Sunday, July 12, 2015

Making sense of Miami:

Thursday 2 July 2015

Making sense of Miami: what America's strangest city says about the US's future

The dizzying blend of accents entices some visitors and alarms others. But as the US gets ever-closer to Cuba, Miami resident Michael Deibert asks: what can the rest of America learn from its own multicultural metropolis? 

The Guardian
(Please read original article here)

Just off Miami’s busy Calle Ocho, the thoroughfare that is the beating cultural heart of the city’s Cuban community, there rises a splendid ceiba tree whose roots erupt from the ground like waves from the sea, and whose vast branches throw shade far to either side.

All around the gnarled roots and tucked into the tree’s hidden crevices, one finds the offerings of the faithful: candles, bags of food, feathers, bones. In this modern metropolis, whose vaulting skyscrapers a mile away reflect the near-blinding sun, the saturnalia surrounding the ceiba attests to the lifeblood of the Afro-Cuban religion of santería, and Miami’s eternal place in the imagination of el exilio, as the Cuban community is often referred to.

I’ve lived in Miami off and on since the mid-1990s. As much as anywhere in the United States – my native country with which I have an often conflicted relationship – it counts as home. Landing back in Florida from Haiti, Paris or elsewhere, Miami always seems to offer the singular trick of providing some of the efficiency and convenience of living in the US while never seeming entirely a part of it.
Miami has long been a kind of quasi city-state that evokes strong reactions from visitors, especially those from more anglicised parts of the country who cannot make themselves understood in English to a large part of the local population – an experience that annoys and alarms them.

The strangest city in what is perhaps America’s strangest state, Miami is now home not just to Cubans but to thousands of Argentines, Brazilians, Colombians, Haitians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and practically every other Latin American nationality, with sizeable populations of Russians, Indians, Persians and Orthodox Jews as well.

The city has become so micronised that what is commonly thought of as “Miami” in the popular imagination is, in fact, a series of semi-independent small cities – some only a few blocks long – within the urban sprawl of Miami-Dade County (population 2.6 million). It fronts a long sweep of the blue-green Atlantic to the east and finally peters out in the miasma of the Everglades swamp to the west and the necklace of the Florida Keys to the south.

A young city (it was only incorporated in 1896 in what was then mostly wilderness), Miami is often said to have been founded on bootleg liquor and built its skyline on an infusion of cocaine money in the 70s and 80s (at the height of its cocaine wars in 1980 to 1981, the city had the world’s highest murder rate). Nearly 30 years ago, the crime writer Edna Buchanan wrote that Miami had been “a sleepy resort” that had transformed to attract “year-round ... concentrations of everything corrupt, bizarre or dangerous from everywhere in the world”.

Above all, Miami is a place of exile where newcomers try to construct a new life. Upon arriving from Cuba in 1980, the author Reinaldo Arenas – who as a teenaged barbudo had fought with Castro’s forces but was then imprisoned and tortured both for being an independent intellectual and gay – declared Miami “a barren and pestiferous peninsula ... trying to become for a million exiles, the dream of a tropical island”.

No fan of the city, Arenas quickly decamped to New York, where he committed suicide in 1990. Miami, however, continued to percolate like a spoonful of Café Bustelo coffee from the cafe colada that residents traditionally drink every afternoon at 3:05 (the city’s area code). And it has become something more interesting than many had thought possible.

In his office in West Miami near the city’s airport – a few blocks away from a branch of the city’s El Palacio de los Jugos Cuban eateries where the pan con lechón hints at the divine – Armando Valladares sits surrounded by photos of himself with political leaders: Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Florida senator (and Miami native and presidential candidate) Marco Rubio. Now white-haired, bespectacled and elegant, Valladares spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for – among other perceived offences – refusing to put an “I’m with Fidel” sign on his desk at the Ministry of Communications in 1960. Upon his release in 1982, he became a United States Ambassador to the United Nations. After residing in Washington for many years, he moved to Miami about 15 years ago.

