Hearts and Mayans

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

Leonard began to meet people in high places and make some important friends. Like then-Mayor Irving Peskoe, recently deceased. And State Rep. John Cosgrove. "I was impressed by Jack's social conscience and activism. We shared common concerns," recalls the ten-year veteran South Dade state legislator.

During this time, Leonard was becoming increasingly incensed at the plight of the local Mayan population. "I saw people were coming to English class because they didn't know what to do," he says. "They weren't coming for English; they were coming to find the link, to find how they could get a decent apartment or apply for jobs."

On July 27, 1988, Leonard signed a $43,000 deed for the two-bedroom, one-bath house and lot at 410 NW Tenth Avenue in Homestead. He and Ray Heaton moved into the house, just blocks from Little Guatemala, the area off Krome Avenue where most of the Guatemalans live in desperately overcrowded apartments.

"I started to get to know these people. They were so kind, so nice. I thought to myself, 'Good God, they're so docile, they're just taking and taking all this,'" Leonard says.

After a 1991 visit to Guatemala, he returned to Homestead all the more eager to help these passive, troubled people.

This morning Leonard is scheduled to supervise the unloading of a Daily Bread Food Bank truck at Sacred Heart School. Everybody knows Jack Leonard. He stops to chat with all the church volunteers, then breezes through the center. The volunteers have arrived early, and everything is in order. Mothers with children, elderly, handicapped, black, Anglo, Hispanic stand together patiently in the morning sun.

The truck is late. When it finally arrives, there's a problem: The driver has forgotten to pick up the television reporter who was to film the food delivery. In halting English he explains to Leonard that his instructions are to wait for the TV crew before distributing the donated food. Leonard demands that the truck be unloaded. The driver doesn't understand what he's being told, but he understands the tone, and he doesn't like it. He stands firm.

Leonard stalks away to phone the driver's supervisor. Minutes later he is back, issuing the man new instructions. But the driver remains adamant, and angry at Leonard's insistence. "You treat me with respect as I do you," he says in Spanish. A half-hour later, the truck still unloaded, Leonard orders the man to leave. The people standing in line watch in wonder as the truck pulls away.

Thirty Central American teenagers, their faces freshly scrubbed and smelling of sweet cologne and eagerness, mill outside the back door of la casita de Yak. They wear baseball jackets and jeans, and their jet-black hair is carefully combed back. These boys have spent the day working in the fields, just like every other day. Language class with Leonard is a special treat, a social event.

When the instructor breezes out a few minutes late, no one seems to mind. Like a scene from "The Piped Piper," they fall in step behind Leonard, following him to the donated trailer that serves as a classroom. Every seat is filled.

"Buenos noches," Leonard begins in flawed Spanish. Though he spent twenty years in Europe and is described by many as "bilingual," his Spanish is a rudimentary hybrid of Romance languages, his accent often confused within the same sentence. These boys don't seem to care, however, and they laugh at all his jokes.

"I put the yellow spoon in the large cup," Leonard says and waits for the boys to repeat the phrase. He elucidates another phrase, and the boys repeat. He goes around the room, one at a time, and they answer his questions.

He types phrases onto a computer keyboard, and the boys laboriously copy down the words on paper.

The hour passes quickly and there is plenty of laughter, though it's hard to say what, exactly, is being learned.

Emilio and Santos, two of the boys who live in the house, are chattering away in the kitchen. A pan sizzles, the smell of frying chilies permeates the air. As if for a cookout in the woods, the boys have set the table: paper plates and cups, plastic utensils, gallon jugs of donated raspberry and orange soda.

The family sits down to eat, with Heaton and Leonard at one end of the long wooden table. The food is served A pork chops piled high, a heaping bowl of rice and beans, salsa picante, and steaming tortillas. The boys chatter, half watching a science-fiction thriller on the large-screen RCA.

"This place runs like clockwork," Leonard laughs as his housemates whisk away the dishes. "I don't know, but the boys know who's being picked up, who's doing the dishes and the cooking."

"Who's making coffee?" he yells out, reaching for a Vantage.
In his native Guatemala, Juan Diego worked for several years with the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), promoting grassroots development. In Homestead, while scratching out a living for his family, he has tried to organize and educate Guatemalans through community meetings.

"Jack has done a certain amount of good, but in my country paternalism is strong," Diego says. "Many people claim they know what's best for the Guatemalan people, and in Homestead Jack has assumed that same role. We need a contact person here, someone to explain to us the aspects of the law and to provide access to the community. Two years ago Jack promised that we would meet with the City Council. It's been two years of promises."

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