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The men huddled closer together on the apartment floor as another blast of rain and wind shook the two-story building. The roof quivered and creaked overhead. Water streamed from cracks in the ceiling down the bare walls, forming puddles around the men's calloused feet and soaking the mattresses they had drawn around them. These men had survived many storms in Huehuetenango and Jacaltenango, their mountain villages in Guatemala, but here, in the strange land and culture that was their new home, the ferocity of the storm made them shiver with fear. They prayed in Kanjobal, their native dialect, and searched each other's eyes for shared strength.
In times of crisis -- when the crops failed, when the volcano destroyed our villages, when the kaibiles, the army's special forces, carried out their murderous midnight raids -- the village elders always counseled us, the Mayan men whispered. But here, thousands of miles from our homeland, who is our alcalexah, our spiritual leader?
The men lifted the mattresses off the floor and hefted them over their heads. They raced down the apartment steps, onto the street, into the fury of the storm -- and to Mister Yak's house.
A few days after Hurricane Andrew devoured much of South Florida, the men recounted the fearful experience to Jack Leonard -- Mister Yak, as the Indians affectionately mispronounce his name. Today Leonard laughs as he retells the story, savoring his newfound role as an alcalexah (pronounced alcacha).
Because as Andrew brought desperation and chaos to South Florida and its aftermath spread confusion, anger, and frustration, it also solidified Jack Leonard's mission.
The Mayans had journeyed from Guatemala to Homestead trusting no one, least of all light-skinned ladinos like Leonard, who had so often exploited them in their own country. But Leonard's face became familiar. He led English classes and joked with them. He visited their squalid apartments, spoke to them in Spanish, even picked up a smattering of Kanjobal, Quiche, and Mam, their native dialects. He opened his house to them, and he invited some of the homeless boys to live there. And so Leonard's stature grew.
These meek people A many of whom didn't even speak Spanish --needed a voice, a way to access the strange, foreign culture that surrounded them. Leonard promised to be their advocate.
After Andrew, the stakes rose. Money suddenly became available where there had been none before. Everyone, it seemed, was looking for someone to help. And anyone who wanted to help the Mayans turned to Jack Leonard and his Central American Mayan Council. The army sought him out. So did philanthropists and church volunteers nationwide. In September the Catholic Archdiocese appointed him hurricane site director at Homestead's Sacred Heart Church, where he was working as a teacher.
"Jack is a hero," says Denise Kalland of the Heavenly Cause Foundation, which has written several ?$10,000 checks earmarked for the Mayans. "Jack has done a great job; he's a real humanitarian," seconds Homestead Mayor Tad DeMilly. "Jack has a real social conscience. He's a great activist," says State Rep. John Cosgrove. "Jack has stepped in and done a tremendous job," asserts Joanne Schollmeyer, assistant editor at the South Dade News Leader.
Phil Donahue invited Leonard to ride with him when he toured Homestead for a hurricane update on his talk show. CNN interviewed Leonard for news segments in Spanish and English. The Voice of America taped him. Jack Leonard was heard everywhere.
These days a tattered blue-and-white Guatemalan flag flutters over the roof at "Mister Yak's," marking the property like a fortress on the prairie. Unlike the other lots on the street, which remain barren and brown many months after the hurricane, palm fronds and corn plants wave in the sun in Mister Yak's yard. The grass out front has grown back full and green, bougainvillea spill over the fence.
The 13,000-square-foot lot must have seemed huge when Leonard and his long-time companion Ray Heaton first moved in more than four years ago, but lately the place has experienced significant rural sprawl. The house is now a village, and there is barely enough room for one person to crunch his way down the gravel path.
In the first days after the storm, the U.S. Army 101st Mountain Division set up tents in the back yard to house the Guatemalans and other migrants desperate for a place to stay. In early November, the Heavenly Cause Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based organization whose philanthropist chairman had befriended Leonard, replaced the tents with large trailers rented from a local company.
Now some 50 Guatemalan men and a handful of women and children live in the three trailers that stretch across the back lot. A fourth trailer is used as a classroom. A tinge of the Port-O-Lets behind the trailers wafts through on the breeze, and the air is filled with the sound of warbling birds and the voice of a man singing a Spanish song behind the curtain of a jerry-rigged shower. One army tent remains -- the provisions center -- its shelves stacked with Isomil infant formula, Pampers, gallon cans of "Chef-made Chicken Chili," and ready-cooked beans. Washers and dryers sit atop a deck next to a freshly planted garden. Outside, a new Radio Shack satellite dish beams soccer games from Mexico to the large-screen RCA television set in the house. A clothesline billows with flowered T-shirts of all sizes and hues, white crew socks, and blue bikini underwear.