Under the Table and Off the Books

If you're desperate for work, if you must see a doctor, if you need shelter, Miami's shadow economy will provide

For his tendonitis, Willy ended up going to Hialeah Hospital, according to a bill he carries in his shirt pocket. But he could have also picked one of numerous unlicensed doctors who service undocumented immigrants afraid that an emergency-room visit might alert the INS. Also appealing is the fact that unlicensed health-care providers are always cheaper and more willing to work with uninsured patients.

That was the case with Eugenio (not his real name), a recent Cuban immigrant who suffered a bad toothache about six months after arriving in Miami. When he couldn't take the pain any longer, a friend put him in touch with a dentist -- the kind who swears you to secrecy when making an appointment.

Eugenio drove with his girlfriend to a home off Flagler Street. The couple entered a door on the side of the house that led into a converted garage. Inside, according to Eugenio's girlfriend, who recounted the visit for New Times, was a pristine waiting room complete with white-tiled floor, couch, and Spanish-language magazines. Through the doorway of another room the girlfriend could see a reclining dentist's chair and a tray set out with what appeared to be sterilized instruments. It turns out Eugenio had an abscess around a molar. The "dentist" cleaned and disinfected the area and had Eugenio return for a followup. Total cost: $60.

Steve Satterwhite
Classic Miami scene: Low-cost vendors ply city streets just as they did back home
Steve Satterwhite
Classic Miami scene: Low-cost vendors ply city streets just as they did back home

The dentist who helped Eugenio is exactly the type of person Enrique Torres deals with on a daily basis. As chief investigator for the state Department of Health's Unlicensed Activities Division, Torres makes his living busting backroom doctors and dentists, a seemingly endless task. "There are thousands of unlicensed medical providers in Miami-Dade," Torres says. "At least 300 to 400 dentists. There are also doctors, psychologists, pharmacists, surgeons, midwives. You name it and you can find it. You can walk into a dozen clinics in Little Havana and find unlicensed doctors and nurses." According to Torres, a new immigrant's unfamiliarity with American medical practices makes it easier for unlicensed practitioners to operate without scrutiny: "In some countries you see a white lab coat and you think that person is God."

Miami's informal economy is not solely the product or province of recent immigrants. For example, the city's traditionally black neighborhoods, which for decades suffered from economic as well as racial segregation, created their own alternative markets for goods that would otherwise be unavailable. Liquor, clothes, food, and more could be bought from the trunks of cars in Overtown. Rapper Luther Campbell has recounted how he got his start selling cassette tapes on the streets of Liberty City.

"There was a whole lot of stuff like that where I grew up in Liberty City," says Brian Dennis, a community activist. "There was the frozen-cup lady. She sold frozen Kool-Aid in a cup from her house. There was an old man with a truck and every day after school he would make a killing selling us candy and soda. When you see older people selling like that, it means times are tough and these people are just trying to make ends meet."

Another example of the informal economy's versatility and resilience is the fact that it attracts the children of immigrants, a second or third generation that is now fully integrated into the formal workforce. Anecdotal evidence abounds. Miami is the home of the friend who knows somebody who can paint your car, fix your roof, move your furniture, or landscape your home. For instance, Patricia, born in Cuba but raised in Miami, has a well-paying job as a saleswoman, leases a new car every few years, and owns her own home. But when she needed a suit for work, she didn't go to Bloomingdale's. A friend told her about a place where she could get amazing deals. "Someone from work whose sister had gone there told me about it," Patricia recounts. "I called first and had to say who recommended me." After setting up an appointment, Patricia drove to a home on Miami's western edge. "It was a really nice house, three or four bedrooms, but there wasn't any furniture in it," she says. In the living room were racks of new suits, tags still attached. Patricia purchased a $400 Ralph Lauren woman's suit for $150. She didn't know where the clothes came from and she didn't ask.

In 1987 Miami police arrested one such home-shopping clothier, Emeterio Marino Pijeira, for selling stolen men's suits from his Shenandoah duplex. When investigators began digging they discovered some of Miami's most prominent citizens among his customers, including Dade County Manager Sergio Pereira, a self-confessed clotheshorse; Miami Commissioner Rosario Kennedy, who bought two $150 suits for her sons; and former statewide prosecutor John Hogan, who bought two suits for $125. Police said the suits had been stolen from retail stores throughout the county.

Willy from Peru won't be buying fancy suits anytime soon. He's concerned with economic survival, not looking good. The streets near his Flagler outpost are teeming with others like him, grim foot soldiers in poverty's trenches. A few blocks east two men are independently selling soda and water. A third man walking along the sidewalk is hawking Timex watches still in their boxes. Willy shares his intersection with a stern-faced woman who sells beverages to thirsty commuters.

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