2007: Ana Menendez, The Miami Herald
Award for Community/Column writing

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While Shalala lives in luxury, janitors struggle

March 1, 2006

Memo: In My Opinion

Zoila Garcia has the toughest job at the University of Miami.

From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., five nights a week, she washes windows, cleans desks and picks up the potato chip bags and used condoms that students leave behind in the library.

``Ay mamita! And when they decide to draw on those tables, it's scrub scrub scrub,' Garcia said.

When she returns to her mobile home off Southwest Eighth Street just after dawn, she takes the pills she gets through a Jackson clinic. Some are for high blood pressure. One is for the pain in her arms.

For now, there's nothing to be done about a blood clot that formed on her calf and blackened the leg from knee to ankle. She needs an operation. But when the doctor told her it would cost $4,000, she laughed. ``Where do you get that kind of money?'

Garcia, who makes $6.70 an hour, has no health insurance.

Sunday, janitors voted to strike for better pay and insurance from the company that hires them to clean at UM. They began walking out overnight.

``I have worked hard all my life, but the situation in this country has changed,' Zoila said. ``The cost of living is so high and no one can live with these salaries. These millionaires just don't understand the struggles of working people.'

Always working

Zoila, 51, arrived from Cuba in 1983. She has never stopped working, first picking peppers, then cleaning hotel rooms. She shares her 24- by 57-foot trailer with her dog Tribilin and her son. She helps a grown daughter with bills. But $6.70 an hour makes for a thin security blanket, and she now faces bankruptcy.

Any way you put it, Zoila Garcia is no Donna Shalala.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine printed an interview with Shalala, who was photographed amid the splendor of her 9,000-square-foot presidential residence, where she lives with her dog, Sweetie.

In the interview, Shalala describes, among other things: ``Her perfect day' (which begins with someone giving the university a $10 million donation and ends with her playing three sets of tennis), ``What she drives' (a Lexus hybrid SUV), ``Favorite vacation spot' (the kingdom of Bhutan) ``Her best recent purchase' (a 1790 French country cabinet) and ``Possession that best defines her' (a personal drawing by Susan Kapilow).

Here are Zoila's answers to some of the same questions.

Her perfect day: ``Friday, when I get my check and know that I'll be OK for a few days.'

What she drives: ``A 1995 Ford Aerostar. When it rains outside, it rains inside.'

Her best recent purchase: ``Oh, dear. I can't buy anything . . . Well, yes, some chicken breasts. I have them in the refrigerator.'

What she's reading: ``My English study books. I just can't retain anything!'

Favorite vacation spot: ``I'd like to take my grandchildren to Parrot Jungle, but we can't afford it.'

Possession that best defines her: ``My smile. I always have a smile for everyone.'

Committee formed

Shalala, who as UM president makes more than $500,000 a year, has the power to make Zoila's life and the lives of 400 other janitors better. Shalala declined to comment beyond an earlier statement noting the formation of a group to look into compensation for contract workers.

Forget study groups. Shalala can begin by promising, as other university presidents have done, to hire only contractors who provide a living wage and health insurance to their workers.

What an irony that this is even an issue for Shalala, the former Clinton cabinet secretary who told the Times that what she's reading now is ``about healthcare, because I am teaching a class in it.'

Ms. Shalala: No one is going to begrudge you your 29-foot motorboat or Sweetie's four beds. But for God's sake, get these people health insurance and a dignified wage. The bare minimum, that's all they're asking.

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Nostalgia is now for sale, and it's costly

May 24, 2006

Cuba Nostalgia drew thousands to the fairgrounds last weekend, a three-day extravaganza that proves there is no story so worn or threadbare that it can't be repackaged and sold at a profit.

There was old art, there was sad art and somewhere amid the hackneyed paintings of mulatas and their roosters there must have been some authentic sentiment. It was just hard to spot past the shameless shilling.

Well represented in this paean to sentimentality were: Bacardi Mojito, La Bodeguita Goya, Navarro Pharmacy and Southern Chevy Dealers, this last one honoring the heart-warming Cuban tradition of driving.

Yes, the Cuban American National Foundation was there, featuring a video installation that would have been right at home in an edgy Wynwood gallery. The CANF information booth (``Adopt a Dissident') stood in solidarity alongside Costco Wholesalers, Comcast and Miami-Dade Transit, which was ready to fill the gap for all those not lucky enough to win the 2007 Chevy Cobalt in the drawing next door.

