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As Okeechobee Road winds north through the city of Hialeah it offers a hectic panorama: neon hotels, boxy stucco houses, car repair shops, and cavernous discount stores. But just a bit further on, past Hialeah Gardens toward the Broward County line, the landscape suddenly calms. The sky grows wide and drops low. The swoosh of compact cars is replaced by the wheeze of loaded semis and the putter of an occasional tractor. Sun-bleached pastures dotted with grazing cows and scrubby foliage unfurl on each side of the road. Hand-painted signs planted in the grassy shoulder advertise topsoil, coconut trees, and animals for sale.
A sign reading "Rancho Don Goyo" stands at the entrance to a winding side road. At the end of this road is Don Goyo's domain: a ranch fronted by a small general store that serves Cuban coffee and pastelitos at the counter, and an open-air restaurant whose back-porch pool table and jukebox overlook a flat expanse of arid fields.
It's the type of terrain that looks as though it might foster tumbleweeds. But here in northwest Miami-Dade County, lonely palm trees tower over tangles of tropical brush bordering the fields.
At noon on Sunday, the pungent odor of roast pork fills the air, which is punctuated by sporadic whiffs of manure. Hens and roosters strut in the dirt outside a large chickenhouse. A wooden canopy covers the dining area, which is crowded with plastic tables and chairs. At the back of the shelter, smoke wafts from a room partitioned off with wooden boards and tin sheeting. The two sides of a pig are cooking on a huge square grill over a brick oven that, in Cuba, would be called an horno criollo.
A short man with a moon-shaped face, bald pate, and wire-rimmed glasses stands at a wooden counter, slicing hot meat from a pork shank. He is Gregorio Arensibia, proprietor of the ranch and its head cook. As a boy he was given the nickname Goyo, and in Los Angeles, where he once earned a living selling pork sandwiches from a street stand, his Mexican customers respectfully added "Don" to his name.
"Since then, everyone's called me Don Goyo," the soft-spoken 68-year-old says with a shrug. "Hey, that's okay with me."
Goyo has owned the two-acre ranch for six years. He lives alone in a room off the store. His wife lives in an apartment in Miami Beach, but he doesn't go there. "I'm a guajiro," he explains, using the name for the people of the Cuban countryside. "So I like the country. That's why I live here."
Goyo is not alone in his appreciation of rural life. On any given weekend his restaurant draws dozens of Latin immigrants seeking a haven from urban Miami-Dade.
Setting isn't the only attraction. There's also food, drink, music, dance, and poetry. In the ranch's gravel parking lot, men with weathered faces shaded by cowboy hats call out in Spanish, greeting each other with handshakes and hugs. They wear pointy-toed cowboy boots, print shirts, and double-knit slacks; cell phones and beepers hang from their hand-tooled belts. These weekend cowboys are all are pridefully Cuban; even those who are from Havana refer to themselves as guajiros, like Don Goyo. Most are retired; others drive trucks, work in offices, or own small businesses that serve the Cuban community. They dedicate their spare time to the art of punto guajiro, an improvisational style of Cuban country music based on a centuries-old form of poetry brought to the island from Spain in the age of the conquistadors.
The guajiros, who perform from one to four every Sunday, will provide the afternoon's main entertainment. Later the dance floor will open up. For now the scene is relatively calm. Elderly Cuban women flutter lace-trimmed Spanish fans next to their husbands, some of whom are wearing Panama hats. College-age couples in jeans dig into six-dollar plates of meat, yuca, and rice and beans. A carload of swarthy young laborers wearing dirty jeans shuffle in self-consciously from neighboring farms and suck down Coronas at a back table.
The live music has yet to begin, so the patrons shout over a recorded merengue song, turned up loud by the young Cuban disc jockey who sits playing CDs in the back corner. "I try to play a little of everything because we get different nationalities here," he explains. "Except for American music. Of course there's none of that here."
A salsa tune sung by Celia Cruz begins and an attractive fortyish mother gyrates with her teenage daughter on the floor. One family forms a conga line and circles the DJ. A young father dances with his baby daughter in his arms, holding her hand in his and twirling around. An elfin man decked out in pants with suspenders, a straw porkpie, and two-tone shoes dances a wild rumba. He looks as if he has arrived via time machine from 1940s Havana.
Pretty brunette waitresses pick up orders at a counter in the back, where a voluptuous mulata stuffed into black Lycra pants stands talking to a man who holds his cigar in grease-slick fingers. They've discovered they're from the same small town in central Cuba. "I've never gotten used to living here," confides the man, who came to Miami twenty years ago.