Mirta Ojito, now a professor at the Journalism School, shared a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for her contribution to the New York Times series “How Race Is Lived In America,” the haunting story of best friends from Cuba, one black and one white, who drift apart as they lead segregated lives in the United States.
The New York Times – June 5, 2000
“Best of Friends, Worlds Apart”
“How Race Is Lived in America” – Second article of a series
By Mirta Ojito, Miami
Havana, sometime before 1994: As dusk descends on the quaint seaside village of Guanabo, two young men kick a soccer ball back and forth and back and forth across the sand. The tall one, Joel Ruiz, is black. The short, wiry one, Achmed Valdes, is white.
They are the best of friends.
Miami, January 2000: Mr. Valdes is playing soccer, as he does every Saturday, with a group of light-skinned Latinos in a park near his apartment. Mr. Ruiz surprises him with a visit, and Mr. Valdes, flushed and sweating, runs to greet him. They shake hands warmly.
But when Mr. Valdes darts back to the game, Mr. Ruiz stands off to the side, arms crossed, looking on as his childhood friend plays the game that was once their shared joy. Mr. Ruiz no longer plays soccer. He prefers basketball with black Latinos and African-Americans from his neighborhood.
The two men live only four miles apart, not even 15 minutes by car. Yet they are separated by a far greater distance, one they say they never envisioned back in Cuba.
In ways that are obvious to the black man but far less so to the white one, they have grown apart in the United States because of race. For the first time, they inhabit a place where the color of their skin defines the outlines of their lives — where they live, the friends they make, how they speak, what they wear, even what they eat.
“It’s like I am here and he is over there,” Mr. Ruiz said. “And we can’t cross over to the other’s world.
It is not that, growing up in Cuba’s mix of black and white, they were unaware of their difference in color. Fidel Castro may have decreed an end to racism in Cuba, but that does not mean racism has simply gone away. Still, color was not what defined them. Nationality, they had been taught, meant far more than race. They felt, above all, Cuban.
Here in America, Mr. Ruiz still feels Cuban. But above all he feels black. His world is a black world, and to live there is to be constantly conscious of race. He works in a black-owned bar, dates black women, goes to an African-American barber. White barbers, he says, “don’t understand black hair.” He generally avoids white neighborhoods, and when his world and the white world intersect, he feels always watched, and he is always watchful.
Mr. Valdes, who is 29, a year younger than his childhood friend, is simply, comfortably Cuban, an upwardly mobile citizen of the Miami mainstream. He lives in an all-white neighborhood, hangs out with white Cuban friends and goes to black neighborhoods only when his job, as a deliveryman for Restonic mattresses, forces him to. When he thinks about race, which is not very often, it is in terms learned from other white Cubans: American blacks, he now believes, are to be avoided because they are delinquent and dangerous and resentful of whites. The only blacks he trusts, he says, are those he knows from Cuba.
Since leaving Havana on separate rafts in 1994, the two friends have seen each other just a handful of times in Miami — at a funeral, a baby shower, a birthday party and that soccer game, a meeting arranged for a newspaper photographer. They have visited each other’s homes only once.
They say they remain as good friends as ever, yet they both know there is little that binds them anymore but their memories. Had they not become best friends in another country, in another time, they would not be friends at all today.
Two Boys on a Bus
They met on a bus, No. 262, the one that took Joel from his home in the racially mixed neighborhood of Penas Altas to middle school, 35 minutes away. Achmed got on in Guanabo, and they sat together talking, as boys do, about everything and nothing.
Both grew up in orderly homes, with hard-working parents who supported the Castro government. Their fathers worked for the state oil company. Their mothers — Joel’s was a nurse, Achmed’s an administrator in stores for tourists — knew each other and sometimes met for coffee.