Not to be outdone, The Miami Herald was also there, chasing after the lucrative target audience of octogenarians who consider this paper the mouthpiece of Satan.

The Poster

The official posters near the entrance set the cartoon tone for the whole spectacle: Curvaceous Cubanas in frilly cuffs waved maracas while cigar-chomping, congenial-looking fellows strummed guitars. ``Bienvenido a Cuba Nostalgia,' it said above a prominently displayed logo for Merrill Lynch.

It was downhill from there. After several hours of wandering the space, I was forced to face a series of painful existential questions such as: How many $3.50 magnets of the Virgin of Charity does the average family need? Who buys pillows that say La Habana? Isn't there a better venue for selling boxes of desiccated Gallo Pinto? Is that really a painting of Burt Reynolds with a hat of roosters?

By the time I got to the booth for Memorial Plan cemeteries, I thought I was prepared for anything. But my heart nearly stopped at the sight of dozens of people lined up for some promotional give-away that featured a spinning wheel. Fortunately, this one turned out to be not the Wheel of Fate but the Wheel of Umbrellas and Visors. At that point, I was just relieved that no one was raffling off a free plot.

Cuban Americans have come a long way in this town. Out of the sorrow of leaving family and lives behind, they rebuilt what they could in a new place and struggled through the bad and lean years only to arrive near the end of their story and find it written as farce.

From the sublime to the Bacardi Mojito lounge.

People strolling through the Expo Center Sunday sometimes seemed delighted and sometimes just plain stunned as they gamely powered through the commercial pitches.

``Your roots are your roots,' said Stella Menéndez (no relation to me). ``Still, it's a shame. It used to be more historical.'

`I feel good'

Her brother-in-law, Martin Menéndez, 67, had a simple reason to be there. ``I come because I feel good here,' he said, browsing through the $59.95 guayaberas.

By a certain age, men like Menéndez have earned the right to their nostalgia. The sad thing is that there's so much money to be made from it.

Saturday marked the 104th anniversary of Cuban independence, a struggle that killed thousands, including Cmdr. Antonio Maceo, who survived 24 battle wounds in his career before dying at the battle of Punta Brava.

That was fortitude in the service of an ideal. Today anyone can sell a T-shirt of Ché Guevara with a bullet hole in his head and call it courage.

As rip-offs go, the $12 entrance to Cuba Nostalgia wasn't nearly as offensive as this notion of an Exile's Bazaar: a place where history is a marketing concept and memory is always priced for a quick sale.

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Vigil of the elders lost generation continues wait of a lifetime

August 6, 2006

Memo: In my opinion

Cuban history weighs heavily on Miami, but in few places does it figure more poignantly than at the Casa Linda Apartments on U.S. 1, a squat building of subsidized homes where Fidel Castro's contemporaries count their nemesis' final days, and their own.

Portraits of dead heroes line the lobby of the gently worn building: José Martí, Máximo Gómez. Upstairs, Millo Ochoa, last surviving signer to the Cuban constitution of 1940 and the building's most illustrious resident, sits by his television set in a corner apartment on the fifth floor.

Ochoa, who just celebrated his 99th birthday on July 4, finds himself suddenly making plans for Castro's demise.

``I'm on the first plane back,' he said, emphatically reiterating what he'd told me a few months ago. ``I have a farm near Holguin, and I'm going to go plant yuca and boniato.'

Ochoa's neighbors at Casa Linda are almost all elderly Cubans in their 80s and beyond. In many ways, they represent Cuba's lost generation - those men and women who were middle-aged when Castro came to power, too old to start over fully and too young to retire on memories.

Today, they sit in their small apartments and wait.

This is the generation most likely to be derided as ``dinosaurs.' But there's been no celebrating at Casa Linda, no aping for the cameras, no calls for blood, just wary expectation.

``I knew he'd have to die eventually,' said Ochoa, matter-of-factly. ``And I knew I'd live to see the day.'

Regarded as Cuba's most honest politician, Ochoa remains a life-long defender of the rights of the disenfranchised. He's a fierce foe of Fidel's, but is also just as likely to blame his rise on Batista's illegal grab for power.