“The Cubans have demonstrated their ability and their quality of work here,” Valladares says. “It’s a unique case in the history of the United States where the identity of a city was born, in a sense, in another country.”

The Cuban aspects of Miami’s identity appear to be far less monolithic than they once were, though. Many younger Cuban-Americans support the easing of relations with Cuba that US president Barack Obama has been pursuing with the island’s rulers. Events such as the O’ Miami poetry festival bring Cuban cultural groups such as Omni Zona Franca (from eastern Havana’s housing estates) to Miami on a regular basis, demonstrating that the city’s Latin vibe is more than Hoy Como Ayer (Today Like Yesterday), as one long-standing club wistfully calls itself.

If Miami represents a refuge for Cubans, it serves as no less of one for Haitians who, fleeing a downward economic spiral and the tyranny of some of the country’s leaders, have made a profound impact on Miami’s cultural life over the last several decades.

Along a once-neglected stretch of Northeast 2nd Avenue in the heart of the Haitian immigrant community, a cultural flowering has taken place that has seen the opening of the Little Haiti Cultural Center and its Caribbean Marketplace – a replica of the famed Marché en fer (Iron Market) in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Exuberantly coloured murals by local artists adorn walls, and every Friday night the Rara Lakay band marches through the neighbourhood, beating on drums and blowing on plangent bamboo vaksin trumpets, whose bleat more evokes the deep Haitian countryside than an American city.

“I have seen this city grow culturally,” says the Haitian painter Edouard Duval Carrié, who arrived in Miami from Paris in 1992. “When I moved here it was really a [cultural] desert. That has changed.”
Carrié maintains his studio in Little Haiti. Famous for his painting of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in a wedding dress (an image that did not endear him to the regime), his space now seems a precursor of the area’s renaissance. What was once a district many outsiders approached with trepidation now attracts hundreds of people to the outdoor concerts of its monthly Big Night in Little Haiti.

“This is the doorway to the United States,” Carrié says. “The particularity of Miami is that it has this very ebullient immigration that makes it quite fascinating.”

But Miami’s growth into the multicultural metropolis it is today has had a sinister side, too. In the 1960s, the city built the southern extension of Interstate 95 directly through the heart of the Overtown district, an area that had been a cultural mecca for black culture in the south. “Overtown was a very pleasant place,” says Enid Pinkney, the 83-year-old daughter of an immigrant from the Bahamas (one of the first non-indigenous communities to settle in Miami).

Dispersed to other areas of the city, black residents often found themselves met with hostility. After the 1980 acquittal of four white and Latino police officers for the murder of black businessman Arthur McDuffie, at least 18 people died in rioting and property destruction topped $100m. Fatal police shootings touched off riots in the city at three other points during that decade.

Police departments throughout the county gained a reputation for violence and corruption that intervening years have done little to diminish, with Miami Beach police famously fatally tasering teenage Colombian-American graffiti artist Israel Hernandez in 2013. That same year, a report by the US Justice Department found that City of Miami police had “engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force through officer-involved shootings in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution” and that the department was tainted by “deficient tactics, improper actions by specialised units, as well as egregious delays and substantive deficiencies in deadly force investigations”.

Outside observers often remain mystified by Miami. Three years ago, the author Tom Wolfe attempted to capture it as he had 1980s New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and instead spewed forth a right-wing caricature titled Back to Blood that showed no grasp of the place the city has become. Such misconceptions are helped along by gaffe- and scandal-prone local politicians, whose peccadillos include everything from floating the idea to shut down all the city’s libraries to close a budget gap, to the by-now standard (for Miami) cash-for-favours schemes.

In some areas, things have gone over the top. In South Beach – once a slum for retirees and poor immigrants, now a gay mecca and nightlife hotspot – crass commercialisation has resulted in a kind of Vegas-by-the-sea ambiance, with even the famed Lincoln Road, once a redoubt of local restaurants and retailers, now housing little more than chain stores and the bewildered tourists they prey upon. The preponderance of “juniors” (a derisive term for the rich scions of Latin America’s economic elite) in the city can be somewhat off-putting, as it seems not only the language and music of that elite is being imported, but their class system, as well.