The boys’ friendship was cemented through school and sport. They stood up for each other against troublemakers. “Just to know we were there for each other was good,” Mr. Ruiz recalls. When his girlfriend got pregnant in high school, Achmed was the first person he told. They played soccer and baseball and ran track. Joel often stayed for dinner at Achmed’s, where there was a color television and an antenna powerful enough to pick up American channels.
Because of her job, Achmed’s mother had access to some of Havana’s best restaurants. Every year she would take him out for a birthday dinner, and every year he would invite his best friend, Joel. “I couldn’t think of anybody I would rather spend my time with,” Mr. Valdes recalled.
But as they grew older, each became restless with the limitations of life in Cuba.
Achmed was in sixth grade when an aunt who had fled to Venezuela gave him a pair of white sneakers. He loved them so, he immediately wore them to school. Almost as immediately, the principal visited him at home to warn him about the troubling political implications of those foreign sneakers. At the university, too, his professors wondered why he wore foreign clothes and rode a nice bicycle. He wondered right back why he could not wear and ride whatever he wanted. When he was expelled for failing two classes, he saw it as punishment for being politically incorrect.
Before long, he found work at sea, trapping lobsters and selling them for $4 each. In a country where most people earn less than $10 a month, it was a living, though not a life. When the government allowed thousands of Cubans to leave in small boats and rafts in 1994, he was ready.
His friend Joel was ready, too, though it had taken him far longer to make up his mind. Indeed, given Cuba’s racial history, it is hardly surprising that black Cubans have generally been far less eager than whites to flee to America. After all, in pre-revolutionary Cuba, blacks and whites had lived largely segregated, separated by huge disparities in economic and social standing. But two months after he seized power in 1959, Fidel Castro ordered whites to look upon blacks as equals and began leveling the economic and educational playing fields.
When Joel was very small, his family lived crammed into one room of an old carved-up mansion. Soon, the government gave them a three-bedroom apartment in a development that Joel’s father had helped build. Before the revolution, Joel’s mother had made a living cleaning white people’s homes. It was Fidel, she told him over and over, who had given her the chance to become a nurse. And so Joel came to believe that it was no big deal, being black in Cuba.
As for America, he had seen the images on government television: guards beating black prisoners, the police loosing dogs or training hoses on civil-rights marchers.
But as Cuba’s economy fell apart in the 1990′s, he began to see things differently. He left military school for a cooking program, hoping for a well-paying job at a tourist hotel. Once he graduated, the only job available was washing windows. Look around, co-workers told him, look who’s getting the good jobs. The answer was whites.
He noticed, too, when he watched the American channels at Achmed’s house, that some blacks seemed to live well in America. He saw black lawyers, politicians, wealthy athletes. It made him think: “It’s not so bad over there. Blacks are all right.”
On Aug. 21, 1994, he climbed onto a raft and made for Florida. Like his friend before him, he was intercepted by the United States Coast Guard and sent to the American base at Guantanamo. The next year, they were freed — first Mr. Valdes, then Mr. Ruiz — and headed straight to Miami.
A Shock of Identity
In Miami, Joel Ruiz discovered a world that neither American television nor Communist propaganda had prepared him for. Dogs did not growl at him and police officers did not hose him. But he felt the stares of security guards when he entered a store in a white neighborhood and the subtle recoiling of white women when he walked by.
Miami is deeply segregated, and when Mr. Ruiz arrived, he settled into one of the black urban sections, Liberty City. He had family there. His uncle Jorge Aranguren had arrived in 1980 and married an African-American. Mr. Ruiz took a job at his uncle’s liquor store and started learning English.
The first thing Mr. Ruiz noticed about his new world was the absence of whites. He had seen barrios in Havana with more blacks than others, but he had never lived in a place where everybody was black. Far from feeling comfortable, he yearned for the mixing he had known in Cuba.
In Cuba, he says, he had been taught to see skin color — in his case, the color of chocolate milk — as not much more important than, say, the color of his eyes. But this was not Cuba. This was Miami, and in Miami, as the roughly 7 percent of the area’s Cubans who are black quickly learn, skin color easily trumps nationality.
