The Bard of Memorial Park

Cuban immigrant Eduardo Campa writes darkly astonishing accounts of life in Little Havana

In 1980 the Mariel boatlift allowed the aspiring poet to leave Cuba. He joined an uncle in New York, but they suffered a falling-out three months later and Campa moved to Miami. "I found myself in the middle of a war among those who had been enemies in the Cuban prisons," he recalls. "It was normal to see someone walking down Flagler Street with a knife in one side of his belt and a revolver in the other." He was afraid of getting caught in the crossfire of small-time drug lords and gangs. "That scene," he says, "was too violent for me."

Campa was living in a tent city that had been set up for Mariel refugees near downtown Miami. Through a charity organization, he was relocated to Beaumont, Texas, where he met a girl who worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and moved in with her. He polished his English, which he first learned from his father as a boy and studied sporadically in school. To make a living, he relied on his experiences in Cuba, what on the island is known as resolver, resolving, and what Americans call hustling. He bought junked cars, fixed them up just enough to get them running for a couple of days, and sold them cheaply to poor people. He did not offer a warranty.

Campa then went into the fumigation business. "I bought a uniform and had American Pest Control printed on it, with Eddy stitched on the pocket," he says, laughing at the memory. He knew nothing about pest control, but he had a gimmick: "I'd bring a little box full of dead cockroaches, which I'd throw on the floor so the customers would think what I was doing worked."

Pedro Portal
Pedro Portal

In 1989, with his romantic relationship on the rocks and his ingenuity exhausted, Campa returned to Miami. He settled in Little Havana and began a yard-cleaning service. Soon he had two trucks and a couple of employees. "Then I realized I was losing perspective," he says. The poet got rid of his trucks, his television, and his furniture. "I sold everything and started going to the library every day. I didn't worry about anything. I lived in the street. Greatness is in simple things."

Campa recalls nights on the streets when he was attacked by gang members with knives. "There were a lot of times when I had to use my shoe as a shield," he remarks. "In time they got used to me and left me alone." Recently he has been renting a room on Third Street. To raise some cash, he peddles costume jewelry for a few hours a day.

"I try to live as simply as I can," he says. "I rent a room for $150 a month. I eat for two dollars on the corner. I spend two dollars every four days on pipe tobacco. I think if you live in a simple way, without complexities, without entering into the mechanisms of consumerism, you can dedicate more time to meditation and thought. One thing that man should achieve, what we need to teach our children, is to defend free thought."

Since his hippie days as a teenager in Havana, Campa has been especially aware of the boundaries imposed on freedom of speech. "Language is the only weapon of a totalitarian regime, which is why they try to create their own language," he says. "Language is only sincere when it doesn't betray reality. That's why those regimes are afraid of their poets."

Having found his soapbox on the street, Campa is a staunch proponent of democratic values. And despite his wariness of an undereducated consumer society, he's a believer in capitalism's class culture. "I've eaten out of garbage cans," he says. "I've also been in fancy hotel rooms. I've been where the rich have been. Why do I have to blame the rich because I've lived in the street and pulled a piece of chicken from the trash? That's my problem. Capitalism is the best system because it's closest to human nature. The rest is just deception."

Campa begins to quote Goethe when he is interrupted by an approaching couple, talking loudly in Spanish. "Can you settle an argument for us?" the man asks Campa. "If I was born in 1969, how old am I now?" Informed by Campa that he is 30, the man seems confused. "I was sure I was 34," he says, and the pair walks on.

"That is an example of why this neighborhood can't progress," Campa comments, puffing on his pipe.

How we find ourselves obliged to relive

in this cemetery the joys

and sadness of Little Havana!

Who can forget Papiro, the usurer

and his duel with Mr. Dinero

for the love of Rosario, the whore? (Here,

in eternal discord reunited.)

Where the splendor of this column is born

ebbs the almond tree where Papiro rested

in his folding chair that opened

like a woman's legs

and he slept:

he slept beneath the clamor of the almond trees

in the low income mornings

and the people wishing that

he would never awaken

but that never happened,

and when he woke up

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