Today, his mind occasionally drifts into blank spaces, but he's firm on the need for forgiveness. ``The past is past,' he said. ``What we need to work for is the unity of all people.'

Next door lives Yolanda Viera, 69, who shares her apartment with the saints, including a life-sized statue of Santa Barbara with long, black curly hair.

When I visited, the saints stared passively ahead as Viera fidgeted in front of the television set, nervously parsing the meaning of the broadcast.

``It's all theater, all lies. In Cuba, there's been 47 years of terror,' she shouted, growing more and more frustrated with the lack of news coming out of the country. ``There is no reality!'

But during a commercial break she relaxed and said that the future of Cuba should be left entirely to ``the people of Cuba.'

``The embargo has to go,' she said. ``What has the embargo done? Nothing except give Fidel excuses.'

A while later, the artist behind the lobby paintings drifted in. Santiago Llobet, also Cuban-born, turned out to be more militant a vegetarian than he was anti-Castro. He, too, wished for change in Cuba but was circumspect about Castro's death.

``I don't wish anyone's death. Death is just a passage.'

Llobet, at 81, is just one year older than Fidel. When I suggest he looks far healthier, he waves me away: ``Some days I wake up with my blood pressure at 200.'

Many of their friends have died waiting for Fidel to die, and today the question that hangs over Casa Linda is: Who will survive whom? Everyone may wish for Fidel's passing.

But with death so near, there seems to be a reluctance to make a spectacle of it.

Viera herself is prepared to celebrate the end of Fidel's rule.

But for now, too much uncertainty remains. On Monday night, Viera called her relatives in Cuba. After countless rings, they finally picked up.

``Just to give you my condolences on Luis' passing,' Viera said, using improvised code. There was a pause on the other end. Then the brief response: ``We'll have to see. We'll have to see.'

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We get what we deserve if we stay silent

September 17, 2006

Memo: In my opinion

Here we go again.

One crisis and we Cubans set upon each other like a pack of rabid dogs, scratching and snarling to the amusement of the few outsiders who still give a damn about Cuba.

Forty-seven years and what have we learned? Our history demanded the difficult work of self-reflection. Instead, we've poured our many talents into the business of self-destruction.

Three journalists were fired from El Nuevo Herald. It was sad. They were fired too quickly and their bosses were left unscathed. Fine. Anywhere else it might have been just a controversial personnel issue. But no, here in Miami it becomes part of a worldwide communist conspiracy, complete with Castro agents, dark plots and wild accusations. Anyone who dares agree with the dismissals is not just wrong: he's a degenerate, communist puppet of the evil and malevolent prince of darkness.

When faced with a mildly complicated issue, the loudest segment of exiles too often passes reason and heads straight to histrionic conspiracy. On Spanish-language radio, attacks on some Herald reporters - who are of Cuban background themselves - has been unrelenting. What is wrong with us?

Central issue

Meanwhile, the details of why the journalists were fired - taking money from the government to appear on a propaganda station - somehow has become a side issue. It is the central issue. The idea that journalists shouldn't also dabble in government propaganda may be a subtle one for lay people still unclear on the demands of a free press. It should be absolutely obvious to a working journalist.

Those are the facts. But facts often get in the way of a good drama. And drama is what we do best. For almost half a century we've convinced ourselves of our exceptionalism, grown drunk on a heroic narrative of suffering and victimhood.

It's time to grow up.

If Cuba is ever to be a place where pluralism works in anything other than theory, we need to stop acting stupid.

It's fine to disagree with the firings. It's not fine to become a raving lunatic over them. In the week since The Miami Herald's staff writer Oscar Corral printed the story that started it all, the discussion has become less and less about ethics and more about ``hidden motives,' personal attacks, and paranoid suggestions that Castro pulls the strings at this paper.

The blah-blah-blah crowd is so obsessed with being victims that they've turned a run-of-the-mill caudillo into an all-powerful being able to leap walls of logic in a single bound.

Fidel Castro, now playing dominos in his pajamas, will go to hell cackling.


``What is the nationality of Corral,' demanded one e-mail. ``You are a f. . . . bitch,' said another. Left clapping and cheering on the sidelines are all the people for whom Herald- and exile-bashing - no matter the issue - has become a vocation.