Mr. Ruiz began to understand that in earnest on Valentine’s Day 1996, three months after his arrival in Miami. He had gone to dinner with his uncle Ramon Suarez at Versailles, a popular restaurant in Little Havana, a bastion of white Cuban-Americans. They took three light-skinned girlfriends along. Mr. Ruiz wore one of his nicest outfits — black jeans and a red-and-green checked shirt. He was new to the country and unsure how to behave, but he felt comfortable at Versailles. After all, he remembers thinking, he was among Cubans. He knew the food, he could read the menu, and he could talk to the waiters.
The five sat in the back. Mr Ruiz concentrated on the conversation and on his meal. More than four years later, he remembers what he ate: a breaded steak with rice and beans and fried plantains.
Shortly before midnight, the five left in a new red Nissan. One of the women drove. Mr. Suarez sat next to her, taking pictures of his nephew and the other women laughing in back. Twenty blocks from the restaurant, four police cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing, stopped them. The woman who was driving saw them first and yelled for Mr. Suarez to drop the camera.
The officers, with weapons drawn, ordered them out of the car. Terrified, Mr. Ruiz did as he was told, spreading his legs and leaning face down on the car as the officers frisked him. It seemed like a very long time before they were allowed to go.
That was when one officer, a white Cuban-American, said something in Spanish that forever changed Mr. Ruiz’s perspective on race. “I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a while,” Mr. Ruiz recalls the officer saying. “Since you were in the restaurant. I saw you leave and I saw so many blacks in the car, I figured I would check you out.”
Mr. Ruiz and his uncle stood speechless until an African-American officer approached them, apologized and sent them on their way. Afterward, his uncle said he was sure the police had been called by restaurant patrons uncomfortable with Mr. Ruiz’s racially mixed group. His English teacher, an African-American, told him that white police officers liked to single out blacks driving red cars. Mr. Ruiz is not sure what to believe, but the truth is not in the details.
“Up until that day, I thought all Cubans were the same,” he says. “It took a while to sink in, but that incident made me start thinking in a different way.”
All at once, he had to learn how a person with dark skin should behave in this country: if an officer is following your car, do not turn your head; the police don’t like it. Do not stare at other drivers, especially if they are young and white and loud. He has even learned how to walk: fast in stores, to avoid security guards; slower in the streets, so as not to attract the attention of the police. On the street, he avoids any confrontation.
He pays bills in cash because of an incident at a bank two years ago. When he asked to buy a certificate of deposit with $6,000 in lottery winnings, the bank officer, a white Cuban woman, looked puzzled, he recalls, and told him: “This is different. Your kind likes to spend the money, not save it.” Since then he has not had a checking account.
And, of course, he avoids Cuban restaurants in white neighborhoods.
“In Cuba, I walked as if I owned the streets,” he says. “Here I have to figure out where, what, when, everything.”
He often finds himself caught between two worlds. Whites see him simply as black. African-Americans dismiss him as Cuban. “They tell me I’m Hispanic. I tell them to look at my face, my hair, my skin,” he says. “I am black, too. I may speak different, but we all come from the same place.”
He has started to refer to himself as Afro-Cuban, integrating, indeed embracing, the ways of his black neighbors. He enjoys what he calls black food — fried chicken, collard greens, grits — though he still lusts for a Cuban steak and plantains. He listens to rhythm and blues at home and at work; in the car, though, he listens to a Cuban crooner whose romantic ballads he has memorized. He dresses “black,” he says, showing off his white velvet Hush Puppies and silk shirts. When he speaks English, he mimics black Miamians, but his words carry an unmistakably Spanish inflection.
Some months after the Versailles incident, when Achmed Valdes first saw his old friend, he was puzzled. “Joel has changed,” he said. “He is in another world now.”
