It is a thing of beauty when plans work out to perfection.
There was little traffic and plenty of parking on the side streets, I wanted to get there early, and have a little coffee before everything got rolling. Still, even then, almost three hours before the official start of the event, others were there. Others with the same idea that I had, get there early, get a good parking spot, find a cup of Cuban coffee, and watch the crowd build up.
I parked near the starting point of the march, close to the Bay of Pigs Memorial, the modest monument to the memory of the men betrayed by John Fitzgerald Kennedy so long ago. We don’t forget, and don’t forgive easily, the monument is a constant reminder and a warning; what we do, we do because it is the right thing to do, and we do it on our own. Expect nothing from no one; give your all because anything less is unacceptable.
I found my cup of coffee and walked to a corner to take in the view. The sky was overcast, and the thought crossed my mind that the attendance may be affected by the inclement weather, the forecast had warned of afternoon rain showers; down here, the weather guy could just record that and play it every afternoon, August through October. I took in the view and breathed in the air, a deep, filling breath, I was breathing in the air of my Little Havana, I was cleansing my soul.
I thought about the author across the ocean, on the other side of the sea of tears, on a land that I may never set foot on again, who wrote that an exile is only left with the sea for a country, and that a man who is forced to leave his land is like a plant that is pulled up by the roots and taken to other soil. The plant may be replanted, even flourish somewhere else, and may bear fruit, but it will never be the same. It is a sad and beautiful thought, he writes of many such sad and beautiful things, his words poetry to the mind and salve for the wounded soul. But he has never set foot on a small street in the heart of Miami, he’s never felt the asphalt beneath his feet, he’s never walked on Calle Ocho.
The crowd was building, many stood and voiced concerns about the weather; the very old looked with knowing eyes to the sky and shook their heads. “Soon it will rain”-an old man behind me-“I can smell it.”
I could too, and for the first time, gave thought to the umbrella safely stashed in the trunk of my car a few blocks away; too far away and too late to retrieve it.
The street was filling rapidly; the time was almost at hand. A little behind me I spied a man on a wheelchair working his way to the street corner where I stood, he was wearing a t-shirt with the words “United We Stand” written across his chest, as he came closer, his Purple Heart became noticeable, as did his sacrifice. I watched him roll unto the crowd and disappear from view. El Nuevo Herald found him as well, and talked to the 56 year-old veteran, whose leg was lost in a far away place. He was still a refugee when he volunteered to fight for his new home, barely a man when he walked the rice paddies. Today, he’s willing to fight again.
The rain began to fall, and the crowd became a red, white, and blue sea of humanity moving east, I unfurled my small flag and joined the tens of thousands on the asphalt.
That’s when I saw him, some yards ahead of me.
From the back, he could have been my grandfather; his white guayabera was impossibly starched, bright white, fine linen perfection…what a proper guayabera should be. Short sleeved because it was a daytime affair. Trousers pressed to a hair-splitting crease, front, and back, shoes shined to perfection just a few minutes before by one of the street-side shoeshines. All accentuated by a slightly cocked, impeccable straw Panama. Give or take a few pounds, I’ve just described nearly every Cuban grandfather that’s ever held that title.
He wasn’t moving real fast, but it struck me that it was not due to any physical limitation, but rather a deliberate, dignified pace, as befitting a proper gentleman of his years. In his left hand, he held an umbrella, and in his right, he held Old Glory.
As I caught up with him, we reached a spot where the crowd grew noticeably thicker, and we all slowed down to his pace. I walked next to him for a few minutes, and then he asked me if I would like to share his umbrella. I gracefully turned down the offer, as I was already soaked.
He introduced himself, I can’t for the life of me remember his name, and extended the offer in case I changed my mind. The crowd was moving much slower at this part, and I could see the flags flying high in the distance, the speakers’ platform was a few blocks away still, I expected the Master of Ceremonies to be the incomparable Armando Perez-Roura, a man of fire and passion who a little over a year before, had electrified a crowd of mourners, a sea of black in our darkest day, and reminded us all that our turn would come in November, that they could take one little boy, but they would never take our city, that a day of reckoning was near.
I looked to the old man and asked him if he knew who the speakers would be, and if Armando was going to be here.
“Yes, Armando will be here”-he said.
We walked slowly in the rain, and I took in the atmosphere, the bodegas, the restaurants, and pharmacies, all with familiar names, names that sounded like home, and family. The sea of humanity around me growing denser with each step, yellow rain slickers, umbrellas, and flags moving solemnly in the rain, one people, with one purpose; old, young, middle aged, fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, every age, every hue, everyone there to be counted.
The first wave reached us about three blocks away from the platform, from behind, building from a rumble to a roar. Tens of thousands of voices in unison, “Bush, amigo. Miami está contigo!” then “USA! USA!” The sound came up from the asphalt and through my bones, exploding as it reached my head, and I was shouting along and waiving my Stars and Stripes high above my head.
“Muchachón. Hold the flag in your right hand. Never on your left.”
His voice snapped me out of my trance, the old man was smiling, and looking at me, he spoke again.
“I hope you don’t mind me advice, but you should hold it in your right hand. I don’t think many of us here like the left very much.”
I smiled and changed my flag to the right.
“Gracias, I guess I had never thought of that.”
There were a few moments of silence as we realized that the crowd had now stopped, this was as close as we would come. The old man spoke again.
“The crowd is as big as the Elián march, bigger than the one in ’98 against lifting the embargo.”
“You must come to all these”-I remarked-“I wish I had the time. I was here for the rally the week after Elián was taken. I wish I could do more.”
