When leaving home is not your choice…
The Island was going through very difficult times. I could feel it, mostly because of slight indications, through some scattered words captured at random, always spoken by my parents in a low, cautious voice, as if they suspected an imminent danger. Dictatorship, revolution, liberty, Sierra Maestra, to leave, to return…, were just some of those words. Their faces look seriously grave while they urgently prepared for the supposed excursion to the far North. My whole family would, for the first time, become tourists.
It was during the month of September, in 1958…. We rode on the ferry. During the whole voyage, Ma’ played bingo with apparent enthusiasm. I can still recall how she made a racket when she won those twenty glorious dollars — which she showed off to everyone aboard the ship — as if it were a treasure that she had suddenly recovered. My two brothers and I were running around and chasing each other inside that last ferry, which seemed to be larger than the Titanic, while it glided over the vast, silent water. My father pensively smoked one Havana after the other…. We arrived at the pier in Key West before sunset. The omnibus with expertness ran through a narrow road, crossing those weary bridges that seemed to converge far off over the sea. It was not a sea as blue as the one we had left behind; nevertheless, it was a sea. The sea of the New World, and I felt like a tiny conquistador, a ten year old Ponce de León.
Exhausted, we rushed to take a hot shower, and afterwards to sleep in that modest room at the Albar Hotel, in Downtown Miami. It was just a little box, a simple room for the whole family, where weariness — that magic creator — had transformed it into the most comfortable suite in the world where we could all sleep at one’s ease that very first night, and all the successive nights, which only God knew how many they could be….
From the foot of the bed, Ma’ gave us a precise order:
“Go to sleep you rascals! Tomorrow will be another day!”
“Hey Ma’, are we in the New World yet?” I asked her, while my older brother kept on thrusting me aside in the bed.
She looked so strong and fierce. “Oh boy, you always with your humor!” she said, smiling, and kissing each of us in the forehead. We each made the sign of the cross…
The next day my father pointed over to Cielito Lindo, the tallest building in the entire city. It was the Court House — also a prison — with its pyramid shaped roof, where dozens of buzzards were always circling especially during the crepuscular hour. “I wish I were like those buzzards, watching the whole city from the watchtower,” I thought. Thanks to Cielito Lindo, my father, brothers, and I ventured long walks through Flagler Street, going West, without any fear of losing ourselves during our stay in the city. That building was our Compass; Flagler Street seemed to be the most important street in the whole city, in the whole New World.
“Okay boys let’s go back, I can barely see the pyramid and from here those darn buzzards look like mosquitoes in the sky!” my father said, while he filmed everything with his brand new 8mm Brownie Kodak camera, which according to him had cost an arm and a leg. He looked like a modern guajiro.
During the afternoon, after having supper, almost all of the hotel guests would sit in the small porch of the Albar. I could hear the old countrymen’s same dull commentaries; the same set of words, now pronounced without the furtive quality of before: Dictatorship! Revolution! Liberty! Time! Return…! My brothers and I would run through a patch of grass and pluck tiny prickly weeds. “Ha!” I thought, plotting some new devilry, “Those weeds are the same as in back home!” We placed those tiny, spherical thorns on some random seats, and then we feigned to be playing around in the halls, while we waited for someone to sit down…. Suddenly, someone’s pinched bottom would jump from the seat, utter an imprecation, and afterward, ashamed, offer an apology. How we laughed! That irrepressible laughter — which denounced our guiltiness — became an omen for a good beating.
Ma’, with a threatening air, and crinkling her eyebrow with irascibility, declared:
“Get to bed you rascals! Go to sleep damn it! Tomorrow you all won’t go out to walk with your father! You rascals! I’ve said enough! And don’t even dare to run around the halls! Or I’ll…! You all will have to stay inside the room all day!”
Of course we knew that the punishment wouldn’t be carried out next day; it was just a form of toning down, of amending our constant pranks.
Time passed; it whirled and whirled round in concentric circles, slowly, day after day, and we now confronted a new and bitter experience: Tediousness. Everything grew into the monotony of routine; the sluggishness of every passing minute crawled slowly, slowly, to nowhere. The same routine everyday, the same walks, the hamburgers (“No more, please! By God!”), the obligatory visiting of the 'Parque de las Palomas', where all the exiles — with tourist visas— hung about to hear news about the Island. There in that park, I could hear again and again and again the same words uttered by the guests of that boring yet at the same time warm and poignant downtown hotel.
“When are you taking us to the beach Mama?” I asked one day, thinking that I would sink into the boring fatigue of the wooden hotel floor. I thought that with an effort I could break the routine and therefore evade the long walks through Flagler Street, which I already knew like the palm of my hand.
“Darn rascal!” my mother said, flinging her arms everywhere, and after composing herself, looking at me with that eagle face, and her rigid arms stationed with firmness in her wide hips. “Tomorrow Tia Justa will pick us up in her car and take us to Miami Beach!”