A Seamless Transition
Pretty much anywhere else in America, Mr. Valdes would fit nicely into the niche reserved for Hispanic immigrants. If the question of race came up, he would be called a light-skinned Hispanic. Here in Miami, such distinctions do not apply. Here he is not a member of any minority group. He is Cuban and he is white.
This, after all, is a city run by Cubans, white Cubans. Not only are the mayors of Miami and Dade County Cuban, so are 7 of 13 county commissioners and 3 of 5 city commissioners. Spanish is the dominant language heard in the streets.
Mr. Valdes’s transition to this world has been seamless, so much so that he does not really think of himself as an immigrant at all. His self-image is of someone well along on a sure, quick path to the middle class, someone who would be right at home in a quiet neighborhood of well-kept houses and neatly mowed lawns. And that is where he lives, with his wife, Ivette Garcia, and his mother in a one-bedroom apartment off 17th Avenue in southwest Miami.
He drives the car he likes, a 1998 Nissan that he plans to trade in soon for a newer model, says whatever is on his mind and dreams of opening his own business selling mattresses in a strip mall.
He has had to learn about punctuality and paying bills on time, but being white and Cuban, he has not had to learn how to behave. His English is tentative, but that does not matter too much here. His childhood friend may wrestle with a new identity, but when Mr. Valdes is asked how he has adapted in a strange land, he looks dumbfounded and jokes: “What are you talking about? I was born in Hialeah Hospital.” Hialeah is south Florida’s most Cuban city, often the first stop for Cuban exiles.
Still, he struggles the immigrant struggle. He has held a dozen jobs, from delivering Chinese food for tips to cleaning monkey cages for $6.50 an hour. Each time, he has traded up a bit, to the point where today he makes $9.60 an hour, with paid vacations and frequent overtime, to drive an 18-wheel Restonic mattress truck all over the state.
On weekends, however, he looks refreshed and energized, positively glowing with the middle-class knowledge of having earned his weekly respite.
It is 2 p.m. one recent Saturday, and Mr. Valdes is home from his soccer game. Before he is out of the shower, the apartment fills up with his crowd — athletic white couples, all friends from Cuba. The men drive delivery trucks. The women, like his wife, work as medical or dental assistants.
The men plop themselves on the couch and watch soccer on television. The women cluster around the kitchen table, talking about the pill. They are all in their late 20′s, all still childless, focused on the English classes or professional courses that will advance their careers. The pill is pharmaceutical insurance for their dreams: eventually having children, owning businesses, buying suburban homes. It is all planned.
With some pride, Mr. Valdes shows recent pictures of his house in Cuba. When he comes to one of his father with his new wife, his mother recoils at the sight of her ex-husband with his arm around a black woman. Mr. Valdes concentrates on the coconut trees he planted in the backyard years ago. “Look how tall they are,” he says, as if surprised that his house, his father, his trees have gone on without him.
The talk drifts back to Cuba, as it so often does in Miami. Like much of Miami’s Cuban community, Mr. Valdes is quite conservative politically. A favorite topic is how much he says he has learned about the Cuban government since arriving here — the political prisoners, the human-rights abuses.
He listens to Miami’s Cuban exile radio every day, particularly enjoying a program in which the host regularly reads the names of the men and women who have died in prison or were killed trying to overthrow the Castro government. Like most Cubans in Miami — but unlike Mr. Ruiz and most Americans — he believes that Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor, should stay in this country rather than return to Cuba with his father.
Ninety miles and four and a half years later, Mr. Valdes has ended up back in Cuba — albeit a new and improved Cuba.
“The only thing I miss from Cuba is being able to see the ocean from my windows,” he says. “Everything else I need and want is right here. This is exactly the country that I always imagined.”
Confined in a Comfort Zone
“Que bola, acere?” (“What’s up, brother?”) Joel Ruiz asks a friend who has stopped to share neighborhood gossip. It is noon on a Tuesday, Mr. Ruiz’s only day off.
