Little Buenos Aires

Meet Silvina, la flaca de explosiva

One night he came close to following through on his threats. According to Silvina and her neighbor George, Nelson once again broke into her apartment through the living-room window and then began screaming he would kill himself with a kitchen knife if Silvina didn't leave Alex. "But first he tried to stab me," she says. Somehow Silvina managed to wrestle the knife away from Nelson. She chased him out of the apartment and her lanky husband made it to his white truck. But Silvina followed and they wrestled like WWF stars inside the pickup. "He kept saying he was going to kill himself," Silvina now laughs hysterically. "So I called 911. I thought he was going to do it." But then he drove away. "Es un hincha pelotas mi marido. Un boludo -- He's a nuisance, an idiot. He got lucky that night," she boasts, still laughing. "I was holding back because I really thought he'd do it." George, from upstairs, witnessed the scene. So did Silvina's three-year-old daughter, Jessica. "The only thing I could do was hold on to the girl," George says. "She's a rare woman, Silvina."

Eventually Alex went back to Argentina, and Silvina sometimes thinks of joining him.

Silvina, La Explosiva,at home with young guitarista
Steve Satterwhite
Silvina, La Explosiva,at home with young guitarista

When they first arrived in North Beach, Silvina, Nelson and the two boys rented an efficiency with the help of a family friend they knew from Argentina who had been living there for several months.

North Beach, an area that stretches from 63rd to 87th street between Collins Avenue and Indian Creek Drive (which becomes Dickens Avenue north of 71st Street), is a magnet for Argentines. "It's easier to adapt to North Beach," says Graciela Mitchelli, who co-owns a newspaper in Miami called El Argentino Mercosur with her husband, Alberto. "There are other Argentines living there, the rent is lower, there is greater access to public transportation, and the language barrier is minimal." Of course the main attraction in this neighborhood of Miami Modern apartment buildings, single-family homes, Jewish learning centers, and Argentine delis and restaurants, is the beach. "Argentines love the beach and the heat," says Mercedes Garcia, a 28-year-old economic reporter from Buenos Aires, recently in Miami looking for freelance work. Alberto Mitchelli agrees: "It's a dream most Argentines have to live in a tropical place." (He has been in Miami since 1981.)

But there are other reasons why Miami in general, as opposed to other cities in the country, is on Argentine immigrants' radar. "Argentines, especially porteños [natives of Buenos Aires], are all about living the good life," explains Garcia. And Miami has that image. "In Argentina it's considered cool, or chic, to live in Miami. The city represents a mix of prosperity and the good life. New York is for people who want to break their backs working. Miami is for people looking for a more laid-back approach."

But soon Argentines face reality. They find that even for those just trying to survive, Miami is not much different from New York, Graciela Mitchelli says.

Shortly after they arrived from Argentina, Nelson painted buildings and Silvina cleaned hotel rooms in South Beach at night for minimum wage. During the day she also cleaned apartments in Miami Lakes for about $30 each. After two months she got a job at a pasta factory, for a meager salary as well, and the family was able to move to her present address. The one-bedroom apartment was at least bigger, if not less dingy. In January 1998 Silvina had a third child by Nelson, a daughter, Jessica. Suddenly the family had to make do with one paycheck and more demands on it. "Me sentia para la mierda -- I felt like shit," Silvina says about having another child. By then finances were intruding on her dreams of America, and of marriage.

Every day Silvina struggles to make ends meet. Often the most basic necessities, such as food, are not easy to get. There are days when she goes "hunting" to feed her children. Hunting, in Silvina's world, is asking for enough money for food for the day. She'll corner her husband until she's finally able to scrape $40 from him. "That's on a good day," she gripes.

If Nelson turns out dry, Silvina resorts to neighbors. She owes Andrew ten dollars. And recently she borrowed $60 from Elsa the Paraguayan, who also lends Silvina her old Mercedes-Benz to run errands with. "Silvina is alone," Elsa says. "From the time I've known her she's always depended on the kindness of others." Then there's the Cuban girl who lives on 77th Street. When Silvina needs to use the phone because hers has been disconnected, she calls on the Cuban girl from her kitchen doorstep and voilà -- she's telephonic again. And when Silvina's electricity is cut off every now and then because she hasn't paid the bill, she'll cook over there, too. The Cuban girl saves for her everything from rice to toilet paper to leftover pizza, so Silvina's children won't have only a school lunch in their stomachs.

Silvina's last job was cleaning the Key Biscayne home of a rich Buenos Airean family who owns an air cargo company with offices in Miami, Chile, and Argentina. They paid her $250 per week to clean, do the laundry, iron clothes, and bathe the dogs. Silvina says that aside from exploiting her, the family was also verbally abusive, though not intentionally. "It's just the way they are," she asserts. "Although la mujer es un asco [the missus is disgusting], and she screams at me for nothing, she likes me. She's just very domineering." (Like Silvina's mother.) "The other day she called me every name in the book because I mixed colored towels with white ones in the dryer. You should see their house. They buy rare, exotic objects from places like Russia and Greece. I'm afraid to even go near them. Can you imagine if I broke some high-priced vase? I'd probably be working for a year to pay for it."

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