Miami: America’s Edge

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Outlook Traveler

A memorial in Miami’s Little Havana bears the words of Cuban poet Jose Marti: “Las palmas son novias que esperan.” The palm trees are girlfriends who wait. And indeed there is something both sensuous and sad about the palm trees that line the beaches and boulevards of South Florida. Their lady-like fronds swish back and forth like a novia apart from her beloved during the tropical storms that descend like lesser monsoons on Miami. Even in a soft breeze, her sway is full of longing. It’s almost as if she knows. Knows that, this being Miami, where old guard Cubans have passed four decades dreaming of reunions in a Castro-free homeland, her own wait might be very long indeed.

Miami, as Marti’s palm tree conjures, is a city unwilling to let go of the past. A place where immigrants and exiles have turned loss — and their denial of it — into a kind of poetry of the everyday.

The fast food chain of choice there is not McDonald’s but Pollo Tropical, with its Cuban-style grilled chicken, yucca fries and side orders of rice and beans. Instead of a Coca-Colonized populace, you will find locals milling around stands from which Styrofoam cups of steaming cafecito issue. The syrupy injections of caffeine are perhaps best had this way—on the sidewalk, from one of the countless eateries with serving windows opening out onto the bustle of Calle Ocho, or SW Eighth Street, the famous artery of Little Havana.

More than half the residents in the Miami metro area were born abroad. And they hold on to pasts rooted in various elsewheres — not only with their palates, but also with the fully stocked arsenal of their senses. They hold on to the past, just as four years ago they held on to a shipwrecked child found bobbing in an inner tube in the Atlantic Ocean.

The city’s Cuban exiles set up camp — right next to the world’s media — outside the small stucco house in Little Havana where, for five televised months, Elian Gonzalez ate, slept and received remote-controlled race cars, a purple stuffed Barney the Dinosaur, bicycles and countless other toys. The gifts came from dozens of surrogate aunts and uncles, most of them anonymous players in a trans-Caribbean custody battle in which they refused to surrender the boy to a country they had all fled. The night before U.S. Border Patrol agents finally snatched the six-year-old from his Miami relatives, there was nothing to foreshadow the loss. The night passed like most others on NW Second Street, Elian’s Street, before the Clinton administration returned him to his father.

Wrinkled ladies in flower-print housedresses sat in lawn chairs in the middle of the road. Under the brims of cream-colored fedoras, men with ridged faces gathered in councils of three or four. And vendors gave away pastelitos, the flaky pastries with guava centers that had made the journey across the Florida Straits with most of the crowd outside the house. The ambience was almost carnival, as though nothing stranger than a sundown block party were taking place. But there was also an undercurrent of something else — something subversive, something electric that charges every nook of exile and immigrant Miami.

The nameless aunts and uncles keeping vigil were all participants in an uprising of sorts. They had tried to set up sandbags against loss — the loss of Elian to his father, to Castro, to Cuba, and the loss of their own continuing fantasies of a triumphant return to their homeland. They were in a standoff against the U.S. government. And what’s more, the city’s two highest elected leaders — one a Democrat, one a Republican, but both Cuban-Americans — were on their side. Where else would a mayor decide to oppose an order from the country’s chief law enforcement officer? Only in a metropolis so on the edge of America, it is almost no longer America.

I had gone to Miami as a girlfriend in waiting. There was a palm tree outside the bedroom window of the former love I was visiting, not far from some telephone lines and electric cables. When the wind caught the palm tree, its sway sometimes led it into that tangle, to crackle and be singed. Somehow, in the sentimentalism of that stage of our breakup and under the influence of Marti, I identified with that palm tree — and found in it a tragic allure. The city of Miami in the final stages of its grip on Elian (as the protestors chanted, “Miami esta que arde,” or Miami is on fire) seemed no different.

My ex-boyfriend and I circled the neighborhood only hours before the predawn raid by the rifle-bearing federales who took the boy away. We walked among the exiles, and we walked past a mural of a cherubic Elian in his inner tube surrounded by dolphins. (According to one apocryphal story, dolphins saved him from sharks by encircling him.) With every step, past every canary yellow house with red tropical flowers peeking over its walls, I felt that I belonged there. That Miami, too, was a thing of warped beauty in its unwillingness to loosen its grasp.

Camp Elian was perhaps the most publicized example of that impulse. But it is not the only one. Every day, the city takes thousands of stands against assimilation, remaking South Florida in the image of Caracas, Havana, Bogota, Port-au-Prince and Port of Spain.

The air near Biscayne Bay is scorched every summer by the Creole lyrics and the chords of musicians sparring in a style invented by a saxophonist for Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier. Voodoo drum-inspired, compas (pronounced kompa) blends elements of mambo, merengue and bolero with a frenetic percussive line. Miami, with its annual festival, recording studios and rival bands, is one of its epicenters.

This year was the first that Reggae Sunfest, the Himalayas of reggae competition, was held outside Jamaica. Its superstars jammed instead in downtown Miami. The corporate sponsor was not Budweiser but the island nation’s own Red Stripe — nostalgia fermented, bottled and capped.

In strip malls outside the city, there are nightclubs with names such as Tropics and Hibiscus that serve goat curry and roti and where disc jockeys spin ‘chutney’ for West Indian immigrants. The music is a hot-hot-hot hybrid, borrowing Congo drums and a Creole dialect from Africans in the Caribbean and mixing it with Hindi and the dholak and dandtal of their neighbors from India. Both groups worked the plantations of Trinidad and Guyana for the British.

Now Indo-Caribbeans in South Florida move under strobe lights to rhythms derived helter-skelter from the folk songs of their ancestors. (If chutney were a painting, it would be Picasso’s bawdy Demoiselles D’Avignon, or the prostitutes of Avignon, with noses turned the wrong way, unproportional eyes and upside-down heads.) The amplifiers regularly crank out the supercharged chutney standard, Lotay Lal: “Mommy a baylay (sic) roti, Daddy a chownke dal. Didi a make the choka, and buddy eat out all.” The club goers, pumped up by the synthesizers, swing their hips below a sinuous outstretch of arms that would do their great-great-grandparents from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madras proud. Their feet pound the floor like “Nani grinin’ masala,” as one song put it.

Just about thirty miles away in Miami proper, one of the many dance halls and bars that cater to gay men hosts Mariloli, a drag queen from Cuba. Every Sunday night, she brings the house down — with anything from a string of Spanish pop songs to her own rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s disco-diehard “I Will Survive.” The Latin American men who come to see her do “A Quien Le Importa” by Mexico’s Thalia also come to be in each other’s company. To wear shirts with red flowers and flaring sleeves, hit on each other in Spanish and writhe under disco lights to lyrics such as “Y le baila, y la canta, y la goza” (And he dances, and he sings, and he enjoys it) by bubblegum band Las Ketchup. And despite all that, perhaps, to deny they know each other on the street the next day, in the full light of machismo.

This might not be the (very Republican) Cuban exile leadership’s idea of a stubborn embrace of where you have come from, but the palm tree pose has many incarnations.

Clearly, Miami isn’t only about clinging to the past. It has become a mecca not only for people on the margins, but also for those who want to push their margins. The sun capital is also a sin capital. Still — in this land of anything goes and the glitzy makeover, of posh South Beach and the Gucci-tread Lincoln Road — the most seductive quality is the swish of its fronds, the sound and the taste and the texture of its romantic attachment to the places to which it used to belong.

© Outlook Traveler. All rights reserved.