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Standing above the tiny coffin containing five-year-old Rickia Isaac's body, Mayor Alex Penelas searched for meaning in the tragedy of the child's death. "This is a day of grief," he declared during her funeral earlier this month. "We are all grieving." But that sorrow should not be directed toward Rickia, Penelas explained. "You see the good news is that Rickia is fine," he said. "She is with the Lord. Because of her innocence, because of her youth, because of her spirit, there is no doubt in my mind she is one of the Lord's angels today.
"Let me tell you who we need to be grieving about," he continued. "We need to be grieving about ourselves. Let us just pray to God we will be alive tomorrow. Let us make Rickia's death an opportunity. Let's all get together to stop the violence. It will only happen if we come together as a community."
Arguably the most important line in Penelas's eulogy was the call to recognize the destructive forces before us. "Let's stop ignoring what we are seeing in the community," he demanded. For the literal-minded Penelas, those words held a specific meaning about the prevalance of people carrying guns. If a neighbor has an illegal firearm, report them to the police, Penelas implored the 2000 people gathered at the Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City. Given that Rickia had been shot in the head by a gunman's stray bullet, and that a dozen other people in the area have been gunned down this year, his admonition seemed entirely appropriate.
Given their limited scope, however, Penelas's words fell as short as Rickia's life. There are other realities -- less tangible perhaps than a handgun, but no less deadly -- that can also no longer be ignored. Besides his denunciation of guns, Penelas needed to recognize the widening chasm between Dade's black and white communities, a rift that was evident even during Rickia's funeral. When the mayor finished speaking, he received warm, though not enthusiastic, applause. As he made his way out the back door of the church and into a waiting car, Minister Rasul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam took his turn at the lectern.
Pointing back toward his chair on the altar where he had listened to Penelas and others speak, Muhammad shook his head and said, "I sit in that seat with anger in my heart. I sit with anger because for many here this is just a performance." And with that, the crowd burst into applause and shouted its agreement.
Alex Penelas may well have delivered what many considered to be mere platitudes, but his intentions were no doubt sincere. The contrast between the reception he received versus that given to Muhammad is simply another indication of the level of mistrust that exists in Miami today between blacks and Cubans.
For the past three weeks there have been statements in the media -- from the New York Times to the Miami Herald -- that Dade County is headed toward a return of the racially charged violence that bracketed the Eighties like burning bookends. Depending on the color of your skin such reports are likely to be viewed as either irresponsible rhetoric or a prophetic warning.
What does seem apparent, however, is that for the past few years there has been a series of incidents that pound like a drumbeat in the African-American community. A cacophony of events, seemingly unrelated, that take on a magnified sense of importance as they rumble from Perrine to Destiny. It is a sound that the rest of Dade County has either ignored or been oblivious to, but one that has created an increasing sense of isolation for blacks.
"I think we are on a collision course," says attorney George Knox, a partner in the law firm of Adorno & Zeder. "I think there is a good deal of tension because people are trying to figure out ethnic partnerships. By that I mean the so-called downtown business community is trying to survive; it sees itself as under siege because of economic and political forces operating against it. African Americans are trying to demonstrate that we are important and need to be paid attention to. And Cubans are trying to learn how to use power, both economic and political power. And I think everyone is making mistakes along the way."
"For anyone to think that tensions are not high right now," says Marilyn Holifield, a partner in the law firm of Holland & Knight, "then they are unaware of the feelings that are created by instances -- in-your-face instances -- that are constantly occurring that tell us that we do not count."
The most obvious examples involve the direct competition between blacks and Cubans for positions of political power. In 1990, Octavio Visiedo was selected over Tee Greer for school superintendent. Three years later Armando Vidal was chosen over Cynthia Curry as county manager. In both cases, the black candidates, Greer and Curry, had more experience and had been next in line for the senior post before being passed over.
In the race last October for county mayor, Penelas beat out former county commission chairman Art Teele in an election that posted results strictly along racial lines. Ira Everett, the former general manager and talk show host on WMBM-AM (1490), argues Teele's loss sent an important message to blacks in Dade County. He contends that, when you compare the accomplishments of Teele and Penelas, the two men were not even close in qualifications. "But when it came to running, it became race, it became ethnic," Everett explains. "The message from Cubans is, 'We will only let you go as far as we want you to go. We are not ready for a strong mayor that is anything but Cuban. You may be the most qualified. You may be the best candidate. But this community rallies around its own.'"