Dateline April 5, 2003 Stefano Martino, Correspondent
As a free-lance correspondent I love to travel whenever and wherever a story arouses my curiosity. After spending a week in Alabama a few months ago, I’m flying south to visit the fifth largest city in South Florida. A place most Americans don’t know exists.
The flight arrived on time and that puzzled me, it wasn’t supposed to happen. Those I met prior to boarding assured me airlines never arrive on time in Miami. Although after informing them of my destination, I became suspicious when the jovial group recited “Hialeah means a lot of rain.”
I soon realized the seemingly nonsensical statements were designed to disconcert the new kid on the southern air route, sort of an initiation ritual among correspondents. Anyway, after my last bone chilling adventure in Alabama I was ready for anything. My new assignment brought me further south and warmer to write about a small city described as strangely foreign and butt of jokes.
Initial research uncovered a colorful and dramatic past. Northerners visited Hialeah during the 1920’s to enjoy the Spanish sport of Jai Alai and Greyhound racing. In 1921 with a population of only 1,500 it mesmerized aviator Glenn Curtis and cattleman James H. Bright. The city was ultimately incorporated in 1925 and the famous 220 acre racetrack was built the same year. Hialeah racetrack quickly became a Mecca for well-known personalities such as Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and J. P. Morgan.
In 1926 a huge hurricane caused major destruction but couldn’t break Hialeah’s spirit. The name’s derived from an Indian word meaning “High Prairie” not “a lot of rain” as my humorous co-travelers suggested. Presently a multi-cultural community, Hialeah occupies 20 square miles and has over 210,000 residents, many of which are Cuban.
I also stumbled upon some disconcerting facts. A Cuban exodus dubbed the Mariel boatlift took place from April 1, 1980 to September 25, 1980 involving 124,776 migrants including 14 dead. The voyage across the Florida straits from Cuba included roofers factory workers and blue collar workers but not without Fidel Castro’s touch. The crafty Cuban leader ordered a multitude of undesirables from jails and insane asylums to join the massive exodus. I don’t know the significance of this but I’ll soon find out.
Hialeah’s history leads me to believe there must be something exotic or mystical about the place.
Outside the terminal I did what I normally do upon arrival in any strange city, I took a deep breath. The air seemed almost tropical along with the pungent aroma of coffee.
I boarded a taxi displaying an identification placard designating a dark haired Latino named Jose Miranda as my chauffeur. Probably in his late thirty’s, he spoke good English with a slight accent and seemed knowledgeable. After mentioning my destination, he asked for a compass point. I somehow pictured a smaller place and never gave much thought to map coordinates so I inquired where a reporter should start. He explained that a short distance from the airport an older section covers the southern part and recommended the northwestern sector. As he moved out of the terminal he gave me a curious look and prodded my intentions. I later learned Cubans in the community regard strangers with extreme suspicion. Fear of Castro spies creates a cloud of paranoia.
After about ten minutes he must have scratched me off his spy list because we suddenly started trading stories. He mentioned experiences with tourists and I in turn offered my travels. I included an incident in Colorado as one of the reasons for my journey to this speck on the Florida map. It occurred inside a mountain casino. A middle aged woman playing a poker machine constantly gazed curiously at a Latin male sitting next to her. Obviously simmering with curiosity, she paused long enough to ask,
“Where you hail from boy?”
The response was “Hialeah” and after a few seconds of thought the lady asks,
“What part of Mexico is that?”
The story must have tickled my driver or ticked him off. The vehicle suddenly zigzagged several times before returning to normal. After that I kept my mouth shut until we came to a hotel called “Park Plaza”, described by Jose as the best in the city. Before departing he advised me not to repeat the casino story and not go around acting like a “Gringo”. He totally confused the heck out of me but as the vehicle moved away he shouted,
“Don’t worry you’ll figure it out” and sped off laughing. It was as if he was reading my mind or predicting my future?
Excerpt from my book FIVE UNUSUAL STORIES on sale in the AD BOOKSTORE.