost everyone in Shenandoah was a transplant. Our next-door neighbors were a family from Atlanta that talked like they kept rocks in their mouths, and directly across the street was a childless couple from Quebec who owned a beauty parlor on Eighth Street. This displaced mashup made the rest of Miami just plain vanilla, an orderly grid of concrete block houses with pastel cars and monochrome interiors. Miami was a Southern state’s cousin, not sister, wearing the family crest but not quite acting the part. Sidewalks were soaked in Southern drawl, women didn’t learn how to drive, and there was absolutely no integration.
Selling wholesale produce was the family biz. Dad’s brother and his wife ran a store on the tail end of South Beach and ours was in Ellenville, New York. When we were in Miami, my family slept on the first floor of the house, and Uncle David and Aunt Josie lived upstairs. Mom and Dad converted part of the screened front porch into their bedroom, Sarah and I had the room perpendicular to the kitchen, and Grandma and Poppy slept on a Murphy bed in the living room. Poppy snored so bad he was sometimes forced to sleep on a lawn chair outside. I joined him once, falling asleep on his hard belly, and the milkman’s clinking and clunking woke me up before sunrise. When I went back to my bed, I counted 40 mosquito bites on my legs. I had the kind of blood they went mad for.
I moved out of the old house in 1958, the summer after my graduation from Miami High and six months after Dad’s stroke. With Dad as an invalid and Grandma and Poppy fainting all the time, Mom decided they should go back to Ellenville permanently. I was already engaged to my high school boyfriend Ari, and Mom said she would buy our first house if we got married before they left. A Jewish girl couldn’t leave home without a husband in those days. After our wedding, Ari and I moved into a little stucco home in what is now Little Havana. It had a simple Mediterranean layout with auburn-accented archways, Spanish tiles in the kitchen, and bougainvillea that crawled all over the walls. With Ari gone all day, I re-did the garden with flowers that wouldn’t wilt in the heat and repainted the exterior a peach Ari disagreed with. I fought against my teenage fertility the first few months of my marriage, but by my nineteenth birthday, I figured I should just let it go. Linda was born at the end of 1959.
I was feeding Linda shrimp and peas when I heard a car grumble in front of the house. I left Linda in her chair and walked to the front window because I thought it might be Ari. On the street, half a dozen adults were circling two taxis and twittering. They were louder than a mall and gesticulated each time they spoke. The taxi driver waited patiently by his doors as the family fumbled with a few dollar bills. The oldest woman in the group examined a bill in the sunlight and nudged the man to her left. He moved his hands around the pockets of his trousers and started walking toward my house. He was shorter than most of the men I knew and limped on beat like it was choreography. I didn’t move closer to the door when he struggled up my front steps and onto my porch. He extracted his freckled hand from his pocket with a single key and tried fitting it into my lock. After a few seconds of watching the doorknob jitter, I half-opened the door and made eye contact with him. He seemed about Poppy’s age, with the hairless, sun-stained arms of a man in his eighties.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Eh, hello miss. I did not know another person live here,” he said, and I could tell he was a Cuban exile. “My family is supposed to move into this house.”
“I don’t think so, sir,” I said laughing a little. “I barely have room for my husband and daughter.”
“You? A daughter? You look so young.”
“I am young,” I said smiling. “But I think that’s the house you’re talking about.” I pointed at the two-story house on my left, another stucco one with a dirty limestone wall. “It’s been empty for a while.”
“Maybe. I must have mess up the address. Please excuse the bother.”
He nodded his head bashfully and walked down the steps to his family, who were waiting for him with their hands on their hips. He folded his hands in the middle of his chest and told them something in Spanish. They let out an “Ahh” at the same time and picked up their suitcases from the sidewalk.
I knocked on the Acevedo’s door a week after they moved in. Our houses were only separated by a strip of cold grass, and I walked over balancing Linda on my hip and a peach cobbler on my arm. I tried baking it from memory, and it was dry as a sock, but I figured Cubans wouldn’t know what it was supposed to taste like. I let the cobbler down and knocked on the door. It was mostly red with splotches of white paint and the knocker was a tiger’s head. After a few minutes of sweating and flicking off the mosquitos, I assumed they weren’t home. I grabbed Linda’s hand, picked up the dessert from the iron ledge, and walked down the front steps. Linda wiggled her hand out of mine and ran to the back of their house. The man was standing in the backyard under a pregnant mango tree.
“Hola princesa,” he said to Linda. “And hello miss,” he said walking toward me.
“I brought you a dessert, sir. Peach cobbler. People around here call it Southern hospitality.”
“Southern hospitality,” he exclaimed. “Peach cobbler was one of my favorites in boarding school.”
“Did you go to boarding school in the South?”
“Jacksonville. My parents sent me to the U.S. for high school. That was a very popular thing to do in Cuba,” he stumbled, “before the Revolution.”
“Your English is very good,” I said awkwardly.
“It’s better than my wife’s,” he cackled.