The friend leans in the window of Mr. Ruiz’s 1989 Buick, and they talk about a shootout in front of the friend’s house the day before. Drugs, for sure. Both men know the shooters from the neighborhood, and his friend is worried that they may come back. His little daughter was in the front yard when the gunfire started.
Mr. Ruiz cuts him off politely and heads to the house of another friend, a middle-aged Cuban woman who, he says, loves him like a son. What she would really love today, though, is $30 for rice and meat. “I don’t have any money in the house,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “It’s terrible.”
Having just cashed his paycheck — $175 for six days of work at the bar — Mr. Ruiz has money in his pocket. He peels off two 20′s, and as he drives away, the woman yells after him, “Come by tonight and I’ll make you dinner.” He waves her off. He is in a rush. As always on these days of rest, relaxation is in short supply.
Like Achmed Valdes, Mr. Ruiz is a man of middle-class ambitions. He is studying English and wants to be a physical therapist. With the help of his uncles, he bought a house in Allapatah — a neighborhood of dark-skinned Latinos and African-Americans — and rents out half of it for extra income. Sure, he would like to be spending his day off hanging out, having a beer, watching sports on TV. But this day, like all his days, is circumscribed by race and the responsibilities that come with being a black man in a poor place.
For the most part, blacks are outsiders in this racially charged city, the scene of some of America’s worst race riots. Blacks, especially black Cubans, lack economic and political power and resent the white Cubans who have so much of both. Steadily, relentlessly, the problems of Miami’s poor have become Mr. Ruiz’s, too.
When his uncle was imprisoned for drug-dealing, Mr. Ruiz was shamed and told almost no one. But the uncle had helped him get started in Miami, and so he stepped in to keep his bar going and help support his little girl. When another uncle was killed by a drunken driver and left his family with no insurance, Mr. Ruiz stepped in to help the widow and her 3-year-old daughter. He also sends money to his 11-year-old son in Cuba.
His entire routine, almost his entire life, is focused on a 20-block area around his home. Occasionally he ventures to South Beach, the fashionable zone where race is not much of an issue. Once, he went to a park in Little Havana, where Cubans, mostly retirees, gather to play dominoes and reminisce.
“But I left right away,” says Mr. Ruiz, whose politics, despite a dislike of the Castro government, are more moderate than Mr. Valdes’s. “I couldn’t be sitting around talking about Cuba and Fidel all day.”
Indeed, if his life is confined, he also feels comfortable in this place where he can be black and Cuban, where he can belong. As he drives with the windows down, he waves at people he knows, black men and women, Cubans and non-Cubans alike.
He has ambitions for the evening — some basketball, a date with his girlfriend, a black Cuban, to see “Best Man,” a film about successful black professionals.
But 4 o’clock finds him at the bar, Annie Mae’s, getting things ready for the night. He puts beer in the cooler, sweeps the floors, cleans the bathrooms, polishes the tables and waits for the women who are supposed to run the bar when he is off. He waits, goes out for a while, then waits some more. Still no relief. He turns on the TV and begins watching the news.
“Have you noticed there are no blacks on television?” he says suddenly.
He should have been playing basketball by now, but instead he begins to play video tennis, his eyes fixed on the ball’s glowing path through the darkness of the bar.
Encountering the Unknown
When Mr. Valdes arrived in Miami, friends and relatives did not just give him the obligatory immigrant lessons on how to fill out forms and apply for jobs. They also sent him a clear message about race, one shared by many, though not all, white Cubans: Blacks in America are different from Cuban blacks. Do not trust them and do not go to their neighborhoods.
Mr. Valdes has visited his old friend’s home just once. In late 1995, when he heard that Mr. Ruiz had arrived in Miami, he went to see him in Liberty City. Following his friend’s directions, Mr. Valdes found the place — a small wood house set back in a huge grassy lot. A chain-link fence surrounds it, and there is an air of abandonment about it, but it does not inspire fear.