“We all do what we can,”-he said-“we do what we can because we can, because we are free to do.”
“This little street has sure seen a lot of marches.”
The rain had let up temporarily, and he was busy examining the clouds, he nodded his head, and closed the umbrella. In typical South Florida fashion, the rain didn’t cool things down, but rather added to the day’s humidity. My newfound friend removed his banded Panama, and wiped his forehead with an embroidered, linen handkerchief.
“This street has seen a lot of everything”-he said as he carefully folded the handkerchief-“it has witnessed our history as a people without a home. It watched us carve out a home on foreign soil with hard work, and by the grace of God.”
“This street watched us arrive”-he continued as he replaced the handkerchief in his back pocket-“penniless and frightened, thinking that what was going on back in Cuba was temporary, and that our stay here would be temporary as well. It watched as we realized that we weren’t going back.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to another, and continued listening.
“I remember the first cafeteria, the first bodega, and the first restaurant. I remember listening to news from Playa Girón and the Bay of Pigs on a little radio standing on a corner about two blocks back. I remember the men coming home, and the bitterness. This street watched all that too.”
“I imagine sometimes that the asphalt is cured, like good bacaláo, or tasajo, cured by the salt from the tears of the tens of thousands whose loved one never made it across, and from the tens of thousands more with loved ones who died far away, without saying goodbye. This street watched all that too.”
“Sometimes, I think that exiles are motherless children, walking the earth all alone”-I had to say something that sounded intelligent, and the words from the dissident author from my hometown came to mind-“I read that once.”
“That’s a beautiful thought, and a sad one. But I don’t think that it applies to our people. We are fortunate children, born of a loving mother, and raised by an adopted one.”
The squeal of a microphone being turned on attracted everyone’s attention, all heads turned to the speaker’s platform in the distance. There was a moment of silence, and then, the familiar voice rose to the skies, defying the rain. The voice of Miami and of my people, Armando speaks for all of us, and to all of us.
I don’t remember his words; I remember our shouting, the flag waving, and the wordless sense of unity and purpose. We stood in the rain, a people united in the love of our home…this home, this America, this loving mother who took orphans from the sea, who held us in her arms, and with love and infinite care, mended our wounds.
Now, now it was time to stand and pay back what was given so freely to us, and we stood, defiant and proud, sending a message to the rest of our brothers and sisters across the nation, and the same people that a few months before had been demonized, marginalized, and trivialized by an unjust administration, and its media, stood to be counted.
We stood in the rain for the firefighters, and the police. We said prayers for the heroic dead in the streets of Manhattan, in the skies over Washington and over Pennsylvania. We pledge undying allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and for the Republic, for which it stands…and we where one Nation, under God and rainy skies.
The rain let up and the speeches wound down; all the songs had been sung, all the enemies condemned, all the heroes lauded, and the crowd began to disperse. I looked to my newfound friend and the thought struck me that he may need to sit and rest for a spell.
I found a cement planter on the sidewalk, and asked him if he’d like to sit for a few minutes, he accepted and walked with me. He took the fine linen handkerchief from his pocket, and laid it out on the makeshift bench, we sat and watched the people in silence for a few minutes.
“This was a good thing”-he broke the comfortable silence-“a good thing that was done. This street has seen one more little piece of history today.”
We waved to a group walking by carrying an immense Stars and Stripes over their heads, and shouted “Viva Cuba Libre!” they shouted “USA!” “USA” back at us, in unison with a group of Haitians walking by their side. I pointed out the Vietnam veteran in his wheelchair that I had encountered earlier slowly working his way back down the street.
“I am tired, I know that you must be as well”-I looked at my watch-“do you need a ride somewhere? I could go get my car and come back for you.”
He laughed and told me that his ride was meeting him not far, in a few minutes, and that maybe they could give me a lift. I thanked him and declined the offer, I wanted to walk the street once again.
“This author, the one who talks about exiles, he is a good writer?”
I told him all I knew about Rafael Contreras, trapped in a world where thought was free, but had no voice. I told him about the seaweed from far away, about sand that falls through the fingers and empty shells. He listened quietly to my words, and accepted a business card with a web address scribbled in the back of it, promising that he would get his grandson to print him some stories.
We said our goodbyes and wished each other well, he began to walk away slowly, and then he stopped and turned to face me.
“This writer, this writer has never walked on Calle Ocho, he doesn’t understand what this street means, and why it means so much to so many,” -he rubbed his foot against the asphalt and looked down-“this street has known the dreams of a million people. The dreams of a better tomorrow for their kids, of dignity for the old.”
Then he surprised me by speaking in the accented English of those who learned the language late in life.
“We are came here, the tired, the poor. The masses, and we wanted to breathe free; we were the refuse of somebody’s teeming shore once.”
“I see that you are surprised at an old man, an old man that knows these things.” -with a sweeping motion he pointed to everything around us-“When you walk back, down this street, hold high your head, because you walk on sacred ground. When you walk on this street, you are walking on Freedom Road.”
“Be well my young friend.”
I walked back to my car, soaked, tired, and hoarse, but with each and every step my chest swelled, and my shoulders squared.
There was pride and love of country in my step.
I was walking on Freedom Road.
Copyright Luis Gonzalez, ©2001
The “God Bless America” rally in Little Havana was organized by a handful of community organizations and a radio station, there was very little notice, and almost no advertisement (outside WAQI-AM, Miami), the best estimates placed the crowd at about 150,000.
These rallies are not unusual on Freedom Road, best known as Calle Ocho, they happen regularly, but the majority of the Nation never hears about them, nor do they see the pictures, there is seldom any coverage by the dominant media.