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And Puisseaux says that when he's playing his doppelganger, he "think[s] like Obama." Indeed, today there is something of a politician in his gait and mannerisms.
He's as casually intimate as a candidate on the campaign trail, prone to gently grabbing a knee, elbow, or shoulder as he speaks. And he makes eye contact so intense you might suspect he's trying to gauge your soul or calculate your mortgage. Of course, these traits of intimacy were hallmarks of Latin American culture before they were American political techniques.
"Gerardo is a little heavier than Obama, which you notice when you're up close," says former Hialeah mayor and congressional candidate Raul Martinez, who counts both men as friends. "But from 20 feet away, I've never met two men that look so much the same."
Adds Damian Romay, an executive producer at América TeVé: "The only difference is, I think he's missing some teeth, so he tries to not smile. He's angry Obama."
Puisseaux sidles through a sleekly designed lunchroom. Resting around him are fellow actors — niche stars with plucked eyebrows and concrete hairdos — drinking midafternoon coladas. A few greet Puisseaux politely, referring to him only as "Obama."
With men, he is decorous, constantly offering a cigarette or to fetch a cup of coffee. With women, he's a harmless Lothario, full of winks, grins, and thumbs-up symbols. In a span of 10 minutes, he declares that three actresses and a cafeteria worker are each "the most beautiful woman in América TeVé."
He eventually reports to his workplace, which today is a small set where actors have gathered around a boardroom table. A track running down the center guides a digital camera. The sketch being filmed is an example of the bizarre slapstick that characterizes Spanish-language comedy: It's a spoof of Donald Trump's The Apprentice. The billionaire is played by a dwarf, of course, wearing a giant orange wig, and he has decided to choose the next president based on audience vote. Among the actors at the table, a light-skinned man with hair sprayed white is stuffing his cheeks with cotton balls to achieve the John McCain look.
Puisseaux winks at a buxom woman wearing a bob haircut, eyeglasses, and a camouflage T-shirt; she's América TeVé's homage to Sarah Palin. To a reporter he whispers, with sincerity befitting a presidential candidate, "This is the most beautiful woman in América TeVé."
Before leaving Cuba for the United States in 2001, Gerardo Puisseaux earned less than $20 a month as a factory worker. He lived with his wife Hortensia in a tiny apartment in the Marianao section of Havana. His ex-wife and two kids, then ages 7 and 8, lived just a few doors down the street.
The laid-back Puisseaux is not the type to launch into rants against the Castro brothers. But he finds no romanticism in the poverty of his homeland. "For many people, it was a hard decision to leave Cuba. Not for me," he says. "In Cuba, you work and work and work, and you still have nothing."
Gerardo and Hortensia won a coveted spot in what's known as the Cuban lottery, which awards 20,000 Cubans permanent resident visas in America every year. The Puisseauxs were flown to Seattle, where Gerardo found work on various construction sites before getting a permanent gig applying dry wall. Hortensia got a job as a receptionist at Boeing, the aviation company famous for coddling its employees. It seemed the couple had bypassed the great struggle that usually accompanies immigration.
Puisseaux knew roughly 30 words in English. "My boss would be working on a ladder, and he'd ask me to get a hammer. I'd go like this, he says, and gives a thumbs-up symbol and a wide grin. "I didn't know what a hammer was. My boss would say, 'That's great. Can I have a hammer now?'"
But his new employers were patient, and with the help of some Mexican-Americans, Puisseaux's English steadily improved. Soon he earned a spot in the local union and began making a relative fortune: $27 an hour. Every month, he sent hundreds of dollars to his ex-wife in Havana to raise the kids. "In two years, I helped my family with more money than I did in 38 years before," he says.
It was in Seattle where strangers began stopping Puisseaux on the street to clutch his hands and congratulate him on his most recent eloquence in Chicago or New York or D.C. These incidents began in earnest after Barack Obama made the now-famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But Puisseaux knew nothing about it. "They would stop me and say, 'Oh, Mr. Obama, thank you,'" he says. "Sometimes I'd be a little scared. I'd think, What is Obama?"
Puisseaux fell in love with Seattle but felt far from home in a city devoid of Cubans. Then there was the cold, gray weather. "Seattle is beautiful," he says, "but it snows."
So in April, Puisseaux transferred to a different union in Tampa. Hortensia quit her job, confident she'd find something in the new town. Perhaps they pushed their luck. Florida suffers no shortage of immigrant labor, and when he reported to his union office, he learned his salary had been cut to $13.75 per hour.