A Good Boy

A few months ago, my Dad and I were at the dinner table and talking about an old friend of mine I’ve known since 2nd grade. “He’s a good boy,” my Dad said.

Of course he is. He just got engaged to his high school sweetheart, a very nice girl who’s finishing law school this year, and he’s halfway through med school himself.

Later in the conversation, I asked my Dad what he thought of the short story I’d just had published. The title of the piece is “War Heroes” – the first and only short story I’ve placed anywhere. It’s about the way different generations of Cuban exiles interact with each other. It’s mostly autobiographical, since both my parents are Cuban. I’m immensely proud of “War Heroes,” not just because I think it’s good, but because I think I was able to crystalize a part of the Cuban exile experience: the agony and joy of living in America while still dreaming of Cuba. I even considered the story something of an homage to my parents and the exiles.

My Dad didn’t like it. He told me it had upset my Mother because it has a curse word. The word is “fucking,” which in their estimation is utterly unacceptable, even though I didn’t even use it as a verb – just an adjective.

My Dad lectured me for awhile about not using bad words in my writing anymore. He repeated himself several times. And meanwhile, I had another thought: I want to be a good person, but a bad boy.

Five Fun Things To Do In Miami You Won’t Read In A Guidebook

It turns out my hometown of Miami is actually the fattest, rudest, worst-run city in the country. That’s according to Men’s Health, Travel + Leisure, and a site called 24/7 Wall St. (Well, it’s technically only the second rudest.) Yet for some strange reason, tons of people still want to move to this tropical hellscape, at least for retirement. Let’s ignore this bewildering anomaly for now. I want to tell you about the Miami I know.

So there are a lot of haters out there, but let me set this straight: there’s a whole lot of awesome in Miami. Sure, everyone’s heard of the clubs and nightlife, and most visitors to America’s most tropical city either love or hate them, but Miami’s got plenty of other great stuff to offer independent-minded travelers eager to learn something other than which South Beach bar serves up the best Mojito. This is a list of just five. I’d love it if readers added their own.

1) Eat, Talk, and Eavesdrop at Versailles

The epicenter of the Cuban exile community, Versailles is a gigantic megarestaurant and bakery complex appropriately located on 8th Street, the main thoroughfare running through Little Havana and undoubtedly Miami’s most quintessential street. Cubans come to Versailles for everything from their morning cafecito to their catered Christmas Eve dinner of lechón (roast pork), congrí (black beans and rice), yuca (cassava), and mojo (garlic dressing).

This is the best place in Miami to overhear exiles discussing politics, which will just as likely be about Cuba as Miami, if the two can even be totally separated. It’s also a great place to test out your Spanish skills as you attempt to navigate the rapid fire rattle and dropped s’s of the Cuban accent. The menu comes in Spanish with tiny English translations beneath and is itself not a bad way to learn a little Cuban slang. Stop by for lunch or grab a pastel de guayaba (guava pastry) with a cortadito (espresso with condensed milk) in the afternoon.

2) Rise Early and Go Birding in Matheson Hammock

Instead of waking up hungover after blowing a few hundred at a nightclub where the people were too good looking to have a chance with anyway, try doing something that’ll make you feel active, healthy, and emotionally closer to Miami’s natural landscape: birdwatching. Important as a migratory route for everything from shorebirds to raptors and with a high likelihood of accidentals from the Caribbean, South Florida is easily one of the top five most coveted birding destinations in the continental US.

Matheson Hammock is a great introduction to the beauty of South Florida wilderness without having to leave Miami. Located on Old Cutler Road close to Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Matheson features many of the region’s most emblematic ecosystems, like wetlands, mangrove forests, turtle grass beds, and tropical hardwood hammock. Bring binoculars and a field guide. Birding in Matheson is especially rewarding in winter when warblers, waders, and other avian peregrines are sojourning in warm and balmy Miami, just like you.

3) Head Down to Robert Is Here

Robert Is Here is essentially a fruit stand with a vast selection of tropical produce, a lot of it grown by Robert himself, and other neat hodgepodge like seashell necklaces, sugar cane juice, and a wide selection of bee pollen. The milkshakes are expensive but worth the trip alone. The strawberry is simply beyond criticism.

Technically outside of Miami, take the Florida Turnpike down to Homestead and make your way towards the Royal Palm entrance of Everglades National Park. Before you get there keep your eyes peeled for an open-air building with huge block letters spelling out: ROBERT IS HERE. The story goes that when Robert was six his father sent him to sell cucumbers on the side of the road and gave him an enormous sign that read “Robert Is Here.” He sold everything and eventually started a business in the very spot.

