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AQ Feature

Miami, Beyond the Palm Trees

An excerpt from Andrés Neuman's How to Travel without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America.
Joe Sohm

This article is part of AQ's debut culture supplement, Cultura. To see the rest of the issue, click here

The following is an excerpt from Andrés Neuman's How to Travel without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America, available August 30, 2016 from Restless Books.

Guatemala airport. Preboarding zone. American Airlines counter. When the agent sees that I have carry-on luggage, she anxiously asks me if I have liquids (yes, I do), what they are (gel, shampoo, cologne), how many ounces they contain (how much exactly is an ounce?), if I have Ziploc bags (excuse me?), if something’s wrong with me or if I’m stupid (yes, I am), if I’m sure that I don’t want to check my bag (no, I don’t). The agent looks at me as I imagine one looks at a novice hang-glider, hands me my boarding pass, and takes a deep breath.

*

Boarding area. International terminal. Security check. Jacket. Watch. Keys. Belt. Coins. Computer. Chargers. Cords. Pullover. Nail clippers. Razor. Lotion. Shoes. My liver and pancreas do not need to be taken out.

*

Miami seems irreversibly ugly, until one lands at night among its lights.

*

“You have not filled out the green form.” The bilingual policeman speaks to me in English. No, sir, I respond. “You filled out the white one.” Yes, sir, I respond. “Go fill out the green one and come back.” Yes, sir. “On my computer I see you did not complete the preflight procedure.” No, sir. “You should have done it.” Yes, sir. “Technically, we shouldn’t let you in. That’s the law.” Yes, sir. “Next time, do it.” Yes sir. “Otherwise...” Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

Yes, sir. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.

*

Hotel in Miami: Hyatt Regency.
Hotel Environment: Shopping Mall with Beds. Reception Style: “Extremely Kind.”

*

On South Miami Avenue, where there used to be an old fire station, they’ve opened an irresistible Spanish restaurant. Irresistible not because of its food, but because of its extraordinary name: Dolores But You Can Call Me Lolita. They created an intertextual restaurant. We dine on the terrace. We eat croquettes. The well-built waiter says his name is Margaret.

*

People don’t walk here either, but for different reasons. In many Latin American cities, walking is unsafe. In Miami, it’s unproductive.

*

“This,” someone says, “is a writers’ city.” Why? I ask, perplexed. “Just listen—Mi-a-mí, me-to- me, just like all the writers!”

*

A widespread, throbbing sensuality. A chromatic elasticity in the skin. A trace of the gym in every navel. Cars, sandals, money.

*

Noon. Ocean Drive. The thriving heart of Miami Beach. Convertibles. Palm trees. The fascination of kitsch as a way of life. By the door of Mango’s, a Latin dance bar, a group of half-black dancers, dressed in leotards, move their hips distractedly. Right now the place is almost empty. A lone couple, maybe survivors from the night before, twirl around the dance floor. Meanwhile, Miami twirls around itself.

*

Miami Beach disappoints me with its myths and intrigues me with its sociology. Its beaches and boulevards aren’t so great. Its Latin synthesis, on the other hand, its mixture of placeless Spanish, its tan and swaying Hispanic Frankenstein, is like a foreshadowing of the future.

*

Moving through Coral Gables, I can’t help but recall Juan Ramón Jiménez. This city was the first of his dignified exile, just after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Here he wrote Romances de Coral Gables. These verses sprang from here:

I don’t want to return to myself
for fear of provoking the distaste of a different tree
among so many identical trees
The trees forgot my condition of wandering man
and, with my condition forgotten,
I heard the trees speak...
How could I tell them

that I was just a passerby,
that they shouldn’t speak to me?
I didn’t want to betray them.

He never betrayed the people of Spain or the trees of Miami.

*

In Coconut Grove there are Jamaicans, Bahamians, and white people. Suddenly, beyond a certain street, the latter group disappears from the map. In the same neighborhood, we’re now in the black area. The white people don’t seem to pass through it and the black people don’t leave it. A tacit game of checkers. With a board split in two.

*

I visit Little Havana, with plenty of home-cooked meals, small shops, and signs in Spanish. Among the souvenirs, one gift catches my eye: rolls of toilet paper with the bearded likeness of Fidel. This would be unthinkable in Cuba. Not because of censorship, but because of the lack of toilet paper.

*

“There are people who have lived here for twenty years,” she says, “and still don’t dare to say Fidel’s name. They call him the Unnameable One.”

