Sweet home Hialeah

South Floridians love to use Hialeah as a punchline. And I get it. The city has a bad reputation for harboring corrupt politicians and nosy neighbors, as a haven for cheap rents and illegal workers, and as the home of the tackiest and loudest Cuban immigrants of the entire diaspora.

This place is so special that it only has one major street and outsiders still manage to get lost.

hialeah_entrance

Oh those outsiders. They think they can spend a few hours in the “City of Progress,” and then feel entitled to criticize and point fingers.

This weekend, I encountered one of “those” people – a pretentious beauty salon patron who wanted to lighten her hair, but didn’t necessarily want to go “Hialeah blonde.”

She said this loudly in an attempt to garner laughter. But when her punchline didn’t receive the clamor she was expecting, she tried it again, “Not a Hi-a-leah blonde,” this time emphasizing the “ah” in the middle.

Still, her joke was met with unbearable silence.

Partly because we were in a sophisticated salon, excuse me, hair studio located in Coral Gables and the insinuation that the stylist would be capable of doing a horrible job was met with a raised eyebrow and a slight puckering of lips. But mostly because, unbeknownst to her, the audience members of her comedy special were Hialeahan – myself included.

And at that moment, one of great impulse and little reasoning, I decided to go full blonde. Because I’m from Hialeah and I wanted to somehow prove a point that really didn’t require further evidence in the most passive aggressive way possible.

You see, Hialeah is twice my birthplace. The first birth came in the late seventies, when I fumbled out of my mother’s womb in the hospital that bears the city’s name. The second was a figurative birth, my entrée into adult life, which took place in the early 2000’s. Without a silver spoon or a safety net, the city welcomed me regardless of who I was or was no longer. Hialeah didn’t care that I was suddenly poor, she put her arm around me and said, “Honey, we are all broke.” Only she said it in Spanish.

I stuck around for five years and loved every moment. There is simply no place like it and here are the reasons why:

1. 49th Street is the parade route for every celebration and the road for every morning’s commute. Regardless of the occasion or the time of day, your speed is limited to 5 miles per hour. They had to build two Starbucks less than 1.5 miles from each other because by the time you get from one to the other, you’ll want a second cup.

2. Some crazy company swooped into Hialeah and decided they were going to change the mall’s name from Westland to Westfield. Two months after the name change, they changed it back when they realized no one could pronounce the new name.

westland-mall-hialeah-06

3. Hialeah is the last place in South Florida where you actually talk to your neighbors – and not just when there’s a Hurricane. Even when you don’t want to talk to them, they are talking to you. They want to know who you’re voting for. They ask for help reading and/or writing a letter. They show up with leftovers from the bakery. And, best of all, you can ask them for toilet paper in emergency situations.

4. Everyone knows where they can get anything at a cheaper price. Pick up a tomato at Publix Sabor and an old man from across the plantains will tell you that they are 10 cents a pound at Presidente Supermarket. Try on some shoes at Kohl’s and a woman will tell you that she just saw the same ones at Ross for $10 less. As you walk into Bed, Bath and Beyond someone will see you and give you their 10 percent coupon, claiming that they went inside and didn’t like anything.

sabor

5. Around every corner and at every turn there are some incredible stories – many of them tragic, many of them heartbreaking. From the abusive boyfriend to the victim of fraud to the lonely widow to the caretaker of an orphaned child – all of those stories live and thrive within these walls. But like the old adage goes, with great sadness comes great joy, which is why Hialeahans are so raucous and boisterous, why they defy fashion norms and trends and why they don’t conform or assimilate. They march to the beat of their own pots and pans.

And the reason why I’m not only blonde, I’m a Hialeah blonde.

blonde

La familia

Last week I received an email with a suspicious subject heading from an addressee I did not recognize.

So, I opened it.

The email was entirely in Spanish and every single word was CAPITALIZED. After reading the first two lines, I realized it was from my half-aunt with two arms who currently resides in Cuba.

I continued reading with incredible curiosity. Would there be a hidden message? Some sort of code I would have to crack to figure out if she needed me to send her freeze-dried rice and beans or to get the exact coordinates of her possible raft landing on the sands of Key Biscayne.