Once productive agricultural land, most of the area between Miami and the Everglades has been bought up for development. Robert is one of the last holdouts. What’s cool is Robert’s been in business since 1959 and really is still here. You’ll often find him behind the cash register or helping to haul in fresh fruit grown on the land he decided was worth staying on.

4) Listen to AM 710, Radio Mambí

Once a critical group in the powerplays of world history, the Miami Cubans still feel they’re fighting the Cold War. Named after Los Mambises, the Cuban freedom fighters who liberated the island from Spanish oppression, Radio Mambí is a mix of American and Cuban current events with a decidedly conservative leaning. The station sometimes contacts Cubans still on the island, and even gets jammed by the regime.

Apart from being another great opportunity to test your Cuban comprehension ability, listening to Radio Mambí is among the best ways to learn about the fears and joys of the refugees who transformed Miami into one of the most prosperous cities in the world, yet more than half a century later still talk about their eventual return to Cuba. Whether you feel moved by their impossible longing or not, this is the true essence of a city where half its residents haven’t stopped dreaming of an island that, regardless of what changes one day come, is gone forever.

5) Jog to the Top of Key Biscayne Bridge

Undoubtedly the best view of the downtown Miami skyline, try a predawn jog that’ll leave you atop the bridge just as the sun comes up. There are parking lots by the beach just before the bridge. Traffic will be light, and the view of the surrounding bay is just as impressive as the city. Keep your eyes peeled for the crossbow-shaped silhouettes of magnificent frigatebirds and other pelagics floating overhead. As the sun rises, size up the metropolis that a hundred years ago was nothing more than a swampy backwater, and now attracts all kinds of visitors who find themselves settling in longer than they might’ve guessed, maybe not unlike yourself.

2506 and the Forgotten Man Still Alive

I think this happens to most people: an obscure or forgotten historical moment seizes their interest at a formative time in their lives and stays with them forever. The moment embeds itself into their developing character and permanently alters their worldview. For me, it was the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

The Bay of Pigs was important when it happened, sure, but 50 years later it is essentially forgotten. Its legacy is completely overshadowed by the sequel episode in the Cuba-USA-USSR drama, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is also sort of forgotten.

But about six years ago, when I was 20, I became fascinated by the Bay of Pigs. As the son of two Cuban exiles, I wondered how different my life would’ve turned out if things had gone differently that day, the logical conclusion of course being that I wouldn’t even exist because my parents would’ve never met in Miami. But I also wondered how different things would’ve been for all the exiles. What if the invasion’s promised air support hadn’t been grounded, if they hadn’t run out of ammunition at the most critical moments in the battle, if the location of the beach landing hadn’t been changed from a more favorable location to a swamp, if they hadn’t already been forsaken? Just writing about it gives me goosebumps.

The exiles are one of the America’s great immigrant success stories. They’re prosperous, they’re an integral part of one of America’s largest cities, there are several high-profile Cuban-Americans in American pop-culture (from Gloria Estefan to Marco Rubio to Pitbull), and the exiles have an exceptionally powerful lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. The argument can be made that political backing from the exiles determines the next president, since they tip the scales in the most crucial purple state. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Kennedy severely damaged the political future of the Democratic Party by disenfranchising the Cubans, although I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Republicans have been exploiting the exiles for decades with their cries of “Next year in Havana!” every four years.

Yet despite their success in America, the majority of exiles, even today, more than 50 years later, still dream of returning to Cuba. For some of them, it’s practically all they talk about, even now. I’ve met older exiles who justify their unhealthy habits by the fact that they won’t get back to Cuba before they die anyway, so they might as well keep drinking their cafecito even though their doctor gave them explicit orders not to. Learning about the Bay of Pigs helped me better understand the agony of the exile’s loss, their drive to succeed in America, and their permanent connection to Cuba. Even so, my interest in the Bay of Pigs eventually faded. I keep up with the story of the exiles, and I always will, but mostly I’ve just gone on living my life in America.

And then can you imagine how shocking it was when one of the forgotten pages of a history text was for an instant still a man alive here in the world? He was small and hunched over and walked crooked because of a limp in his right leg. I spoke to him only because someone else at the party I was at told me he was there on that day.

“Tell me about what happened to you. I want to know.”

We walked away from the speakers blaring salsa, merengue and other music that sounded even sillier than usual, and he told me of the things I’d read about, how they ran out of bullets, how they could see an American cruiser offshore that didn’t help them, how they were captured and held in camps and how Fidel had random groups of them publicly executed to keep them scared. He told me with tears lining his eyes. I hated myself for being taller than him and bent down to listen. He spoke until he didn’t feel like it anymore and then limped away. “2506,” he said, turning his head back towards me for a moment, “but that number means nothing to you.” “It was the number of your brigade,” I yelled after him, but he couldn’t hear me over the music. He folded back into the crowd like a random page in a book and that was it.