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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nostalgia

A staple of every Cuban household was at least one Alvarez Guedes record. We had five. And my parents would play them all back-to-back. My dad on his chair, my mom sprawled out on the couch and I would watch them bend at the waist and laugh as they listened. I’d laugh too. Not at Alvarez Guedes’ jokes. I didn’t really get them. But, I’d laugh at the way my parents would burst out in cackles and tear up from the giggle attacks. My mom would laugh and clap at the same time, while my dad would repeat the punch line. If it was really funny, he wouldn’t make a sound, he’d just hold his eyes with his thumb and pointer finger, while his shoulders jiggled up and down.

I recently found those five records, among my parents’ record collection that I confiscated from my mom’s storage closet. When I returned to my apartment I too listened to them back-to-back. I finally understood the jokes and I found myself laughing out loud.

But, I still think it was much funnier to watch my parents laugh.

For those of you that don’t know him, Alvarez Guedes is a Cuban comedian with the meanest 1970’s mustache you’ve ever seen. Here’s a clip:

Oh, and if you need an English translation, here’s Alvarez Guedes’ famous Cuban-Spanish Lesson. (It starts at 1:30)

The guy downstairs: Who is he?

This is number two in a series. That means there’s one before this one. Read it and then come back. Or try to walk on one leg, your call.

I hardly ever see him. In the five months he has owned the apartment, I’ve physically seen him twice. Both times he went out of his way not to say hello by averting his eyes from my gaze.

But he’s probably just shy.

The few times I’ve heard him speak, through the paper-thin floor boards, he speaks in a specific Cuban dialect that is painful and painfully difficult to understand. He is of the generation of Cubans that were given Eastern European first names to match their Spaniard last names. I can tell he can’t speak English. Possibly enough to order a sandwich at the drive through, but even that much seems unlikely. His accent is too authentic and untamed, completely untouched by American television. His raw dialect leads me to doubt in his ability to read or write. When this generation of Cubans were kids, they were mostly out hustling for food rather than attending class – especially the boys.

Ah, the Cuban hustle. Stealing pigs from the government-run farms, paying off the guard with dollars, trading the meat for milk and coffee and gasoline. The gasoline not for the car, but for the secret ingredient in the underground drink they would bootleg for the dollar that would start the cycle again.

But that was just to survive.

When he purchased the apartment, his plumber discovered that my bath tub was leaking into his – or something like that. I know this because his plumber and his contractor came upstairs to talk to us. I was traveling that week, but my partner had the pleasure of dealing with all of the workers while she was on crutches, nursing a broken foot. Call a plumber, use their plumber, turn on the faucet, turn off the water. A few hours later, the new neighbor knocked on our door to see the problem with his own eyes.

Later that night via Skype, I was told of all the day’s excitement. Naturally I asked what was our new neighbor like and he was described to me as a recent Cuban immigrant in his late thirties. He was curt and preoccupied. He came into the apartment without introducing himself or apologizing for the inconvenience. A quick hello and good-bye. We immediately classified him as a socially awkward combination ogre-Neanderthal with poor manners, as many of the men his age and background that we’ve met are.

Of our crazy neighborhood, the guy who lives across from me is our fearless leader. Another Cuban immigrant, he is slightly older than the guy downstairs. He was able to get an education, learn a trade and escape through another country. He is of the “someone is always looking over your shoulder” cult of Cubans. As such, he feels the need to look over yours before you look over his. Naturally, he interviewed the new guy and tried to establish a bond, the kind only possible betwixt two square-built average men that must work in a physical trade.

Only, my neighborhood gossip boy reported back that our new friend was “in real estate” and “had purchased this apartment as an investment” because he “had other properties” and added that he “would’ve purchased that other apartment across from his, but didn’t want to spread himself too thin”.

But according to public records, he purchased this apartment cash.

And his other “properties” is just one other apartment in Hialeah he purchased for $0. At least that’s what it says on the deed. Could that be another cash buy?

And he lists two different mailing addresses on each of the mortgage papers for the aforementioned properties. A one number difference on the street. One says he lives on 55 Street, and the other says 58 Street.

But it could be a typo.

Only one address leads to a canal and the other to a grassy street corner. Neither exist.

But?

Better than all of this is the adjudication against him in a civil suit just a little over one year ago, in which his landlord takes him to court for failure of paying his rent.

Tomorrow, I’ll give you the full picture. Including a glimpse into his entourage.

The dude’s real name and address will not be disclosed.