But the city has blossomed from the place that Reinaldo Arenas despised. The great Cuban poet and anthropologist Lydia Cabrera, who was during her lifetime one of the world’s foremost authorities on Afro-Cuban religion, spent the latter part of her life based in Miami, and donated her abundant collection of papers to the university here. It was home, too, for one of Haiti’s greatest poets, Félix Morisseau-Leroy, for the last 17 years of his life. And, as testament to the city’s new cultural heritage, a new major institution, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, opened next to the waters of Biscayne Bay in 2013; the Art Basel festival attracts thousands to the city every year; and the Miami Book Fair is an autumn staple of the literary calendar.

Perhaps more representative of the city than South Beach today are the northern reaches of Miami Beach, an area that is still home to many working-class residents despite spiralling property prices, where the lilting, almost Italianate sound of Argentine Spanish mixes with the caressing sounds of Brazilian Portuguese in the bodegas and on the beach. The Buenos Aires Bakery & Cafe – an establishment on Collins Avenue, only steps away from the sea – sells a variety of pastries that would make any porteño misty-eyed with nostalgia as well as several different kinds of the leafy, highly caffeinated mate beloved in South America, and does a brisk business.

When one drives south towards the Florida Keys – where the last island, Key West, is a mere 90 miles from Cuba – the county begins to descend into farmland. It was here that, in the early part of the 20th century, a Latvian-born eccentric named Edward Leedskalnin created an extraordinary structure known as the Coral Castle, out of coral-formed limestone. As he worked alone and without advanced equipment, just how Leedskalnin created his “castle” remains something of a mystery – with explanations ranging from some secret mastery of the Earth’s magnetic field to telekinesis.

Today, other dreams are played out in Miami-Dade’s fields, and exist in the imaginings of the many migrant workers who toil here, scant miles from the glittering high-rises of downtown Miami. 
Surrounded by fields of squash, okra, beans and tomatoes, the community of Homestead, despite its tropical locale, evokes the somnolent Midwestern communities of a Ray Bradbury story. Low-rise buildings, train tracks and empty playground swings greet the visitor, and in the street one hears the melange of accents and dialects from the agricultural workers here: Mexican, Guatemalan, Haitian, Jamaican.

In the offices of the immigrant support group WeCount! just off of North Krome Avenue (which shares its name with one of the US’s most infamous immigration detention centres located nearby), the connection between Homestead’s rural lushness and the city rising only a few miles away seems obvious.

“The Mexicans are the ones that put the food on Miami’s table,” says Catalina Santiago, an 18-year-old high school student who came to the US with her agricultural-worker parents from the Mexican state of Oaxaca a decade ago. “But they are always spoken of in a condescending manner.”

On the street below, where Santiago sits with her brother and a number of other immigrants, dusk falls and Homestead sees Mexican families gathering for Sunday-night dinner at restaurants such as Casita Tejas. When they rise for work early the following morning, some will be met by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and local police, who will be waiting to check their immigration status and arrest them for probable deportation if they are undocumented (as many are, a state of affairs on which Florida’s agriculture depends).

Perhaps it is impending apocalypse, natural and man-made, that makes Miami’s frivolity all the more poignant. If climate change predictions are to be believed, large parts of Miami – Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Virginia Key – will be under water in coming years, a phenomenon helped along by the fact that many Florida politicians, including Governor Rick Scott and the aforementioned Senator Rubio, deny that climate change can be linked to human activity.

Driving home north along US1, the skyline of Miami rises above the flat land, its concrete and steel wrapped in the warmth of the tropical sunset. A city of outsiders, refugees and immigrants that – in its reflection of present-day America’s diversity – feels in many ways more “American” than the 1950s small-town Americana that some politicians and commentators are perpetually nostalgic for.

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