“But Ma’, can we just walk there? We’ll walk East this time and Cielito Lindo can guide us…”
“Ab-so-lute-ly not! No sir! Miami Beach is far, but very far away!”
“Is that beach any pretty? As in back home…?”
She was hurrying through the small hotel room, and was about to enter the bathroom, when she suddenly stopped on the threshold, and jerked her head back at me. Lifting her head in that honorable way of hers, she raised her arms and said: “I don’t know! It’s probably a damned pit with hell fire in it! Now stop asking so many damn questions, Jesus Christ!”
The next day we were up on our feet as usual.
My brothers and I sang with jubilation inside the hotel room:
“En el mar la vida es mas sabrosa. En el mar todo es felicidad, cha cha cha… Maria Christina me quiere gobernar. Y yo le sigo, le sigo la corriente… Qué vamos a la playa. Allá vamos. Qué quitate la ropa, y me la quito…”
“Shhh! Not so loud you unruly knaves! You’ll wake up everyone in the hotel!”
“But mom nothing! Tia Justa just called me over the telephone. She said… oh stop playing around you… and you, stop running… anyway, she said she would pick us all up around three, after she finishes working at the factory, and after the sun has gone down a little…”
We entered Miami Beach. I only had eyes for the coconut palms, the birds, the sky, the sea; I could feel the breath of that sea…. In no time at all we were already playing on the sand —which incidentally was not fine sand—, in the water, which was not so warm, not so transparent like a crystal, not as blue as it was back home…. We swam close to the shore under the unanimous scrutiny of Ma’s and Tia Justa’s eyes. While we swam about the shore, my older brother had — because of her Draconian appearance — referred to Tia Justa as “Tia Adusta” .
The afternoon passed swiftly. All happy moments pass swiftly away….
“Ok boys, time to leave! It’s getting late! Get out of the water!”
“But Ma’, I still got to pick some sea shells and little pieces of rocks for my
“All right mom, don’t get so angry!”
“Come on Felix, take it easy, leave those whims alone,” said my older brother, the most judicious of us three. “You already have a collection back home, and when we go back it’ll be waiting for you in your drawer, where you left it….”
“And if we never return? Don’t you realize how those guests at the hotel are always lamenting how things are getting complicated over there, how people who have been killed appear thrown on the streets, and how bombs go off in the movie theaters and all of those problems….”
The sun was declining rapidly while we left the beach. It was the hour of colors here in the New World. While I walked behind my brothers and Ma’ and Tia Justa, lagging behind somewhat, taciturn, and kicking the sand with an infantile fury, I suddenly perceived in front of me those iridescent walls bathed under the tenuous twilight sun; those buildings’ precise forms delineated by neon lights of unimaginable tonalities. Those buildings seemed to be alive, as if they each had their proper soul. The buildings were the hotels of Ocean Drive: Colony, Beacon, Avalon, Pelican, Clevelander.... What new form of ecstasy was I experimenting with this time? It was a sensation which could perhaps be compared to the discovery I had made of any new mineral back in our mountains. The colors of those hotel walls in Ocean Drive reminded me of the vibrant colors of those minerals that I used to collect. Oh! So much beauty before me! I felt intoxicated, saturated by the lights, forms, textures, colors…, magic.
“Come on boy! Walk! Don’t lag behind! And stop looking around like a dummy!”
Of course I was petrified, without wanting to move an inch. The only words that came out of my mouth were: “Hey mom, hey mom, when will we come back again? Tomorrow, is that right?”
“Tomorrow? Well, only if you promise to behave will I bring you back again. And of course, don’t forget about Tia Justa, she has to bring us in her car.” I looked at the stern Tia Justa with an imploring face….
From that day forward my attitude changed; my character changed. I behaved so well that I seemed to be another person, a renovated ten year old boy. I had been forever marked by the indelible magic of Ocean Drive, by the iridescent hotels; hotels like jewels, like unconceivable minerals. I had now discovered the New World, the world of a new vocation. I no longer wanted to be a fireman, a policeman, a teacher, a doctor (my parents’ dream), or any other thing. I did not know the name of what I wanted to become in the future. I did not know, yet I longed to know…. One day, I thought, I would be like a magician who would make new forms, colors, textures, and spaces spring up... here in the New World, perhaps.
The enchantment did not fade away, even when in January of 1959 I had to return back home, back to The Island.
Time passed, and passed an eagle over the sea…
After a long absence of twenty years, I am again back here in this city. I have returned from the Island, this time definitely and for ever. The Albar Hotel no longer exists, and what hurts me most is that I don’t have the chance of ever walking those golden hallways again.
I have become what certainly I had foreseen that unrepeatable afternoon in September of 1958, when I was only a ten year old boy. Now I am an architect, and I can still feel the enchantment of this city in all its light and color, its iridescent walls under the tenuous sunset, of vivid, living buildings of impeccable shapes, and its prodigious textures….
And I feel pleasure whenever I perceive the smell of this sea.
Felix Anesio, Miami 2010.
Published by Arts at St. John for “Miami Beach, The Musical.”