The Smuggler as Savior

Juan Garcia Pino was obeying a higher law when he rescued nineteen family members fleeing Cuba. But a more mundane law ruined everything.

Juan and Maria say their fortunes began to decline during his incarceration. Their major concern was that many regular customers, including auto dealerships, stopped coming back to Juany Transmissions (the name by which most people refer to Juan). The garage is next door to a tire repair shop in a strip of warehouses across the street from acres of swampy fields east of the Tamiami Airport. Their new Chevy Suburban was repossessed after Juan's arrest, forcing Maria to use her mother's old Toyota, which recently broke down. She has leased another van (possible, she says, because of smaller monthly payments). Their most recent phone bill was $350. She hasn't yet paid August rent on the four-year-old shop.

Juan was a motorcycle mechanic back in his hometown of Santa Clara but learned transmission work from a friend here. "I don't think a lot of people could do what he's done in this time," Maria says proudly. But Juany Transmissions has never been registered with the Florida Secretary of State, as required for all businesses operating in the state, although Juan did obtain the proper operating permits from the county. (He looks perplexed when asked about this and insists he has all necessary papers).

Thirteen years before Maria was born, her mother's parents owned a nightclub in Manzanillo, on Cuba's southeast coast. When the revolution triumphed on New Year's Eve 1959, Fidel Castro's army closed down the club, and the family soon left for New Jersey. Maria's parents divorced when she was four, and ten years later, she moved with her mother to Miami. Maria says she graduated from Sunset Senior High in 1991 and then attended cosmetology school. She thought about opening a manicure shop or training as a medical technician and opening her own lab.

One Saturday night in late 1993, as Maria tells it, mother and daughter went out with girlfriends, each to a different club. At a bar on NW Seventh Street, Emma struck up a conversation with a somewhat despondent young Cuban. "We both got home around three o'clock in the morning," Maria recounts, "and she said to me, 'I met this nice young man. You've got to meet him.' The next day I went over to where he was staying. Juan fell in love right away, but in the beginning I was like, 'I'm not ready to get married.' Then I saw he was very hard-working and very dedicated to my family. He wanted to take care of me and help me in every way." She pauses for a second, marveling. "He gave me everything. Four months later we moved in together, and one year later I got pregnant."

The couple never took the time to get legally married. Which was okay with Maria, she says, because "the relationship was really good, and maybe I thought [getting married] would be bad luck." Juan, interviewed during a recess in his trial, said he didn't want to discuss his life in Cuba or much of his history here.

Until late June it seemed he had gotten beyond his past. He had never become a legal resident or gotten married, and he had neglected to register his business with the state, but there had been no apparent consequences. In January of this year, while Maria was pregnant with their second child, they bought a house not far from their shop. It was in the brand-new Emerald Pointe subdivision, a $135,000, three-bedroom tract house with a pool in the back yard.

A few weeks ago, when Juan was still in detention, he called Maria at the shop and asked her to do him a favor: Drive out to Krome, pick up a Cuban national who was being released, and let him sleep for a few nights at the shop. He'd become friends with the man, who had no family or friends in Miami. So Maria left the shop's three mechanics to their work and drove off in the rented van.

She stopped at the guard station outside Krome and told the young crew- cut attendant she was there to pick up one Pedro Sanchez. The guard made some calls, then returned to tell her the wait would be about half an hour. "Gracias, mi'jo," Maria replied.

She decided to drive to a market down the road and pick up a copy of the day's Miami Herald, which, Juan had advised her, contained an article about redoubled anti-smuggling efforts and mentioning his case. She waved as she passed a small group of protesters standing on the roadside holding up a huge banner that said in Spanish, "Justice for Cubans." "I went to one of their protests," Maria said. "But I don't want to get too involved with them, because what their cause is, is people who've committed crimes, and they're [INS] still holding them."

On the way back to Krome, Maria pulled over to a rest area at the roadside near a covered picnic table and a bank of pay phones. Two men and a woman were moving restlessly around the table. One of the men approached Maria's van. She rolled down the window and he began a good-natured complaint in Cuban street slang about a relative they thought was going to be released.

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