ImageAbuelita Ramirez lived in one of the flat-roofed duplexes built in Hialeah during the 1950’s for American GI’s who had returned from WWII and were in need of affordable housing to start life over with a family after the horrors of war. Abuelita acquired the house with the money she had received from the federal government upon arriving in the 1960’s from Havana. American foreign policy has ever been kind.  Between the federal money and the assistance of the well-established Cuban American community Abuelita, with no job to speak of, became a property owner with a steady supply of food stamps and welfare checks.  America was truly the land of milk and honey. The kindly old woman was determined to spend her remaining years passing her blessings on to those less fortunate.

She began with Emmanuel LeCouer, a young Haitian man who was on the eve of being returned to Haiti because he was black and, according to American foreign policy, blacks did not suffer and if they did it was probably their fault and they should just shut up, stop complaining, and fix their problems themselves. Abuelita agreed with American foreign policy in its general application, but on a personal level she felt there was room for ethical wiggle. After all, Emmanuel had worked in Abuelita’s neighborhood for ten years, mowing lawns, weeding, hauling trash, fixing cars, painting houses, delivering packages, and helping anyone with anything sometimes without wage of any kind. All the Cubans in the neighborhood agreed that, for a black, Emmanuel was a fine young man. He paid rent and lived peaceably in the tin shed of the man who ran a chain of Cuban supermarkets. Emmanuel sent every extra cent he earned to his impoverished family who scratched out a living in the open-sewered streets just outside of Port au Prince.

When news spread that the INS had gotten wind of Emmanuel’s whereabouts, the neighborhood was saddened through their common exile sympathies, shocked that Emmanuel had not gone through proper channels to attain residency status, and reluctant to turn over such a fine young man and inexpensive jack of all trades. So Senor Claret, the local lawyer, set up the legal framework to have Emmanuel adopted and thus saved from his just desserts. When a likely foster parent for the Haitian youth was being considered, Abuelita saw her opportunity and was adamant about her being the proper choice. “After all, you wouldn’t actually want Emmanuel to be adopted by a family with their own children. Think about the children. Think about the rumors that would naturally circulate over a young black man living in a house with a young mother, even if she were his adoptive mother.” Abuelita made a strong case and her cause was taken up. Within four months, Emmanuel could come out of hiding and move into his new home. There he thrived and flourished, working harder and for less money than ever.  The neighborhood was proud of their great charity and cunning. They felt more like true Americans than ever.

Years passed and Emmanuel grew, went to school, graduated and began college.  He was even more determined to make something of himself and help his dwindling, suffering family back home.

Angel del Carajo was the next needy person Abuelita Ramirez took in. He was also the last. Angel was seventeen and new to America by way of the flotilla of boats known as the Mariel boat lift, on the one side a flooding of Florida’s shores by suffering Cubans, on the other a purging of Cuba’s prisons of malcontents and seditionists. Angel had been a street kid in Havana, hanging out on the Malecon and hustling young girls and boys to hungry European tourists, and dealing in contraband when possible and lucrative. American dollars were the highest goal of a street hustler’s alchemic activities. Angel knew America well before America ever knew the first thing about Angel.

Abuelita had heard Angel was a petty criminal, that he was a wild street kid, that he had no respect for authority, and that he had never worked an honest day in his life.  But Abuelita also knew, as did the entire Cuban community, that all those bad traits were the fault of Fidel Castro. Abuelita took Angel in, gave him Emmanuel’s bedroom (Emmanuel was relocated to the utility room at the back of the house),  fed him café con leche and pastelitos de carne every morning, gave him some folding money for cigarettes and bus fare, and encouraged him to look for gainful employment. Angel went straight to Hialeah race track, the legendary gathering place of the greatest horse gamblers and hustlers in not just south Florida, but the entire eastern Estados Unidos. Walking down the mile-long, landscaped, royal-palm-lined track entrance with a cool breeze blowing in from the lake roiling with long-necked pink flamingos (he wondered how good they would be to eat given that their color came from a diet of pink shrimp) Angel knew he had found heaven, with Abuelita his frail, loving, moneyed, and worthy (for now) fairy godmother.

Angel fit in to the American way of life quickly; he lied, gambled, drank, whored and stole.  He dealt contraband music and food stamps. He lived fast, stayed out late and fell deeply into what is known as the wrong crowd. He began snorting cocaine and soon moved to the greater and more gripping high of crack cocaine crystals which he smoked in his own shiny crack pipe emblazoned with a tiny Cuban flag. He would tell people, and it was true in short bursts of a few minutes throughout a twenty four hour day, that the crack made him think more clearly and work harder and faster. But thinking clearly and working hard and fast for a few minutes a day before euphoria takes over will not sustain the funding needed by a crack addict. Soon Angel was stealing from Abuelita.

First he took little things to sell: a watch, some old earrings, a gold locket. Then he moved to larger items like the lawn mower and television. One day he cleaned the entire closet of all Abuelita’s clothing and sold it for eight dollars at the Hialeah/ Opa Locka flea market.  Abuelita, in her innocence, believed at first that she had misplaced the missing items. Then, in her naivete  she intuited that Emmanuel had appropriated them. “Blacks don’t understand morality,” she explained to herself.  But the flow of lost items continued even after she had called INS to have the corrupt Haitian deported (oh, how it broke her heart to have to give up on the ungrateful boy). Finally, she could think of nothing but to ask Angel for help in discovering the cause of what had now become a dire erosion of her ability to live. Even her mortgage payment was at risk as somehow her government checks were disappearing as well.

“I am down to my gold jewelry,” she told Angel over coffee and pastries.  “Gracias a Dios that I have them hidden and no one knows where.”

Angel’s right eyebrow rose in interest and concern, or perhaps it was merely the first needy twitch of the day. “If no one knows the location of your heirloom gold,” he said, “how will it be found if, God forbid, something tragic should happen to you?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Abuelita replied. “I’m not concerned over my passing, but my living, and yours. The gold, as valuable as it is, is our last resort if we can’t find and stop whoever is stealing our income and property.”

“Yes,” Angel agreed. “How will we live?”

“Though now you bring it up, perhaps I should tell at least one person about the location of the gold. Just in case.”

“Just in case,” Angel repeated.

“But I know no one closer than you and Emmanuel,” Abuelita continued. “And who would tell a secret to a negrito, even if he wasn’t already deported?”

“No one would share with a black,” Angel agreed. “At least no one with common sense.”

“So,” Abuelita said with a smile of pride on her face, “I pass on this information to you, just as if you were my grandson.”

“It is an honor, Abuelita.”

“Below the shrine of San Lazaro–”

“In the front yard?”

“Yes. Below the glass case on the back is a small drawer.”

Angel had risen and stepped away before Abuelita finished her description. The gold jewelry, enough for three days worth of crack cocaine, was in Angel’s pocket before Abuelita even realized he had left their conversation.

Sadly, that night, Abuelita died in her sleep of asphyxiation, as though somehow the feather pillow had gotten irrevocably situated over her nose and mouth and she, elderly and frail, was unable to dislodge the pillow before her breath ran out. She was listed as having died of natural causes, though suspicions were whispered of agents of Fidel Castro having some hand in the whole tragic affair.

Angel, in his grief, spread his wings so to speak and flew to New Jersey to serve a penance of three years before returning a very thin and emaciated addict burning with the undiagnosed virus that would take him to his own grave within another three years.