Paradise lost, but a pocket of America found
Just looking at him, elderly Miami resident Pedro C. Alvarez is not the type who would be inclined to take in the scenery on Ocean Drive. It’s not his kind of place.
There, on famous South Beach, along the row of deco hotels, including the one where they shot the chainsaw scene for “Scarface”, wild-looking babes endurance test the elastic on their overbrimming bikinis.
Coke dealers, or possibly dentists, or maybe they’re porn stars, drive their black Bentley convertibles at stall speed down the main drag. Miami’s a look-at-me place, until you leave its shiny edges.
Mr Alvarez, 89, runs a Latin American CD shop (discos compactos) in Little Havana, a stark and worn-out part of town, which is a few kilometres inland from the beach and the glassy Downtown riverfront.
Little Havana seems like a place the city fathers just kind of forgot. This was once the heartland of Miami’s Cuban-American community, the place where they lived, worked and socialised, after fleeing, in waves, from Fidel Castro.
Nowadays, the Cuban-Americans have spread out far and wide across Miami but if you wander along Little Havana’s South West 8th Street, you’ll find secreted behind uninviting metal grill storefronts lots of cool, dark and friendly little cafes selling sweet shots of Cuban coffee and doing good business.
Mr Alavrez, who lives in this world, is a tiny and neat man whom I suspect has worn a tie most every day of his life. He tells how he left Castro’s Cuba, in 1963, with his wife and two daughters.
“We went to Spain,” he says. “It was the only way to get out of Cuba.”
Spain was anti-communist and had an understanding with Cuba, but Mr Alvarez had no intention of hanging around. “We spent three months there and then flew to New York. I spent 16 years there and then moved to Miami. I’ve been here 31 years.”
It is remarkable to think that, in 1963, in order to get to America from Cuba, which is a distance of only 150km, he had to fly to Europe. But at the time, it was too risky for his family to try to escape in Castro’s heavily patrolled ports.
In 1961, the CIA led a failed anti-Castro Cuban invasion that came to be known as the Bay of Pigs. After that, the island went into total lockdown. “No one could get off Cuba,” Mr Alvarez says.
“I wanted to be free. It was terrible. You can’t trust anyone, not even your own family. Almost everybody, 80 per cent of them, they were with Castro. It was a big prison and it still is.”
Mr Alvarez ran a sideline fabricating aluminium but his main work was as a broadcaster. “I owned a little radio station and advertising agency,” he says. His radio station only played music, never politics.
“I was not rich but I had a very good way of living. That changed the very moment, the very same day, that Castro took power on January the 1st, 1959. They shot a lot of people, every day. Not one or two. A lot.”
In 1963, be bought one-way tickets to Spain for his family. They left everything he owned behind. For reasons he does not understand, Cuban officials did not prevent his family from leaving. He had paid no bribe money, but it was clear from their tickets they were leaving Cuba for good.
“They were very hard with us but they didn’t stop us,” he says. “I don’t know why. Maybe Heaven helped us.”
To this day, Mr Alvarez cannot understand why Castro needed to change Cuba. He remains angry.
“At the time, Cuba was the most advanced country in Latin America.”
He pauses to make a point about pre-Castro Cuba. “It was a real paradise. And we lost it. It could never be the same again. They destroyed not only the material things, the people changed, completely.”
Mr Alvarez sold Latin American records in New York for the 16 years he lived there. But it was too cold up north and then one of his daughters got married and moved to Miami, so he and his wife, Dolores, did too.
They were almost back home.
About this time, in 1980, Castro allowed those who didn’t wish to share his version of Cuba to leave. An estimated 125,000 took to boats from the port of Mariel, just west of Havana. At the same time Castro, cunningly, unlocked his prisons and sent the dregs of Cuba’s criminal society to Miami.
Brian De Palma, who directed the 1983 movie “Scarface”, opened the film with a statement to that effect. Al Pacino’s character, Tony Montana, was one of these dregs.
It was remarkable that De Palma used such recent political events to give his story, about a poor Cuban thug coming to America to become a rich thug, its background.
The makers of “Scarface” were not embraced by Miami’s leaders, who were still dealing with a fullblown immigration crisis. De Palma was forced to film many of the scenes in California.
Miami did indeed have to deal with a crime wave out of the new Cuban arrivals, just as Castro had hoped.
Unlike Mr Alvarez, who’d arrived in America years before, and was welcomed into America as a political refugee, the 1980 group, known in Miami to this day as the Marielitos, were regarded with fear and hatred.
But most of those Marielitos who fled Cuba over seven months in 1980 simply wanted to get away from life under Castro. Today, they are Mr Alvarez’s friends and neighbours.
“There is no label you can put on the Marielitos. There were very good people, professionals.
“And,” he adds, “all the criminals in the jails in Cuba. But of all the people, there were maybe only 3000 or 4000 criminals. And we all know who they are.”
His wife Dolores died 17 years ago. His well-stocked and immaculate CD store, Casino Records, is his life. “Music is what I know best,” he says.
Asked if he had ever gone back to Cuba, Mr Alvarez says: “I’ve never been back.” Asked if he ever would go back, he says: “Never.”
* I note with deep sadness the anticipated passing of my long-time friend, Darwin author Andrew McMillan, who will be buried in his beloved one-horse town of Larrimah, in the Northern Territory. Andrew died in the company of friends. May the cycads watch over you, Andrew.
Correction: Previously, the copy erroneously said Spain was communist in 1963. The copy meant to say Spain was anti-communist in 1963.
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