Weekends at the tidy turquoise beaches that encrust the overheating city, Cubanas raise powerful thighs as they stomp through the sizzling white sand, bikini bottoms playing peek-a-boo in the shifting crevices as they walk, smoldering cigarette in one hand, beer in the other. They lift their chins to yell at the men, who sit with coolies resting on their proudly bared bellies, shouting at each other about this and that, that and this.
The beach seems not so much a physical place as an abiding state of mind for the Cubans: In the lap pool at L.A. Fitness, they wade at one end and stare into the distance as if they are, through sheer force of imagination, convincing themselves they are in the ocean and not in a cordoned cistern purposed for exercise. Gazing underwater at an immobile torso and legs through your goggles as you draw a bead on it you realize, pulse speeding in annoyance, that the figure is not about to move; he is rooted to the bottom, hands paddling idly near the surface like algae leaves waving in a current. A scolding stare as you rise, scoot by, and grab the pool’s edge to make your turn is greeted with an oblivious smile – Que paso? Tranquilo.
If the American dream is the ability to decide what we want and the freedom to attain it, nowhere is it more alive and hotly pursued than in Miami. And nowhere does the populace seem to have less interest in considering its inherent complexities and traps. So powerful and enduring seems the euphoria of having snagged the SUV and the small home on payments (hopefully with pool out back); so tantalizingly close and periodically accessible is the fantasy world of the clubs and beaches; so starkly contrasted is the capitalist system and its material rewards from the guerrilla socialism and land grabs they or their parents fled; such is the sense of hard work paying off, that any critical distance from or purchase on the system they are plying is negligible. The average Cuban émigré is, for all intents and purposes, the ideal American citizen: thankful, hardworking, content.
And for all their apparent incongruities with the rest of middle America, these revolution-fled Cubans, and the revolution-fled Nicaraguans who followed suit in the 1980s (the Haitians still cling at this point to the underbelly), are the city’s life-makers, saviors of a sort. Without them, what would Miami be but an endlessly reiterated, spiritless series of strip malls connected by gnarled highways in nature’s kiln, lined by some pretty beaches and a smattering of deeply tanned multi-millionaires living out secret lives in ocean-side redoubts with moats: Orange County with alligators. . Latin music, Latin food, Latin humor, Latin energy, Latin intellect, the beauty of the Spanish language constantly intoned and inscribed in the humid air, all save Miami from this fate.
Is it conceivable that Havana is as humid and uninhabitable as Miami is in the summer? If little more than 200 miles divides the two cities, the density of people and automobiles in Miami surely gives it the final turn of the screw. Beginning sometime in June and lasting until Halloween, on the heels of the rash of mini-hurricanes that blow across Miami nearly every afternoon for a month, effectively blinding drivers on the city’s already perilous highways and creating deep lakes in the parking lots of apartment complexes that pock the city, the humidity is so monstrous and sapping that the powerfully air-conditioned grocery stores and pharmacies shed their banality and become lively oases of refuge.
Stepping into Navarro, the Cuban-owned pharmacy chain, is about as close as you can get to visiting Latin America without a passport. The cashiers, older women in the main, all wear shiny name tags with their city of origin emblazoned beneath their name: “Margarita, La Habana,” “Jasmine, Cienfuegos,” “Isabel, Managua.” Unless you’ve camped out overnight, you take your place in a line for the register that wraps around the aisles and you fold your arms and wait; at Navarro there is no such phenomenon as a simple, efficient purchase. Every transaction between cashier and customer has the potential to be as lengthy and baroque as a speech by Fidel.
Returns, which are common, prompt the cashier to haul out from beneath the counter a logbook as thick as a city-hall registry and begin an inquisition that elicits energetically unspooled narratives populated by vibrant and sundry characters. Customer and cashier embark on lengthy discussion exploring the origin of desire for the item in question, the drama of disappointment when it failed to meet expectations, and the hopeful plan for returning said item moving on with life.
The Nicas in Miami act more like long-term visitors biding their time as they wait for things to get better back home. They are not aggressive colonizers like their Cuban counterparts. In contrast to Little Havana, which seems a coherent Cuban city unto itself, its influence radiating out to all points in greater Miami, what is known as Little Managua consists merely of a small neighborhood near a university surrounding a lone L-shaped strip mall whose parking lot is always too full to find a spot. But if you park on one of the side streets and enter the strip mall’s grocery store, you can find lumps of soft Cuajada cradled in moist banana leaves, the authentic leaden Nacatamals, and pork Fritanga, beads of grease dancing and snapping along the edges.
On the wall of the grocery you’ll see a poster of Miss Nicaragua from several years ago, and upon entering the store you are greeted with the standard Nica mercantilist query: Que va a llevar, mi amor? (What are you gonna buy, my love?”)
As you shop, you might see the counter girl gazing through the window with that subtle, earthy Nica sadness or fatalism that is always just beneath the surface of their bravado and humor. This is even more the case in Miami, where nostalgia is added to the mix. There is a kind of ghostly quality to the Nicas in Miami, as if they are there, but not fully. While the Cubans seem to have come to terms with the idea that they may never return to their homeland, the Nicas appear to have left Nicaragua in body, but not entirely in spirit.
Miami is energized by Latin American immigrants who are true believers in the capitalist system and uncritically adopt consumer habits. If Miami is a city in which the garishness of big-box stores is greeted with unquestioning cheer, in which the capitalist game is played with an uncommon relish, and the impact on the city’s livability from rampant consumerism and expansion does not seem to diminish its allure, then it is, it would seem, on the vanguard of progress, as dangerous as that progress may prove to be. And if progress should continue unchecked and eventually overwhelm the cultural vitality that thus far has been its match, then at least we can hope that Miami’s requiem will be sung in Spanish.
David Baez is a freelance writer of Nicaraguan heritage currently living in the Pacific Northwest. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, his writing has appeared in publications as various as The New York Times Magazine and The Eugene Weekly. Follow his blog here.