STEVE BOUSER: Recalling a Colorful Stint in Little Havana
Check out Bouser's Blog
Back in the early 1970s, I worked for a couple of years as a lowly copy editor at The Miami Herald.
My first wife and I spent the first half of our Florida stint in a modest duplex apartment just off Southwest Eighth Street, smack in the middle of a vibrant and colorful neighborhood called Little Havana.
Our neighbors were all of Hispanic origin. Instead of the usual grocery fare, or in addition to it, neighborhood stores specialized in things like frijoles negros (black beans), arroz verde (green rice), chickpeas and mangoes.
I think about that exotic subtropical interlude sometimes in the midst of all the increasingly loud and near-hysterical debate about immigrants from Latin America flooding the United States and increasingly overwhelming its capacity to absorb them.
We lived in that duplex until my firstborn son Jacob was about 18 months old, and his back-fence playmates were all little Latinos. In fact, he was in such a minority that the other kids called him "the norteamericano."
Our baby-sitter -- a big-hearted, middle-aged lady whose name, I believe, was Rosa Trujillo -- spoke hardly a word of English. As soon as she arrived, we'd head straight for the phone, where Rosa would dial her niece, who lived many miles across town, and then hand over the phone so that instructions about food and bedtimes could be relayed and translated.
Rosa would rock Jacob and sing him Latin songs. One of them was called something like "Mama Inez," and I can still hum the lilting melody. Once, after Rosa had been sitting with Jacob for several months, I told him it was time to learn to count. He told me he already knew how. I, in disbelief, asked him to show me. "OK," he proudly replied. "Uno, dos, tres, quatro ..."
I'm glad Jacob (and to a lesser extent, his younger brother Benjamin) had the opportunity to experience another culture so close-up and at such an early and impressionable age. I think it broadened them in ways that stay with them today, when they're about as old as I was then.
But when I look back on that colorful period, I'm not sure how relevant these reminiscences are to today's demographic realities. The ambience in our Little Havana neighborhood probably differs from today's widespread Hispanic influx more than it resembles it.
For one thing, our neighbors all had their families with them and lived in well-kept "CBS" (concrete-block-and-stucco) houses on palm-lined streets. For the most part they weren't single rootless, temporary workers living 20 to a house and sending half their paychecks back home. Most came from middle- or upper-class backgrounds.
Another difference: Few if any of the immigrants in our neighborhood were Mexicans. Some were Colombian and some were Panamanian, but most were Cuban.
It had been scarcely 20 years since the then-youthful Fidel Castro had ridden triumphantly down from the mountains and into Havana to take over and set up a Soviet-style socialist state. Much of Cuba's relatively wealthy middle class and most of its business community had fled en masse, and many of them had gotten no farther than south Florida, 90 miles away, before deciding to put down roots and wait for the overthrow of Castro -- something their children and grandchildren are still waiting for, even as the now-elderly Castro lies on his deathbed.
Two contradictory things struck me about the localized Latin influx back then, and I think the irony holds true on a wider scale today: I remember being disappointed that our Miami neighbors didn't seem to be assimilating very fast, or even trying. On the other hand, I was impressed at how they seemed to embody the American dream. Acutely and personally aware of the opportunity that America represented, they often displayed a more intense patriotism and a greater work ethic than the Anglos who felt so threatened by them.
After our Little Havana year, we moved to a more conventional neighborhood farther out. But after a couple of years in Florida, worrying about crime and fighting traffic during 45-minute commutes to work and back and longingly watching a lot of episodes of "The Waltons" on TV, we decided we wanted to leave the big city behind and set off for a job in a distant small town called Morganton, in the western mountains of a state we'd never set foot in: North Carolina.
I never regretted changing our address from 9964 SW 165th Terrace to 252 North Anderson.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
More like this story