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30 de mayo de 2020

The delicious stench of Miami Beach


Translated by Wendy Gosselin.


(Léelo en español aquí)

April, 2020. Here on Miami Beach, there are still a few odd characters who look like they’re in the wrong scene, maybe from the out-takes of a movie that wrapped right before the pandemic hit. Extras from an old action flick who seem to have wandered onto the set of the drama film now rolling on this island just across from Miami proper. The men flash abs sculpted by plastic surgeons; the women bat tarantula lashes beneath Beyoncé eyebrows, their fingernails sharp as scythes. But without an audience, they wander under indifferent palms, no one there to gaze at them. Since the United States finally kicked into gear to combat the coronavirus in March and Florida issued a shelter-in-place order, Miami Beach has taken on a bucolic charm: families zigzag down empty streets on their bicycles, couples rollerblade hand-in-hand, and birds sing tunes the ninety-three thousand of us who live here year round had never heard before.
Most of us residents cater to the seven million annual tourists who pump life into our economy. We’re used to tiny planes buzzing overhead, their waving aerial banners promising a beach rave or a shooting gallery where you can try your hand at a semiautomatic rifle. Here down below, the turquoise waters are glorious and warm, and out in front of the local police station is a giant statue of a pink flamingo in officer's uniform, complete with a walkie-talkie and holster. What’s not to love about this town?
The luxury condos on one street and run-down buildings just a block over form a checkered pattern. There are homes that start in the seven figures, mansions with rooftop heliports to beat the traffic. And then there are the tiny apartments overcrowded with mostly Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans immigrants, many of them undocumented. No one knows exactly how many undocumented immigrants live in Miami Beach, but Pew Research estimated that half a million were living in South Florida, mostly in Miami, in 2017. They try to eke out a living cooking, cleaning, and pampering the tourists who fly in for a few nights to enjoy the brazen, kicked-back party life, Florida style. All right, not really Florida style, it’s their style, the style the out-of-towners bring in with them.
Many of Miami Beach’s waiters, cooks, valet parkers, and baristas aren’t allowed to drive since undocumented workers can’t get a license in Florida. They get around by bike, and almost never leave the island. They earn about seven hundred dollars a month or, if they’re lucky, double that, with tips. Most are now jobless and have no access to healthcare—not that they had it before the pandemic. A 33-year-old man from Guatemala, Miguel (not his real name), muses on his rent: “We managed to pull it together for March but we haven’t paid our April or May rent. Things are bad. I don’t know how long we can hold out.” He wonders aloud how long the hiatus will last—weeks? Months? No one knows. Sure, Florida has slowly begun reopening its economy, but when will the tourists return to the beach? When will they crowd that stretch of sidewalk where Gianni Versace was murdered?




The naughty, even delinquent character of Miami Beach as we know it today took shape back in the roaring twenties when the island was a paradise for rum smugglers coming in from the Bahamas during Prohibition. Hotels had to be built quickly to meet the demand for places to carouse, and a line of pleasing but simple art deco buildings soon sprung up along Collins Avenue. By the mid-twentieth century, the beach had also become a refuge for Cubans fleeing Castro’s Cuba and for Jews both young and old, some of whom departed to beaches further north when a wave of drug crime hit in the 1980s. Back then, the island was infamous but also wildly sexy, thanks to Miami Vice and Scarface, where Al Pacino played one of the tens of thousands who came to Miami with the Mariel boatlift, joining their fellow Cubans in making Spanish the city’s unofficial first language. Today (yesterday, actually), tourists pause in front of the Ocean Drive building where Tony Montana rushes out to escape from the Colombian narcos, taking in the stairwell with due solemnity, as if in the presence of a relic.
Then came real estate developer Tony Goldman, buying up buildings in the 80s and 90s and painting them shades of pastel. This is the same Goldman who built up New York’s Soho and, more recently, made Wynwood Miami’s fashionable and edgy neighborhood for artists. Thanks to his pastel magic wand—and the money laundering that fuels the South Florida real estate market—the island was painted a neon-pink pastiche, a giant meme for the rest of America, a magnet for global tourists.
If all were well on Ocean Drive, thousands of tourists would now be sitting on sidewalk tables, a thin layer of sand, sweat, and salt water on their tanned skin, gulping down giant cocktails and rollicking with laughter until the check came, the waiter having neglected to mention that each drink costs fifty bucks. Until things shut down in March, Miguel and his two brothers worked at ocean-view restaurants on this stretch. Since none of them is documented, though, they don’t qualify for unemployment. Nor will they be getting that twelve-hundred-dollar check—just as Americans who have an undocumented family member won’t. That’s the case of Juan (his real name), a thirty-year-old man from El Salvador with U.S. citizenship. He also worked at an Ocean Drive restaurant; the child he had with his undocumented wife was born here in the States, but their family won’t be receiving the check that bears, in large script, President Donald Trump’s signature.
All Miguel, his brothers, and Juan can do is take the kids to Flamingo Park, where the immigrants out of work converge for respite, and wait. Wait for the music, the honking, and the noise to resume, for the vacationers to once again pass drinks from one car to another, for the girls to get back to twerking up against the lampposts. For now, all there is is silence, until out of nowhere an engine revs and a Ferrari, Porsche, or Lamborghini zips down Ocean Drive, as out-of-place as a toucan on a glacier. Hip hop blasts from their open windows, but two or three blocks later it has faded, leaving the streets to the chirping birds, the lonely extras, the dearth.
This is what the apocalypse looks like here. A Lamborghini that turns no heads and countless immigrants on the edge of abject poverty, all jonesing for that same bittersweet scent of puke, piss and Sunday-morning empanadas on Miami Beach.




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