Still, he felt uneasy, the only white man in a black neighborhood. The houses were ugly, he says; the few people on the streets stared at him.
“Maybe it’s just because, for us, that world is the unknown, but we felt uncomfortable,” says his wife, who is as talkative as her husband is reserved. “It’s like this: In Cuba I ventured out into the ocean, swimming by myself, because I knew the water, the currents. Here, when I swim, I never stray far from shore because I don’t know what’s out there.”
One of Mr. Valdes’s early jobs was delivering Ritz soda. Twice, he says, his truck was broken into in black neighborhoods. He lost 16 cases of soda and $2,000 in checks. “Everywhere else you leave the truck open and nothing happens,” he says.
Those experiences have left him with no interest in the black world and not a kind word for African-Americans. “They basically have kids and go on welfare,” he says. “What else is there to know?”
In Cuba, he says, he grew up with blacks. It was almost impossible not to, and so he never gave it much thought. His immediate neighbors were mostly white, and he never dated a black woman — “I just don’t find them attractive,” he explains — but he attended racially mixed schools, and several of his soccer buddies were black.
Here, his contacts with African-Americans are limited to chance encounters at work, his relationships with blacks to those he knows from Cuba. “As far as blacks,” he says, “I only trust those I know, because I know they are not delinquents.”
Mr. Valdes does not flinch when expressing his feelings about blacks. He is passionate and definitive, but he can also be generous and kindhearted, a man who shared his food with children in Guantanamo and regularly sends care packages to his friends, black and white, in Cuba.
Mr. Ruiz, he explains, is not his only black friend here. He is also friendly with Fernando Larduet, a man he knew marginally in Cuba but grew to like at Guantanamo. In a video of their time there that Mr. Valdes likes to watch to relive his daring escape from Cuba, there is an image of Mr. Valdes, who, for lack of a mirror, is gently shaving Mr. Larduet.
“It’s not that I’m racist,” Mr. Valdes says. “But even in Cuba, I had a vague sense blacks were different. That becomes more real here. In Cuba, everybody’s the same, because everybody’s poor. Not so here.”
Soon after arriving in Miami, Mr. Valdes and his wife went to visit a friend at a hotel downtown. On their way, they made a wrong turn and ended up deep in black Miami.
“It was a cold night and it was really dark, even though it was early,” his wife says, over dinner at a restaurant in Coral Gables, a fashionable and very white area of Miami. “People were walking around with sheets over their heads, and there was a fire in a trash can in every corner.”
“And the houses were boarded up with pieces of wood to keep the cold away,” her husband chimes in, barely lifting his eyes from his lasagna. “And people were smoking crack in the middle of the street.”
She shudders. “We got out of there fast,” she says.
In Cuba, the Limits of Equality
The soccer field where Joel and Achmed played back in Guanabo is still a busy place, a scrum of young men vying to put the ball into a goal strung together with scraps of fish netting. On this January day, the game is still an easy mix of blacks and whites.
A few miles away, in the main plaza of the University of Havana, about 200 students of all colors form a circle around a troupe of dancers. They are not clustered by race. At one point they form a human chain and then they, too, begin to dance, a rainbow of Cuba’s best and brightest bathed in sunlight.
At first blush, Cuba might seem to be some kind of racial utopia. Unlike the United States, where there is limited cultural fusion between blacks and whites, Cuban culture — from its music to its religion — is as African as it is Spanish. But despite the genuinely easy mixing, despite the government’s rhetoric, there is still a profound and open cultural racism at play.
The same black students who were part of that dancing rainbow say it is common to call someone “un negro,” or “black,” for doing something inappropriate. “When a man insults a woman in the street, I will shout at him, ‘You are not a man, you are black!’ ” said Meri Casadevalle Perez, a law student who is herself black.
