A Little Slice of Cuba

As Okeechobee Road winds north through the city of Hialeah it offers a hectic panorama: neon hotels, boxy stucco houses, car repair shops, and cavernous discount stores. But just a bit further on, past Hialeah Gardens toward the Broward County line, the landscape suddenly calms. The sky grows wide and drops low. The swoosh of compact cars is replaced by the wheeze of loaded semis and the putter of an occasional tractor. Sun-bleached pastures dotted with grazing cows and scrubby foliage unfurl on each side of the road. Hand-painted signs planted in the grassy shoulder advertise topsoil, coconut trees, and animals for sale.

A sign reading "Rancho Don Goyo" stands at the entrance to a winding side road. At the end of this road is Don Goyo's domain: a ranch fronted by a small general store that serves Cuban coffee and pastelitos at the counter, and an open-air restaurant whose back-porch pool table and jukebox overlook a flat expanse of arid fields.

It's the type of terrain that looks as though it might foster tumbleweeds. But here in northwest Miami-Dade County, lonely palm trees tower over tangles of tropical brush bordering the fields.

At noon on Sunday, the pungent odor of roast pork fills the air, which is punctuated by sporadic whiffs of manure. Hens and roosters strut in the dirt outside a large chickenhouse. A wooden canopy covers the dining area, which is crowded with plastic tables and chairs. At the back of the shelter, smoke wafts from a room partitioned off with wooden boards and tin sheeting. The two sides of a pig are cooking on a huge square grill over a brick oven that, in Cuba, would be called an horno criollo.

A short man with a moon-shaped face, bald pate, and wire-rimmed glasses stands at a wooden counter, slicing hot meat from a pork shank. He is Gregorio Arensibia, proprietor of the ranch and its head cook. As a boy he was given the nickname Goyo, and in Los Angeles, where he once earned a living selling pork sandwiches from a street stand, his Mexican customers respectfully added "Don" to his name.

"Since then, everyone's called me Don Goyo," the soft-spoken 68-year-old says with a shrug. "Hey, that's okay with me."

Goyo has owned the two-acre ranch for six years. He lives alone in a room off the store. His wife lives in an apartment in Miami Beach, but he doesn't go there. "I'm a guajiro," he explains, using the name for the people of the Cuban countryside. "So I like the country. That's why I live here."

Goyo is not alone in his appreciation of rural life. On any given weekend his restaurant draws dozens of Latin immigrants seeking a haven from urban Miami-Dade.

Setting isn't the only attraction. There's also food, drink, music, dance, and poetry. In the ranch's gravel parking lot, men with weathered faces shaded by cowboy hats call out in Spanish, greeting each other with handshakes and hugs. They wear pointy-toed cowboy boots, print shirts, and double-knit slacks; cell phones and beepers hang from their hand-tooled belts. These weekend cowboys are all are pridefully Cuban; even those who are from Havana refer to themselves as guajiros, like Don Goyo. Most are retired; others drive trucks, work in offices, or own small businesses that serve the Cuban community. They dedicate their spare time to the art of punto guajiro, an improvisational style of Cuban country music based on a centuries-old form of poetry brought to the island from Spain in the age of the conquistadors.

The guajiros, who perform from one to four every Sunday, will provide the afternoon's main entertainment. Later the dance floor will open up. For now the scene is relatively calm. Elderly Cuban women flutter lace-trimmed Spanish fans next to their husbands, some of whom are wearing Panama hats. College-age couples in jeans dig into six-dollar plates of meat, yuca, and rice and beans. A carload of swarthy young laborers wearing dirty jeans shuffle in self-consciously from neighboring farms and suck down Coronas at a back table.

The live music has yet to begin, so the patrons shout over a recorded merengue song, turned up loud by the young Cuban disc jockey who sits playing CDs in the back corner. "I try to play a little of everything because we get different nationalities here," he explains. "Except for American music. Of course there's none of that here."

A salsa tune sung by Celia Cruz begins and an attractive fortyish mother gyrates with her teenage daughter on the floor. One family forms a conga line and circles the DJ. A young father dances with his baby daughter in his arms, holding her hand in his and twirling around. An elfin man decked out in pants with suspenders, a straw porkpie, and two-tone shoes dances a wild rumba. He looks as if he has arrived via time machine from 1940s Havana.

Pretty brunette waitresses pick up orders at a counter in the back, where a voluptuous mulata stuffed into black Lycra pants stands talking to a man who holds his cigar in grease-slick fingers. They've discovered they're from the same small town in central Cuba. "I've never gotten used to living here," confides the man, who came to Miami twenty years ago.