He shouted at the house, and I thought the whole neighborhood must have heard him. A screen door was held open by the butt of a broomstick and I could see their empty Florida room. Mari emerged a few minutes later wearing a calf-length dress with a print that could have been on a baby’s blanket. She had two plastic rollers on the crown of her head and the rest of her dyed black hair was hard with hair spray. Her caramel skin was sticky with sweat and her eyebrows were drawn on. She smiled when she saw Linda, put her hand over her mouth, and waddled toward us.
“Mari, esta es la que vive al lado,” he said to his wife. “Sorry, what is your name?”
“Robbie,” I said.
“¿Robbie?” said Mari.
“Short for Roberta,” I clarified. “My dad picked it.”
“Dile a la niña que su nombre es muy bonito, Jorge,” Mari whispered.
“My wife say your name is very nice,” he said. “She don’t speak English.”
“That’s alright, I understand a little.”
“¿Y quien es esta criatura tan preciosa?” said Mari, smiling at Linda.
“What’s your name, baby?” I said softly.
“It’s good to meet you, Linda,” said Jorge. “Robbie y Linda nos trajeron un postre,” he told Mari. I understood what he said when he pointed at the peach cobbler.
“I made it,” I said, moving my mouth more than I was used to.
“I can’t wait to try it. Please come inside and have some with us,” said Jorge.
“Oh no, that’s alright. You two enjoy it.”
“No, no, no,” he said quickly. “This is Cuban hospitality.”
Mari lead us inside, petting Linda’s crinkly brown hair and speaking to her in Spanish. The house didn’t have much furniture except for some plastic beach chairs in the family room, a neatly made mattress in the living room, and a clunky mahogany armoire that the previous owners had left behind. Their Florida room, which they called El Florida, had green and yellow tiles that trapped the sun’s exhalations. El Florida emptied into the kitchen, which was turquoise wall-to-wall. It was small relative to the rest of the first floor and was missing a refrigerator. Mari took the peach cobbler from my hands and placed it on the counter.
“Your home is lovely,” I said.
“Ha! Lovely was our house in Pinar del Rio before those bastards took it from us,” said Jorge. I had seen pictures of the bearded guerillas in the paper with their pits of dead diplomats.
“I’m very sorry,” I said quietly. “I don’t know much about what’s going on over there.”
“A young lady like you don’t need to know about those things,” said Jorge.
“I hope I’m not being too brash, but do you live with other folks?”
“Oh yes,” he laughed. “Our two daughters and they husbands. It’s an arroz con mango. That mean a bunch of crazy,” Jorge said.
“¿Lo probamos?” suggested Mari, setting some mismatched china on the counter.
“I wanna sit,” whined Linda.
“You’re gonna sit real soon, baby.”
“She sit,” said Mari, welding her words. “Ven mi cielo.” She lifted Linda onto the counter beside me. Mari served herself a small square of peach cobbler and mentioned she was diabetic. When she took a bite, she threw her head back to Heaven. It wasn’t that good, but I appreciated the gesture.
A Southern bride in the sixties did two things when she got bored: had another kid or slept with her tennis instructor. I didn’t play tennis and certainly wasn’t gonna have another baby, so I enrolled in junior college. I signed up before telling Ari, and he didn’t speak to me for a few days, because I didn’t ask for his permission. When he found out it was an integrated college, he gave me a truckload of nonsense about how that wouldn’t be appropriate. I nodded my head and said ‘yes dear,’ but I didn’t take back my enrollment. Classes were just two days a week, and it was really easy to get there on the bus. Aunt Josie and Uncle David looked after Linda while I was at school, and I made sure to always get home before Ari. I had less time to cook, but I was always lousy at it so he couldn’t tell the difference.
One afternoon after class, I sweated through a silly thriller on the porch while Linda napped inside. I was armed with citronella candles, but I had to fetch some anti-itch cream because the mosquitos just wouldn’t leave me alone. The bottle I kept in a junk drawer in the kitchen was nearly empty, and I walked to the half-bath across the hall from Linda’s room. It was difficult to see her silhouette with the curtains drawn, and I poked my head through her door. She wasn’t in bed. Wasn’t in her closet. Not hiding in the bathtub or under the kitchen sink. I started looping around the house furiously, calling her name and slamming doors. I heard the screen door close and ran to the kitchen. Then I saw her. Linda was walking barefoot on the grass with her linen nightgown dragging behind her. I followed her, calling her name, but she giggled and kept going. She made her way to the Acevedo’s backyard and walked into the sun-drenched Florida room, but I couldn’t get myself to follow her in. Through the screen door, I saw Mari jump at the tiny apparition. She picked Linda up, pinched her cheek, and kissed the top of her head. That’s when Mari became Abuela.
In the next few months, Shenandoah’s habitual languor was disrupted. The overhead whistling of Eastern Airlines planes as they ascended and descended from Miami International Airport became the county’s elevator music. Soon the concrete boxes on our street started filling up with Cubans, and their pastel walls slowly ripened into mameys and Varadero blues. We weren’t a block of stale mint candies no more. We were an arroz con mango, and I was the arroz.
This article was featured in Distraction’s spring 2020 print issue.
words_elisa baena illustration_micaela abuhayar design_daniella cornide