Hearts and Mayans

Jack Leonard has opened his South Dade home to Guatemalan migrants. What more can he do?

The closed-in back porch of the house itself serves as camp headquarters and doubles as a post office for the 400 Guatemalans who receive mail here, and an ersatz town plaza for the 50 trailer residents. It's also the dining room and lounge for the six boys who share the house with Leonard and Heaton. Hundreds of W-2 tax forms are stacked on a table; Guatemalans who have worked in Oregon, California, New York, and Florida have listed this as their home address. A new computer, donated by a migrant-advocacy group in San Francisco and used to compile data about the Guatemalans, sits amid the forms.

The front rooms have been converted into extra bedrooms, where the boys sleep two to a bunk. Everyone in the house shares the single bathroom. Only Publix boasts a wider selection of shampoo.

Pasqui, a dark, handsome Mayan teenager, is out watering the plants in the back yard. One of the six Indian residents of the house, Pasqui comes from Huehuetenango, in mountainous western Guatemala; he abandoned his birthplace more than six years ago, as the Guatemalan national army was intensifying its campaign to exterminate rebel resistance. His father still lives in Guatemala, Pasqui says. His mother is dead. His brother stayed for a while at Mister Yak's, but he has moved on.

In a voice so soft you have to lean close in order to hear him, Pasqui describes how he left "Huehue" with a group of friends who made their way through Mexico, across the border, and into the States. For a time, Pasqui bounced from migrant camp to migrant camp, following the temporada, the season. Two years ago he had reached the end of another tomato harvest in North Carolina when he and a half-dozen companions piled into a jalopy, hoping to reach Florida in time for the next temporada. Pasqui doesn't remember exactly what took place that black Georgia night. He only knows that the driver somehow lost control of the car, which smashed into a tree. Two of his friends, he says, were shipped home to Guatemala in cheap coffins. He remained in a rural Georgia hospital, with both his legs in casts, for the next year. When he was finally able to travel, he was put on a bus to Sacred Heart Church in Homestead. From there he moved in with Jack Leonard.

Pasqui says life is good here, but he is reluctant to elaborate. He doesn't mind sharing a room with three or four other boys; unlike most teenagers in this country, Mayan youths don't have to deal with culturally imposed hangups about closeness among males. Here, thousands of miles from family and close friends, their only intimacy is among themselves.

Pasqui is glad to have left behind the war in Guatemala; he says he has no plans to return. "Here we are like Mister Yak's children," he adds, his voice flat and emotionless. Then he looks away again, the thoughts behind his placid expression retreating back into the Guatemalan mountains.

Drops of dew still bead on the bougainvillea, but Jack Leonard is already tilting at windmills. Dressed in Levi's Dockers and a sport shirt and puffing the first of the day's many Vantage cigarettes, he stalks the porch, portable phone in hand. His Irish temper is riled. The Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator at the other end of the line wants to evict a Guatemalan teenager from one of the agency's trailers several blocks away. Leonard has no patience for rules or regulations and even less for people who don't want to help "his" people.

"I know them and they know me, and you don't even know who you're talking to," he fires into the phone. "If you want to know, you're talking to the hurricane site director of the Archdiocese of Miami. If you think the Archdiocese would put me in charge and let people run circles around me, then I don't deserve the job. Your attitude is way off, and you'd better get some sensitivity."

Out on the porch steps, a Guatemalan woman has arrived with two small children. As the sun rises higher, she waits quietly to speak to Leonard. Soon another woman arrives. One of the women taps timidly on the door. "Un momento, Se*ora," says Leonard, and looks around for Ray Heaton. "Uh, Ray, could you find out what she wants?"

Nothing in the room hints at any pre-Mayan past for the house's owner. No personal or family memorabilia, only Mayan calendars, wall hangings from Jacaltenango, and posters of Guatemalan peace activist and Nobel Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu.

Freed from having to deal with the Guatemalan woman's concerns, Leonard picks up a folder and digs out a story about the Mayans that was published in the Los Angeles Times, and another from the South Dade News Leader about how he purchased guitars for the Guatemalans. When Channel 10 called and wanted to do a story about slum landlords after the hurricane, Leonard says, they asked him where they should look.

"Living with 50 Central Americans in your back yard for over six months A this has been an experience you couldn't buy," Leonard proclaims, dumping a Vantage ash into his hand. "What textbook could give you this?"

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