(“Like dust in the wind.” The title comes from the 1977 song by Kansas. One of Padura’s non-mystery novels, the novel tells the story of a group of friends, all educated professionals, who come of age in 1980s Cuba. Marcos is one of the group’s next generation).
Two weeks after arriving in the United States, Marcos rented his first apartment, a space of barely 52 square meters in the Hialeah Club Villas condominium building, near the once attractive and now decaying Westland Mall. His brother Ramsés and his uncle Horacio had gotten his father, Darío – now in the money but reluctant to let any of it go, according to Ramsés; or an incorrigible cheapskate, according to his friend Horacio, – to send him some money from Barcelona. Managed well, the money would at least be enough for a few months of modest rent, and a very cheap used car, with an engine in decent shape. You couldn’t live in Florida without your own transportation.
Arriving in his 2005 Honda Civic (the young man installed a good dome light bought for pennies in a Cuban flea market; he fixed the dent in the front fender with tools that a friend from an auto-body shop lent him; in a decorative move, he camouflaged the result with spray paint), with one suitcase full of clothes and a few bits and pieces of kitchen equipment donated by Horacio’s sister, Marcos opened the door of apartment 1621 of Hialeah Club Villas, to be assaulted by a stench of concentrated nicotine and tar released by something that could once have been a rug.
While he opened doors and windows, poured bleach in the sinks and sprayed everything with scented disinfectant, taking out the old mattress and bringing in a newly purchased one, Marcos promised himself that this place would last him as briefly as possible. And he came to the additional realization that in this land of air conditioning and hygienic fundamentalism, smoking was clearly a bad habit. After he peed for the first time in his new lodgings, he threw the cigarettes he was carrying into the bleach-filled toilet and flushed.
Thanks to other friends and acquaintances, who had left the island in recent years and settled in Hialeah, Marcos began diving into the ambience of a city that functioned as one big neighborhood. Two weeks after arriving, recommended by that same body-shop mechanic who had lent the tools, he got his first job. The work was as mechanic’s helper, which actually meant clean-up-all-the-shit-and-carry-all-the-heavy-stuff. The shop specialized in repairing big trucks’ complicated transmissions. The shop was run by Big Nose Alipio, a childhood friend from the neighborhood in which his father had grown up (does everyone in this town know everyone else?). Luckily for Marcos, Alipio had just fired a Salvadoran helper, a guy who, besides not working much, practiced the magic art of making pliers, screwdrivers and sets of sensors disappear. The $10-an-hour salary was a poverty wage, but Marcos knew that $10 was better than nothing and that with his training as a mechanical engineer and his years in the Cuban jungle he would soon either leave the shop or be running it. And he set himself to studying the atmosphere and analyzing how to take over.
His first assessment of many Cubans’ preference for Hialeah was superficial but essentially accurate: You could live there “in Cuban,” and almost everyone knew almost everyone else. To a great extent, this suburban city replicated the ways and customs of the island, with the noteworthy and saving difference that every two blocks you would find a supermarket with its shelves full. However, as if you were in Cuba, if you knew the right place, you could find a guy selling a lot of the merchandise on sale in the supermarket (meat, canned goods, candy) at half-price (it was always a good idea to check the expiration dates).
An important influence on this Cuban territorial preference was the past ease of getting work in the so-called factorías and the combination of forces – this one still operating – that made this place, constantly getting uglier and more run-down (and from where, of course, most of those who had attained some economic success fled for other parts of the county), you could find the lowest rents of any of the Cuban areas in South Florida. And, above all, the choice of location had a lot do do with the fact that you didn’t have to go through the arduous process of learning English in order to live your life, not even when it came to acquiring United States citizenship.
In Hialeah restaurants you ate Cuban food and in the cafés you drank Cuban coffee, in the entertainment spots you heard Cuban music. Only Cubans worked in the barbershops and salons and people talked trash a la cubana (with a certain preference for the topic of the imminent fall of Communism on the island), while in the hospitals, Spanish was the universal language. The churches, Catholic or Protestant (often with Hispanic priests and pastors) adjoined the Cuban botánicas that sold everything you needed for santería ceremonies, including animals needed for ritual sacrifices – much to the horror of the highly civilized North Americans, even those who hunted, or had arsenals in their homes and semi-automatic pistols in the trunks of their cars. Naturally, the condos and apartment buildings were occupied by Cubans. And, as if that weren’t enough, the police chief, fire chief and even the mayor of Hialeah were Cuban. The density of the environment was such that, in a coffee shop belonging to a North American chain, a Cuban employee refused to wait on a client because she couldn’t speak Spanish. She yelled at the gringa: “This is Hialeah, honey!”