Home on the Glades

For the Cuban cowboys of west Miami-Dade, restoring the Everglades means destroying their way of life

Clutching reins in one hand, cigars in the other, the two horsemen ride at an easy gait. Three other riders trail a few paces back. The group is crossing SW 152nd Street, so far west that Everglades National Park is just a half-dozen miles to the south. The horsemen are traversing one of Miami-Dade's last frontiers, where SW 152nd is a street in name only, a rutted dirt surface bordered by fields and wetlands and rendered nearly impassable by enormous, deep puddles. The moon, almost full, rises fat and smoky on the horizon at the tail end of a perfect January day. The lead riders pass a miniature bottle of Dewar's scotch back and forth. It's Saturday night after all, and a light breeze carries the sound of music and laughter from the distance.

The lead horseman, Wenceslao Aguilera, age 52, and his younger brother, 44-year-old Carlos, ride with a naturalness that conveys a lifetime in the saddle. The Aguileras fled Cuba after the Castro government took most of their family's property. In the 1980s they settled in this corner of Southwest Miami-Dade, where hundreds of other exiles live today. Many of them, like the Aguilera brothers, are from the Oriente, the eastern region of Cuba known for its rural character. These western Miami-Dade Cubans consider themselves guajiros, or country folk. In the United States they might be called cowboys.

Over the past twenty years, the exiles have created a community that reflects the ranching lifestyle they left behind. It's a world of pig roasts and calf-roping, a place where pride and independence are highly valued and American culture is accepted on Cuban terms. Neighbors often stop their cars, blocking the narrow roads, while they roll down their windows and engage in long conversations. These days much of the talk centers around their land, which they stand to lose if the federal and state governments have their way. The place they live in is known in countless official papers and press reports as the 81-2 Square Mile Area.

These few miles have a big problem: They lie just west of the earthen levee that protects much of Miami-Dade County against flooding from the Everglades watershed. Slightly elevated by a ridge and bordered by SW 168th Street to the south and Richmond Drive to the north, the tract is still mostly wetlands, the natural state for much of South Florida. It also forms the outer edge of a main artery of the River of Grass, the existence of which scientists and engineers have learned is essential for a healthy water supply.

To many environmentalists those who live in the 400 or so households in the 81-2 Square Mile Area are outlaws, daggers at the throat of restoration plans for the Everglades. They want them removed. On November 12, 1998, the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District voted to purchase the area as long as the federal government and Miami-Dade County helped the state pay for it. Once the money is secured, those who refuse to sell will have their land condemned.

Residents believe that if activists only knew their history and culture, they would understand why the land isn't for sale. These Cuban cowboys refuse to abandon a lifestyle they believe can't be replicated elsewhere. They are quietly building support among Hispanic politicians and inviting state officials in for private tours of the area. Their first goal is to convince county commissioners to reject allocating funds for a buyout. The residents say that here, unlike Cuba, where there was no legal system to which they could turn, they will stand strong. And they vow they will win.

They have carried their campaign to the airwaves of Spanish-language radio in the hopes of capturing the hearts and minds of Miami-Dade's Hispanic majority. One recent Thursday evening the Aguilera brothers, other residents, and the former head of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, Dexter Lehtinen, appeared on Radio Mambi's (WAQI-AM 710) Mesa Redonda, a program hosted by station director and Cuban exile activist Armando Perez Roura.

Lehtinen is helping the residents in his capacity as general counsel for the Miccosukee Indian tribe. He has filed a lawsuit claiming the water management district came to the November buyout decision illegally. Lehtinen has enlisted the Dade County Farm Bureau in the cause. "We think it is unconstitutional," he tells the radio listeners through an interpreter. "The Dade County Farm Bureau and the Indians believe that if [it] can be done to these people, it can be done to anybody."

Ibel Aguilera, Carlos's wife, attacks environmentalists who are demanding purchase of the land. "[The environmentalists] live in condominiums," she says, "and they don't have the slightest idea what it means to love the land, to live off the land, and to live like we live."

Perez Roura is captivated by the cowboys in his studio. He notes their hats and asks questions about their way of life. Carlos Aguilera tries to explain what it is like to worry about sick farm animals as though they were family. "You know all of the chickens you have," he says. "They are part of you."

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