They call Miami “the Magic City.” Fitting because, it’s always able to reinvent itself.
I was born in Hialeah Hospital in 1981. History is full of eras; but, this specific moment was the beginning of change, an almost traceable line of demarcation.
My mother fled Cuba in 1969 when she was 19 with her sister and my grandmother; my grandfather, a political prisoner, joined them five years later. She met my father after he arrived here in 1979, after 20 years as a political prisoner.
I belonged to two different worlds. I was an American. But, at the same time, I was Cuban. I didn’t quite fit either group. In many ways, it’s the story of the city in which I was born. Hialeah, a city in the United States that just doesn’t quite feel like the U.S. Hialeah is part of South Florida, a metropolitan area; yet, it feels totally different from Tallahassee, or Tampa, or Titusville, and worlds away from “the South.”
It is different. And the Hialeah of my childhood, even more so. Hialeah, like South Florida isn’t just one place, it is many simultaneously. As such, every major street carries at least three names. Red Road is NW 57th Avenue, West 4th Ave or, la cuatro.
In 1981, Miami was just barely recovering from a riot and an influx of Cubans that arrived on the Mariel boatlift — events that shaped public discourse, policy and dinner table conversation for years.
My parents’ first home was in a community called Lago Grande. It was so new that there was nothing nearby. In fact, it seemed like it was in the middle of a forest.
My grandparents lived in East Hialeah, back when there were no Spanish-speaking neighbors. To visit, we passed the Holsum Bread factory and the smell of bread filled the car. We passed Hialeah Racetrack, filled with photographers and Quinceňeras donning poofy white gowns, taking their iconic pictures, and visiting the pink flamingos and peacocks. There was a biandero that drove by and sold yucca and chorizo, as well as an ice cream truck whose Pink Panther ice cream bars with gumball eyes that, inexplicably, always tasted better than those at the store.
Hialeah’s 49th Street was always busy. Vendors walked up and down selling fresh churros — coated in fine granulated sugar that always managed to make a mess, making them contraband inside my father’s car – and little white paper cones of roasted peanuts. There was Lionel Playland, Luria’s and La Canastilla Cubana.
Most of those original stores and businesses are gone now, like Jumbo Supermarket — where Cuban bread disappeared as soon as it was out of the oven — and Latin American — where I first saw ham hanging from the ceiling. The McDonald’s where I met Ronald McDonald and had my face painted is still there. These two restaurants lay one across from the other and pretty much reflect the story of my childhood. They were the homes of my first Cuban Sandwich and Happy Meal.
The landscape has changed, just like the hot spots have changed.
Ocean Drive wasn’t as popular as it is today, but the beach was always full of visitors. I bounced over waves — wearing pink floaties and building sand castles on beaches — wearing Coppertone sunblock, because that’s what the little girl on the billboard used. We parked at Penrod’s, today Nikki Beach. And one of the major rites of passage into teenhood was taking a leap off of the South Beach pier.
Everyone loved the Dolphins, Don Shula and Dan Marino. Everyone remembered their perfect season. All this started to change in the 90s.
At 5 we moved, our family now included my new little brother, and I enrolled in a new school, Ben Sheppard Elementary.
In third grade we moved to Miami Lakes. Again, right next to the “forest”. This was the edge, and newest part of town. Everything south of NW 149th Street was filled with dense trees. It wasn’t uncommon to see a lost raccoon or possum run out from amongst them.
As kids, we rode our bikes into “the forest” and half believed we’d find monsters, wild animals, and maybe even Tarzan. We never did, but that didn’t stop us from telling tall tales of outrunning wild boars, moose and all kinds of creatures. Those were the trees eventually plowed down for new homes and for Barbara Goleman Senior High.
In the 1990s Art Deco became cool and South Beach was the place to see and be seen in. The Hurricanes became champions, we got a basketball team, and there was a struggle to protect decency; Sheriff Navarro banned a 2 Live Crew record, Palm Beach banned female hotdog street vendors wearing thong bikinis.
Like today, there were plenty of political scandals; somehow, hundreds of dead people voted in a mayoral race. There was an exodus of immigrants; thousands of Cubans braved the sea on rafts, tires and just about anything that would float, prompting President Clinton to enact the Wet Foot / Dry Foot law.
Hurricane Andrew arrived on what was supposed to be my first day at Miami Lakes Middle School. Other than downed trees, we were fine. But South Florida wasn’t as lucky. School was delayed almost two weeks and many kids were displaced, left homeless by the storm.
Eventually there was a building boom and Miami’s skyline changed. High rises went up. At that time, my mother was a Vice President at Capital Bank and excited to move into a modern building in the “new” downtown and even more so when it appeared in the movie Bad Boys. But, after 5:00, downtown died. Stores and businesses closed and shuttered their entrances.
I attended Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High before the FCAT, when kids carried beepers, not cell phones. Football was big. Everyone attended the game versus Hialeah High, our biggest rival. The coveted T Trophy always resided at HML.
After graduation I attended the University of Miami and completed a double major in journalism and English. My husband and I, high school sweethearts, married and moved to Miami Lakes. I teach at Miami Lakes Educational Center and he is a CPA with a small firm in Hialeah.
We stayed close to home. But home keeps changing. The Miami of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore; but, neither does the Miami of 10 or even 5 years ago.
The landscape changes, the cause of political strife changes, but Miami’s allure always remains. In many ways, Miami really is a Magic City; it is forever new and forever different, always changing, growing and evolving.
But some things remain unchanged; you can find anything that you need in Hialeah and all the streets there still have three names. But, la doce, Ludlam Road, 67th Avenue is now also Flamingo Road, but that’s a whole other story.
This story First Appeared in The Miami Herald in April 2013, as part of their partnership with History Miami’s project: Miami Stories: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/miami-stories/article1948842.html and on History Miami’s site: http://www.historymiami.org/research-miami/miamistories/miami-stories/details/neyda-borges/