And a white mechanic named Armando Cortina explained that he would never want his daughters to marry a black. “Blacks are not attractive,” he said.
Blacks, he added with conviction, commit the overwhelming majority of crimes in Cuba — a statement impossible to assess in a country that seldom publishes crime statistics. Even Cuba’s racial breakdown is uncertain, with a black population thought to be as large as 60 percent.
What is clear is that while the revolution tore down most economic barriers between blacks and whites, there is inequality at the top. Blacks hold few important positions in government or tourism. They are underrepresented at the university and in the nicest neighborhoods. And the few blacks who have tried to organize around the issue of civil rights have been jailed or ostracized.
Bill Brent, a former Black Panther leader who lives in Cuba, said he had arrived full of hope that the government had found the “antidote to racism.” Not only does racism persist, he lamented, but black Cubans lack the racial identity to do anything about it.
“The revolution convinced everyone that they are all Cuban and that their struggles were all the same, not separate or different because of their race,” he said. “If a Cuban raises his voice to say, ‘I am being discriminated against because I am black,’ then he would be labeled a dissident.”
Still, a voice of black identity can occasionally be heard.
In a sun-scorched neighborhood outside Havana, that voice resonates in the angry rap of Tupac Shakur. It blasts from a boombox at the feet of a group of young black men propped casually against a wall, dressed in a fair imitation of American hip-hop fashion: baggy jeans, oversize T-shirts, Nike sneakers and khaki caps with the brims turned down.
Relatives in Miami sent them the clothes and the rap tapes, they say. As they listen to the music now, it is clear they have not mastered the English lyrics and have only a sketchy sense of the song’s meaning. But it does not seem to matter.
“It’s about the lives of black people,” says 18-year-old Ulysses Oliva. “It is for us. That is why we love it.”
Two Men in Two Miamis
When Joel Ruiz told his mother that he, too, would be joining the migration to America, she fell to her knees and begged him to stay. Only when she realized she could not change his mind did she get up, dry her tears and cook him his favorite meal — sugar-coated ham with rice and black beans. Then she accompanied him to Guanabo and cried and cried and waved his wisp of a raft out toward the horizon.
Mr. Ruiz rarely talks about his mother; at the thought of her, his eyes seem to melt under a curtain of tears. But he says he does not for a minute regret leaving Cuba. It’s not that he isn’t acutely aware of the way his blackness has guided his story so far in America. He understands the bargain he has made. In Cuba, he says, he did not think about race, but he had no freedom and few options. Here he cannot forget about race, or his many responsibilities, and he has grown apart from his best friend. But instead of the limits, he focuses on the opportunities.
“To eat a good steak in Cuba, I had to steal it from the restaurant where I worked,” he says. “Here, I may not want to go to Versailles because I feel uncomfortable, but I can go anywhere else I choose, and no one can stop me at the door because it is illegal and I know my rights.”
Along with his identity as a black man, he has found refuge in a community that welcomes him. And he has acquired an American vocabulary to frame his Cuban past. Thinking back, he points to instances of racism that he once shrugged off.
Once, on a bus in Havana, he got into a scuffle with a man he felt had stolen his seat. Afterward, a white friend’s mother told him he had behaved like a black man.
“‘Te portaste como un negro,’ that’s what she told me,” he says. “Now, what could she possibly have meant by that, and how come I didn’t see it then?”
Another time, at one of those special birthday dinners with Mr. Valdes, the maitre d’hotel stopped him at the door and asked, “And who is this?”
“What he really meant was, ‘Who’s the nigger?’ ” Mr. Ruiz says. “If that happened to me now, I would know.”
Mr. Ruiz insists he does not dislike whites. He cites his friendship with Mr. Valdes as an example of his open-mindedness, just as Mr. Valdes uses their relationship to establish that he is not racist. And talking to the two men, watching them in one of their rare times together, it is impossible not to feel their fierce loyalty and genuine affection.