Unfortunately, there was none of that. It was the most mundane email ever written, with bits and pieces about her family and her thwarted efforts to come to Miami for a visit.

We're not yelling...We're Cuban.
We’re not yelling, we just don’t know how to take off the caps lock.

For being the first time you talk to someone, it was awfully familial. I almost became indignant about the whole thing until I remembered that this is just the way it is. When your mother is an only child from a divorced marriage, you get weird hyphens and halves for family members: a step-grandfather, a half-aunt, a great-aunt with one arm, a fourth-cousin, a guy you have to call your uncle even though he is not. And when your mother is from Cuba, all of these hyphens and halves get the right to become intimately involved in your life – if you let them.

Which is why I keep them all at arms length. They’ve struggled against communism for 50 + years. I’ve struggled against their meddling for 35 years.

Fight as I may, I always end up losing. All of the halves and hyphens I’ve met, and continue to meet, have this intense instinct to connect with relatives – no matter how distant in blood line. They don’t hesitate in calling me family and immediately asking me why I’m so fat.

They don’t care that I’m clearly different in so very many ways. They can care less about what I do for a living or my opinions on the Pope or socialism. They don’t want to get to know me, because knowing that we carry similar DNA is enough.

So, here I am, replying to an email from a stranger and contemplating whether or not to make a joke about my period being late this month and not having to worry about the possibility of her becoming a half-great-aunt with two arms.

If I could turn back time

Half of people aged 60 and older are online. I read that somewhere when I was trying to figure out why my mother was on Facebook.

As you may recall from previous posts, she is quite a bit of a character. Unfortunately, it does not come across in her online persona, as she insists on being totally demure and subdued. Just the other day she called me in a huff because someone had tagged her in a photo that wasn’t very flattering. So, being the good daughter, I walked her through the process of untagging (and then I kept the photo for myself and posted it across all of my social media networks).

As of late, she’s been using Facebook as a display board for her family photos. Everyday she posts two or three black and white pictures and her dearest 3 friends comment on her youthful beauty or on how much time has passed.

I’ve seen these pictures hundreds of times. My mom was big about show and tell and I didn’t mind being shown and told. I can’t tell you how may hours I spent flipping through crackling albums and boxes of photos – ignoring her every word and making up my own stories and names from the images.

Her latest post, however, was of a photo I had never seen and the catalyst for the most confusing 90 seconds of my life.

timetravel

First, I spent some time admiring my outfit. I wondered if it was part of my Beethoven stage, as I figured I was right around the age I began taking piano lessons. And then I thought that pattern on the skirt and shirt was clearly the inspiration for Tetris or Galactica. Then my focus shifted to the actual photo. I thought it was very artsy of them to take a black and white photo in the 80’s when color was all the rage.

After about half-a-minute, I noticed my father on the right, who was totally asleep, next to my mother in the polka dots and mustache and I was like boy they look young. And then I recognized the guy standing next to my mom was her father (they have the same mustache), which was weird because I was told I never got to meet him because he died before I was born. But there he was standing next to me and holding my brother…who is almost nine years my elder.

Wait, what?

I felt myself getting dizzy. I remembered that final scene from “The Shinning,” you know with the photo of Jack Nicholson from the past or the future or whatever that was:

shiningprequel__span__span

Before stepping away from the computer to look for an ax, I read my mom’s post where she explained that it was a photo her half-sister emailed from Cuba. And the little girl in the photo was my mysterious half-an-aunt-with-two-arms that is currently wandering around Cuba. (So, just a quick recap I have a half-aunt in Cuba that I’ve never met and a great-aunt with half-an-arm in the States that won’t leave me alone.)

I kept staring her image in the photo. The resemblance is uncanny.

If this woman and I looked exactly the same at that age, perhaps if I found current photo of her, it would be a good indicator of how I will look when I’m 50. So, I trolled my mother’s Facebook page until I found one. And, well…

There she was, in a bathing suit, and she’s hideous.