It is only now that Miami is beginning to look like the city I imagined I’d find on May 11, 1980, when, dazed and heartsick but hopeful, I stepped off a boat named Mañana that carried me, along with my family, from Cuba to Key West in about 18 hours.
I was 16 years old, and though I didn’t know it then, we were part of one of the largest waves of migration this hemisphere had ever seen: With the encouragement of the Cuban government, more than 125,000 Cubans left the island in the span of five months aboard 2,000 vessels in what came to be known as the Mariel boatlift. Reluctantly, the United States received us with “open arms,” as President Jimmy Carter urged Americans to do. We were fleeing Communism; the Cold War raged on.
There was much I had to get used to: a new city, new language, life without my extended family, high school and all the cheerleaders looking like Farrah Fawcett. I missed my neighborhood, my friends and my home—a crowded apartment in what was once a middle-class neighborhood of well-designed houses, many with postage stamp–sized gardens, and an abundance of movie theaters.
My idea of the United States was limited to the occasional American film that made it to Havana. King Kong—the 1976 version—was one of the last I remember watching in awe; while others focused on the girl or the ape, I was focused on the city toward the end of the film. Was that where my uncle worked? Sometimes we’d get pictures from him, bundled up against the cold in New York or Connecticut.
I imagined everything in “El Norte,” as we called the United States, would look and feel the same—cold and white, still and perfect in its harshness. In the 1960s and ’70s, when I was growing up in Cuba, we knew more about Europe and Africa than about the States. I could easily find books by Tolstoy or Guy de Maupassant; it was not so easy to find J. D. Salinger’s or Arthur Miller’s.
The encounter with Miami was an immediate and total disappointment. I’d thought I’d find tall buildings crammed together, twinkling lights at night and hundreds of people walking on wide avenues.
Instead, upon arrival in Key West, I saw what to me looked like crumbling shacks (now I see them for what they are: charming wooden cottages), chickens everywhere and narrow sidewalks.
In Hialeah, a suburb of Miami, where my uncle lived and where we stayed for three months, there were streets with no sidewalks, unscented flowering gardenia shrubs, velvet curtains that kept houses cool against the relentless tropical sun, plastic-covered furniture and bleached patio chairs that blistered my skin.
That first summer of my discontent, everything seemed fake and ugly. I drank gallons of orange juice and walked in malls, where, I was told, I could look but not buy anything. I remember my uncle taking me to the beach, because I craved the ocean, only to return home sadder than ever: The sand was gray instead of white; the water was dirty. And, worst of all, where was everybody?
I’d walk home from school completely alone, passing by exquisitely manicured yards that no one seemed to enjoy. Pristine pools and boats seemed to go unused. Up until the day the boatlift ended, in September 1980, I thought I would go back to my Santos Suárez neighborhood and resume the life I had left behind, protected by ancient poinciana trees and by the soothing sounds of a city that never seemed to retreat behind closed doors.
Of course I didn’t. Time passed, and I, too, began to discover the pleasures of shade and air-conditioning in the summer. I found plenty of poinciana trees in South Florida. Miami does have pretty beaches—though not like the beaches of my childhood (is anything ever like the memories of childhood?).
I made friends who used their backyards and their pools and even their boats. Eventually, I acquired a backyard as well and planted avocado and mango and lemon trees. Hurricanes uprooted some of them, but others still stand. The house is in a neighborhood I like, where people walk to bookstores, theaters and a main street with the irresistible name of Miracle Mile.
Through the years Miami finally got its tall buildings—construction is booming—and a public transportation system that, though limited, works very well. In certain parts of downtown Miami, it is possible to see both the sea and the twinkling lights of the ever-expanding city. It’s not New York, but it’s easy to imagine King Kong climbing any of these new buildings and feeling quite at home.