Yet both also know that theirs is now mostly a friendship of nostalgia. They are adults with ambitions and jobs and bills to pay, they point out, with little time to talk on the phone. When they do they seldom discuss anything beyond their families in Cuba or how busy they are with work.
When it comes to race, Mr. Ruiz will give his friend the benefit of the doubt. Mr. Ruiz is proud that when he turned 30 in February, Mr. Valdes ventured to black Miami for the party at Annie Mae’s. “I understand that it is more difficult for him to cross the line than it is for me,” Mr. Ruiz says. “It’s not his thing and I respect that.”
Mr. Valdes seems uncharacteristically thoughtful when discussing his friend’s life. His friend, he says, has chosen to live as a black man rather than as a Miami Cuban.
“If I were him, I would get out of there and forget about everybody else’s problems and begin my own life,” he says. “If he stays it is because he wants to.”
Mr. Ruiz thinks his friend cannot possibly understand. Even after he moved in April to an apartment south of Miami to escape the pressures of his needy relatives, Mr. Ruiz could not cast his family or his blackness aside. He spends most of his time back in Allapatah, near the bar and the neighbors who have embraced him.
“I know he would do anything for me if I ask him to, but the one thing he can never do is to walk in my shoes,” Mr. Ruiz says of his old friend. “Achmed does not know what it means to be black.”
Mr. Valdes and Mr. Ruiz have never talked about race. When told of his friend’s opinion of blacks, Mr. Ruiz shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
“He said that?” Mr. Ruiz asks, lifting his eyebrows. “I don’t know why he would think that blacks are delinquents. I know he doesn’t think that of me, and I’m black. I’ve always been black.” A pause. He thinks some more. “He grew up with blacks,” he says. “I don’t understand it. Maybe something bad happened to him. I am sure he is talking about American blacks.”
Mr. Valdes has never told him about his experiences in Miami’s black neighborhoods, just as Mr. Ruiz has never told him about the police outside the Versailles.
Yet Mr. Ruiz says he understands his friend’s fear of crime in black neighborhoods. There are parts of Liberty City even he avoids. What he is wariest of, though, are white neighborhoods. Thinking back on that encounter outside the Versailles, he says: “Now I know enough to be grateful we weren’t killed that night. The police could have thought Ramon’s camera was a gun.”
In Mr. Ruiz’s new world, whites, even white Cubans, have become a race apart, and while they are not necessarily to be avoided, they must be watched and hardly ever trusted. He can no longer see himself in a serious relationship with a white woman. “Not for marriage,” he says. “Not for life.”
When he is working in the bar, the only man running a place where money, alcohol and loud music flow into the early hours of morning, the customers who catch his attention are the white men who sometimes wander in.
As he sat at a corner table right before Christmas, a black plastic Santa smiling down at him, Mr. Ruiz was relaxed, debating whether to leave for a quick basketball game or stay to help out.
Just then, two white men walked in. It was easy to tell they were Cuban. They walked as Mr. Ruiz does, that chest-first Cuban walk. Mr. Ruiz perked up. He trailed the men with his eyes. They ordered beers, and as they walked over to the pool table they were momentarily blinded by the light reflecting from a hanging ball of mirrored glass. Averting their eyes, they looked toward the darkness. There they found Mr. Ruiz’s cold stare. He stared them down until they left.
“You see,” he said, relaxing again, “this is why I can’t leave this place. You never know who is going to walk in.”
About the Series
Two generations after the end of legal discrimination, race still ignites political debates — over Civil War flags, for example, or police profiling. But the wider public discussion of race relations seems muted by a full-employment economy and by a sense, particularly among many whites, that the time of large social remedies is past. Race relations are being defined less by political action than by daily experience, in schools, in sports arenas, in pop culture and at worship, and especially in the workplace. These encounters — race relations in the most literal, everyday sense — make up this series of reports, the outcome of a yearlong examination by a team of Times reporters.