Days of El Portal's Lives

This tiny village is one of the county's most diverse, and boy do they fight about it

The Tequesta Indian burial mound has smoothed itself over centuries into a grassy rise sitting perpetually in the gray shadow of giant oak trees. The hillock is circled by a narrow asphalt road and watched by the shuttered windows of bougainvillea-covered bungalows and tile-roofed mission-style homes in the Village of El Portal, just north of Little Haiti. The mound is one of only a few local remnants of the Tequestas, hunters and fishers who faded from Florida in the late 1700s. In 1949 a bronze plaque was placed at the mound recognizing its historic significance, and it remains a source of pride among El Portal's 3000 inhabitants.

But could this peaceful patch of hallowed earth be harboring an ancient curse, some maleficent energy that could account for a history of unseemly, sometimes bizarre goings-on in El Portal? How else to explain, for example, the fistfights at village hall, the restraining orders and lawsuits, the slanderous pirate-radio broadcasts, the racial and ethnic mudslinging? The combatants over the years have included old-Florida Anglos, African Americans, Haitians, new immigrants, and gays, but the battle has remained one for political control, an ever-shifting power struggle fueled by grand passions -- all over a one-square-mile town.

Miami historian Paul George can't say if there's a curse associated with the El Portal site, but he does know that workers hired in 1896 to clear a Tequesta burial mound in downtown Miami believed they'd be hexed for violating the grounds. The Tequesta were just the first group to rise and fall in this cranny of the county. White settlers moved in during the government's wars with the Seminoles in the 1800s, and the Village of El Portal was established in 1937. It has since kept mostly to itself. "El Portal contains a great deal of history, including a unique and important landmark," George muses, "but nobody gives it much thought."

El Portal natives such as Hugh Gladwin, standing on the Tequesta burial mound, know it all tends to come back around
El Portal natives such as Hugh Gladwin, standing on the Tequesta burial mound, know it all tends to come back around
Daisy Black: First black mayor of El Portal and longest-serving council member, but she still has to survive mudslinging every two years
Steve Satterwhite
Daisy Black: First black mayor of El Portal and longest-serving council member, but she still has to survive mudslinging every two years

Outsiders have indeed overlooked the rustic municipality throughout its 65 years, leaving it to evolve into one of the state's most ethnically and culturally diverse communities. From a whites-only town at its incorporation, El Portal was transformed by 1993 to one of only three black-controlled municipalities in South Florida. That same year the first Haitian elected to any office in the United States, Philippe Derose, was sworn in as an El Portal councilman. In 2000 Derose became the first Haitian mayor in the nation, and El Portal was the first municipality with a majority-Haitian governing body. By the 2000 census, blacks -- more or less evenly divided between African Americans and Haitian Americans -- accounted for more than 60 percent of El Portal's population.

Within the past few years, however, yet another demographic trend has been changing the town's look. Gay and lesbian professionals, most of whom are Anglo or white Hispanic, are an increasing presence in the Upper Eastside and residential neighborhoods to the west, including El Portal. The latest revamping of the town's political makeup became evident in December 2000 with the election of one of Miami-Dade County's first and few openly gay council members -- the first white person to sit on the council since 1997.

As the entire Biscayne corridor north of downtown becomes increasingly fashionable after 40 years of decline, property values in El Portal and surrounding neighborhoods are tripling and quadrupling. Still pockets of poor folk remain on coveted land and are increasingly seen as a detriment to the area's ongoing gentrification. These days, in fact, a proposed "affordable housing" development has become such a touchy issue in El Portal -- where it is not located -- that opponents of the town's mayor are exploiting fear and loathing of the lower classes in hopes of thwarting her re-election. But then El Portal has gone through many cycles, and yesterday's winners often turn out to be tomorrow's losers. In this village, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two.

Take the vicissitudes of Daisy Black. The 53-year-old was the first African-American woman and only the second black person elected to the El Portal council, in 1991. Four years later she became the village's first black mayor (each year the council chooses a mayor from its own ranks). Black is currently serving her fifth two-year term on the council. She has been an El Portal homeowner since 1979 and plans to continue in local politics. She is a former long-time president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Miami-Dade County and current president of the Florida Municipal Democratic Elected Officials. She has received awards for her civic involvement, and her likeness looks down on the Dolphin Expressway from a gigantic billboard advertising her alma mater, Miami-Dade Community College. Yet that hasn't buffered Daisy Black from her town's particular brand of brawling: She's survived a series of assaults on her character, job performance, financial dealings, and basic worth as a human being. Now she's up for re-election in December.

And a new wave of attacks has already begun, led by a man who has unexpectedly reappeared on the local scene after a decade of relative invisibility. He now calls himself Michael the Black Man, and he was once a prominent disciple of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the religious leader who was recently released from federal prison after serving eleven years on a murder conspiracy conviction. In 1992 Michael -- a.k.a. Maurice Woodside, Maurice Symonette, and Mikael Israel -- was tried in Fort Lauderdale for murder alongside twelve other Yahweh followers and was one of seven acquitted. Since then he's been spotted as a singer in a musical venture with Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas, and as a Republican Party activist. Then he started Boss Radio early this year.

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