The first time I traveled out of the city of my birth was on a 24-hour trip from Rio de Janeiro to Miami on an old propeller airplane in 1958. We were one of the handful of immigrants trickling into Miami just before the Cuban exiles started arriving. At that time, my father was required to have a sponsor and a deposit of $12,000 to be allowed to emigrate.
I don’t know why he chose Miami – perhaps because it was the closest city to South America, although it was so far that it took 24 hours to reach our destination. At some point, I looked out of the window hoping to see Miami, but saw instead an unusual sight: cotton, piled as high as buildings. It didn’t look like the pictures of snow I had seen. I was 6, and I looked hard at that cotton before I realized I was looking at clouds. Many meals later, we broke through the clouds and Miami in all its glory appeared below us.
We settled in the home of our sponsors, the Aguiar family, in a pristine neighborhood of modern houses and deep black asphalt near Tropical Park, at that time a race track. Even as a child, I was amazed at the cleanliness of the neighborhood – its wide-open spaces and its wide, smooth, ebony streets, so unlike the crowded cobblestone streets of my Rio neighborhood. And the freedom! We were allowed to play outside on our own, leave our toys on the lawn, cross the streets without adult supervision, and live and roam freely. Miami was a small town then.
We bought a house across the street from our sponsors, and I began attending Emerson Elementary School. It was such a modern school that each classroom had its own bathroom, and we didn’t have to raise our hand in order to use it. On the other hand, there were no air conditioners, so the windows were always opened. At Emerson Elementary, I learned to speak, read and write English.
My father loved outings. With four kids, my father couldn’t afford to take us on too many expensive outings, but beaches were free, so every Sunday we switched from Crandon Park (where there was a free zoo!), Haulover (clothing was required then), South Beach (mostly filled with retired people), Cape Florida (not Bill Baggs then) and one of our favorites, Matheson Hammock (we called it “Devil’s Toilet”).
One beach we never visited when we first arrived was Virginia Key, which was reserved for blacks. I never even knew Virginia Key existed until the 1970s when, as a teenager, I went there to hear my brothers’ rock band playing at an outdoor concert. By then, beaches had been desegregated and Virginia Key was a haven for hippies, bands and young people playing Frisbee.
Occasionally, my father splurged, taking the four of us to those wonderful, old Florida theme parks that flourished before Disney World: Monkey Jungle, the old Parrot Jungle in Pinecrest, Pirate’s World, Pioneer City. His favorite was the Seaquarium. He delighted in hearing us squeal at the shark sculpture revolving at the entrance to Key Biscayne. The shark is still there, but motionless now, and much less threatening.
Because I was the oldest, and the only one who could appreciate it, he took me alone to a Seminole Indian Village, a place he’d visited the year before we moved here, when he came to make arrangements for our arrival. Before the casinos, many of the Seminoles lived in thatched huts. Though Seminoles are now identified with Broward, the Miccosukee and Seminole were one and the same before the early 1960s, when they were recognized as independent tribes.
Then, in 1960, the Cubans began to arrive. Rapidly, Miami began to change. More and more of our neighbors spoke Spanish. Around the mid-1960s, my mother was able to have a shot of sweetened espresso (now known as Cuban coffee) at Kress. Even as children, we noticed that something was happening. Cuban neighbors would sometimes give us cans of free food given to them by the U.S. government as a way to help the new refugees. The cans came with no paper labels, merely an official “Cuban Refugee Program” stamp and a description of the contents. I guess the Cubans didn’t much like them because they kept giving them to us. None of us liked the powdered scrambled eggs or the canned meat, either, so my mother stopped accepting them.
When we moved to Hialeah, I found a boyfriend, who took me to an empty area he called Master’s Field not far from our house. It had once been an airport, but what was then nothing but rocks and gravel. He told me that as a kid he often biked there to watch Army tanks and soldiers but was oblivious to what was probably the preparation for either the Bay of Pigs invasion or perhaps the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later, part of that field became Amelia Earhart Park, and another section became Amelia Earhart Elementary and Hialeah Junior High School, which we attended.
When the Cubans arrived, we found much of Latin America taking root and growing right in our backyard. Our family was once again able to live a Latin lifestyle – sweet, strong coffee at every corner, a language my mother could understand, although not speak perfectly, and crowded beaches filled with loud, rhythmic music.