The embittered really must have more energy than the rest of us. That's the twisted optimism I cling to. The loudest and angriest voices are also the smallest. I've heard from many nuts. But I've also heard from many Cuban Americans who disagree with the extremist minority that for too long has dominated the conversation.

Unfortunately, too many in my generation fear that to dissent from the prevailing noise is somehow to dishonor our parents. The opposite is true.

If our parents were drawn to this country for its ideals, it's up to us to make sure those ideals are not drowned in a sea of self pity and pathological self-wounding.

Convictions need to be held in a space apart from ideology and nationality. And the sane, silent majority needs to develop the courage to speak up.

Until then, we will continue to have the leaders - and enemies - we deserve.

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Don't curse your fate, Ralph - just go away

November 1, 2006

Memo: In my opinion

Halloween is over, but the Monster from Outer Space refuses to go quietly. What part of ``be gone, evil scourge' does state Rep. Ralph Arza not understand?

In the week since his crazy phone calls to colleague Gus Barreiro were disclosed, Republicans in Arza's party have been begging him to step down.

Now, even Arza's buddy, Gov. Jeb Bush, wants him out of the solar system. ``I think he should resign,' Bush told reporters, adding, with admirable ethical reasoning: ``because he's going to be expelled, for starters.

``You might as well do it graciously.'

Graciously? Ralph Arza? Clearly, Jeb is also from another planet.

Not known for tact

Arza so far has shown all the grace of a water ox in a tutu. This is the guy whose idea of a Christian sign-off is ``God bless you, bitch.' Whose ``apology' letters pointed out that he had not called Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Rudy Crew a ``racially insensitive word,' he had used that word only to describe Barreiro who, in Arza's words, ``is white.' Big difference, see, because Barreiro is, therefore, not an actual ``racially insensitive word' but a fellow ``other racially insensitive word.' Got it?

What kind of sick, unmoored fanatic picks up the phone on a Saturday night to insult a colleague, anyway?

In the tape, recently available on The Miami Herald's website, Arza calls up Barreiro to regale him with some variations on Arza's second-favorite word: ``Hey, bitch. You're nothing but a bitch. You're a bitch. You're nothing but a bitch.' He calls back a while later to add: ``You ain't nothing but a bitch, brother, my n---.'

Then for an encore, someone else, reportedly a cousin, gets ahold of a cellphone and adds his own bilingual serenade: ``You're going to see what's coming for you, you punk-a- mother--- n---. F--- bitch. N---, I'll crack your face open. I'm going to f-- you up, you piece of s--. F-- you. Hey f---, you have a busted a-!'

That fun-loving Arza clan. Nothing like a family reunion to bring out the best in everyone.

There have been far more disgusting political performances - the rush to war comes to mind - but this is the only one for which The Miami Herald had to print a box warning sheltered readers that the recording ``contains objectionable language that some may find offensive.'

What's offensive - not to mention unseemly - is Arza's refusal to go away. The letters Arza sent out Monday are not apologies; they're studies in narcissism.

``It is with sincere contriteness that I write this letter to you today,' Arza begins well enough in his letter to J. Dudley Goodlette, the chairman of the House Rules and Calendar Committee.

But then he can't help adding: ``Mr. Barreiro's refusal to put this incident in the past and to further levy false accusations against my character caused me a great deal of pain and frustration.'

Takes no responsibility

Poor, misunderstood Ralph Arza. ``Two days after putting my only son on a Christian mission to Uganda,' he learns Barreiro has filed a complaint. What's a God-fearing bully to do? Call up Barriero and say ``God bless you, bitch.' Sounds totally reasonable.

Then, taking a page from fellow disgraced Republican Mark Foley, he blames it on alcohol. Whatever happened to the GOP being the party of personal accountability?

More important, when are all the gentle, peace-loving alcoholics of the world going to rise up and protest this defamation?

Lots of families are full of great drinkers and the only reason they've ever picked up the phone during a party is to order more pizza.

Ralph Arza needs to go. Back to Alcoholics Anonymous, Hialeah, Planet X or wherever.

Anyone can get scary now and then. But Arza's behavior suggests a man who cannot learn from his mistakes and is too willing to blame others. And, God bless us, we already have enough politicians like that on this planet.

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