By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
I will anxiously wait to see the light of dawn,
of every dawn.
That the smell of life should excite me
when it brushes against my bones
and my gratitude, that of a banished man,
always responds to its call
All of us, all of us are in Memorial Park
Smoking his pipe, Leandro Eduardo Campa sits on a bench in front of Riverside Park, in East Little Havana, between a stalwart shade tree and a lamppost defaced with vulgar graffiti. Every morning Eddy Campa, as he is known to passersby, sits on this wooden perch. Sometimes he takes out one of the library books he carries with him, carefully wrapped in a plastic shopping bag. Sometimes he reads quietly, enriching his knowledge of philosophy or meditating on a poem. Usually, though, he sits placidly and watches the activity on the street before him, observing the days lapse into a lifetime on SW Eighth Avenue.
Today the homeless woman Campa calls Maritza la Loca sits on one end of the bench. Her chubby thighs inflate navy-blue stretch shorts, and a kerchief covering her hair obscures her face as she leans forward and counts the money she keeps hidden between the faded pages of an old magazine.
On the baseball diamond inside the fenced park, a man wearing a guayabera and shapeless slacks meticulously sweeps home plate with a broom. Each morning he grooms the field. Each evening he reappears to coach the neighborhood boys who gather here to play. "That's Vicente. He was a baseball player in Cuba," Campa says in the deliberate, grammatically refined Spanish of a college professor. "He was offered a contract with the Dodgers. The day before he was to debut with the team, he hurt his arm. He couldn't play baseball anymore. He ended up here."
Campa keeps a mental catalogue of such personal tragedies that have befallen the residents of his neighborhood, stories of the streets on whose sidewalks he has often slept, rooting for his dinner in nearby garbage cans. The griot of SW Eighth Avenue, Campa looks the part of a poet laureate in clean white shirt, gray pants, blue argyles, and loafers. The 46-year-old's Ivy League style and erudite vocabulary are belied only by his stained teeth and several beaded orishanecklaces that peek out from under his collar. Street-corner philosopher and neighborhood historian, Campa authoritatively points out the stone house where Al Capone is rumored to have lived one winter, and the steepled church, location of a bygone bar so rough that "a man woke up dead there every morning."
Campa has seen many unusual things from the vantage of his bench, nestled between Third and Fourth streets. But a very recent incident may be among the most remarkable. Campa watched as a man crossing the street punched himself hard in the face using both his fists. He struck himself with such force he cut open his lip, and blood dripped onto his shirt as he walked by, still swinging. "A sure manifestation of a sense of guilt," recounts Campa as he packs tobacco into his pipe and lights it. "A sense of guilt and the fallacy of hope for a better life is what dominates man, totally annihilating him." In Campa's view the masochistic stranger's actions succinctly expressed the Zeitgeist of the neighborhood, the deep desperation that drives "the pantheon of Little Havana characters" who populate his poems.
For the past several years Campa has used poetry to record a fictionalized diary of life in this obscure corner of Miami. He has written his verses on the back of Medicaid forms, supermarket flyers, and other daily ephemera, creating a lyric portrait of East Little Havana. His poetry has been collected in a slim volume, Little Havana Memorial Park, published last year by Pedro Damian, a Cuban painter who operates a small local publishing house, Colección Dylemma. Campa will read from his work at the upcoming Miami Book Fair International, where an exhibition of photographs of neighborhood residents by Pedro Portal, inspired by the book, will be on display.
In Little Havana Memorial Park, Campa depicts the immigrant barrio as a cemetery. The work, similar in structure to a traditional epic poem, contains 28 "chapters" that tell the stories of the people who live there. His vision of the neighborhood is set in the future, when all the current residents are dead and buried, a perspective that allows him to portray the arc of their lives, their daily interactions in the street, their successes and failures, and their ultimate demise.
The cemetery setting, he says, immortalizes his neighborhood's residents. But the graveyard is also a natural metaphor for a place where Miami's casualties reside. "My book reveals the decadence of Little Havana," Campa explains. "It's the story of a group of immigrants with no other destiny, really, than to die here in the United States. This is a sad place, not because of the location but because the people are sad."
Elderly men, faintly elegant in their worn old suits, leisurely stroll down the avenue at the speed of another era. They pass by Campa en route to a nearby post office, bearing envelopes with addresses written in rococo script. A kid with a gold tooth and shaved head lopes down the sidewalk, his eyes skittering. He greets Campa by name. The poet waits a beat, then whispers, "He just got out of jail." A skinny bearded man crosses the street pushing a shopping cart filled with his possessions, neck and neck with a young father guiding a baby stroller. A shuffling woman with long gray hair wears bedroom slippers and carries a dollar-store umbrella against the sun. Down the street at La Cadena market, truck drivers unload their stock.