*

Versailles Restaurant is a popular bastion of Cuban dissidents. Here they make wonderful food and hand out anti-Castro publications. I sit down to read and order a cortadito. “Three European countries,” I read in Spotlight, “ask Spain to clarify its position toward Cuba. The next European presidency is a concern for some members, particularly with respect to future foreign relations.” At the next table I hear complaints about the Spanish government for its silence regarding the detention of blogger Yoani Sánchez, who received a beating as a calculated warning. When it rains, it pours. I don’t remember any big official protests last year when they refused to give her permission to travel to Spain to receive a prize for her exemplary work as a reporter.

*

The paper Art Deco Tropical attempts a strange defense of Yoani Sánchez:

“Weak like a woman, but also strong...” There should be a denunciation of such denunciations.

*

In La píldora del mal amor by Anjanette Delgado, a light novel about labor pangs, the protagonist answers her husband, “You say you love me because you don’t know me very well.”

*

The controversial awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama has caused a com- motion in the Cuban papers in Miami, particularly those on the Republican far right. I read an article by Saturnino Polón, who had the undeniably bad fortune of being a political prisoner of Castro, in Enfoque 3. The author constantly refers to Obama by his middle name, Hussein, as if this coincidental overlap with the Iraqi dictator might lead to intelligent conclusions. Although Mr. Polón calls himself a writer, I’ll allow myself to touch up his punctuation to make the text more legible:

The awarding of the prize, years ago, to the lying Rigoberta Menchú, anticipated our current moment. But the final proof that this prize is merely an instrument of manipulation was given to us by the impudent decision to award the prize to B. Hussein Obama.... Mr. Hussein has not yet done anything for peace, apart from being a complete charlatan.... That’s why this opportunistic charlatan whom we must by law call the president was hired, when we don’t even know if he’s actually president, since he has never shown his birth certificate.... Additionally, having been raised with and spoon-fed fundamentalist Muslim, radical pro-Communist leftist, and racist and radical leftist ideas from the Black Power Movement.... Now he’s under even more pressure than before to achieve some peace at all costs. Of course, the most obvious way would be to stop the current war (it would be better to call it a “campaign”) in Muslim Asia.... The summary is simple. Nothing has contributed more to the cause of World Peace than this. It has helped to prevent the repetition of large-scale wars like World War I and World War II and made these current wars manageable: the very existence of nuclear arms. ... Nobody has more right to the prize than the Atomic Bomb. That has been the most effective promoter of World Peace among men.

*

I breathe deeply. This article would have particular success in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have the feeling that I’ve just been witness to an extraordinary lesson, but I’m not exactly sure about what.

*

More reasonably, two readers in the pages of the same newspaper synthesize the matter succinctly: “Unfortunately, the president’s popularity has overshadowed those who have been struggling tirelessly all of their lives to truly achieve peace and human rights.” “Leaders at the helm of powerful nations with significant weight in world events should be exempt from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. At least while they’re representing their country.... Conflicts of interest necessarily exist.” Spotlight formulates this into a good question: “Is it possible that the charismatic Barack Obama... has adopted Henry Kissinger’s model of political realism to shape the country’s foreign affairs, a model that exudes pragmatism but that lacks any passion for freedom and human rights?” It then mentions relations with China, Egypt, Russia and, of course, Cuba. Passion for freedom and human rights. Maybe these values are incompatible with passion itself.

*

“There is a segment of the Cuban dissidence,” she says, “that maintains, in my view, a profound complicity with the regime over there. They do them so many favors!”

*

“But in Cuba,” someone objects, “at least there has always been education and health care.” “Ay, mi hermano,” someone else answers, “but one doesn’t spend one’s whole life in a hospital or in school!” “Yeah,” a third adds, “there they teach everyone to read. To read the Party line.”

*

In Miami the sun illuminates, penetrates, castrates you. It’s a Castro-like heat.

*

“Tomás Regalado is the typical politician defending big interests,” someone argues. “Which in Miami,” someone else points out, “is completely redundant.”

*

“May God keep her where it’s not wet,” she says seriously, referring to a dead woman.

*

I stop to eat at Exquisito, a restaurant in Little Havana where they welcome smokers at the entrance. The place is covered with tiles and old pictures of Cuban musicians: Arturo Sandoval, Roberto Torres, Concha Valdés Miranda. In one of the corners there is a stash of percussion instruments used in their shows. I ask for a papaya shake and fried rice. I’m curious to see if it’s similar to what in Spain they call arroz a la cubana. I ask the waitress how they cook it. “Just like in China,” she answers.

--

Neuman is a Spanish-Argentine writer, poet and translator.

Translated by Jeffrey Lawrence

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Cultura, Cuba

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