The girl nods. "I've been here for a year," she says. "I'm already crazy to get out of here and go back to Cuba."

With his gray work pants tucked into high rubber boots, Don Goyo steps from his white pickup truck and opens the gate to a sun-scorched field. Garbage bags full of decomposing food lie piled on the ground. It is a peculiarly warm afternoon in December and the sour smell is dizzying, but Goyo doesn't seem to notice.

He steps into a pen in which three dozen or so pigs are sleeping or eating slop from a trough. Joined by his two helpers, hard-looking men with sinewy builds and coarse, unkempt hair, he starts to yell and clap his hands. "AVamos, vamos!" he shouts, herding the smaller pigs and piglets into an adjoining yard, where they bask in the mud.

Some larger pigs are confined to another, smaller pen, and the men let these into the central area vacated by the younger animals. As Goyo starts to scrape a long, thin knife against a sharpener, the large pigs squeal and press against the fence.

Wielding the razor-sharp knife, the ranch owner walks among the pigs, then focuses on one and strikes it several times on the back with the butt of the blade, forcing the animal into a corner. Goyo paces back and forth behind the pig, then deftly sticks the knife into its side and pushes it to the hilt, piercing the animal's heart. He pulls out the knife.

"It's done," he says to his farmhands. "It's so fast, you can barely see me do it." The pig staggers, squeals, and with a thud falls down dead. The three men put on rubber gloves, lift the carcass into a tub full of hot water, and scrub it. Goyo scrapes the hair off its hide with the blade of a shovel. The men lift it on to a wooden table, where the now bald skin shines pearl white in the sun. Goyo slices the stomach and the guts spill to the ground. One of the men helps him split the skull with a rusty hatchet. They string the carcass up from a rafter, then hose down their work area.

The operation is unquestionably primitive, more reminiscent of ages-old backyard farming practices than the hygienic, mechanized methods used at slaughterhouses today. But for Goyo the ritual is just part of the way things have always been and always will be.

Growing up on a farm in the rural Cuban province of Matanzas (the name means "slaughters"), he learned to kill pigs, and to care for horses, cows, and chickens. As a young man he helped his father on the farm but eventually he went his own way, earning his living as a butcher. In the Sixties, when times changed in rural Cuba owing to the Castro government's appropriation of private land and agricultural reforms, Goyo moved to Havana. He labored as a carpenter, then found work as a restaurant cook. In 1980 he decided to leave the island, taking advantage of the Mariel boatlift. His son Mobel, then nineteen years old, left with him.

They arrived in Miami, but Catholic Charities, an organization that was working with the refugees, sent them on to Los Angeles. Alone and unable to speak English, Goyo earned what money he could collecting cardboard and soda cans from the garbage and turning them in for recycling. After getting to know some other Cubans in the city, he began cooking for Santeria ceremonies, weddings, and quinces. He had more success setting up his pork sandwich stand and was able to save enough to buy a neighborhood grocery store catering to Latin customers. Eventually he owned four stores.

Goyo's wife joined him in 1984, and in 1993 he gave in to her desire to move to Miami. He opened a grocery store in Hialeah but quickly sold it to buy the Okeechobee Road ranch, whose wide-open spaces so reminded him of home. "Nothing is like Cuba," he says, "but at least it's the country."

He gets up at four each morning to feed the animals. Later he'll make himself a lunch of meat, beans, rice, and salad, which he eats on the porch behind the store with his sister, who helps him run things, though she does not live on the ranch.

Friends tend to drop in for a beer in the early afternoon, driving over from Hialeah or Medley. Then Goyo goes back to work, getting to bed at ten or eleven. Around the holidays the restaurant is unusually crowded on weekends. (It is open Friday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday from noon until nine.) Goyo makes extra money in December selling some of his pigs for private Christmas dinners.

The ranch owner himself isn't planning on a Christmas feast. He doesn't celebrate much these days. It was just three years ago last November that he put his son Mobel in the ground. "One day we were out riding and he said his hand felt numb," Goyo remembers. "He went and had some tests, and it was cancer." He died four months later at age 34.

Mobel is the second son Goyo has had to bury. His eldest son Silvio died in an accident while performing military exercises one weekend in Matanzas. He was sixteen years old.

Goyo says he and Mobel were inseparable. "He liked everything I liked," Goyo notes. Including the countryside. Goyo bought the ranch with his son in mind, so the boy would always have a place to live and work. When Mobel was alive there were horses, cows, and goats on the land, as well as chickens and pigs. The two did the chores together each day. After his son died, Goyo sold the cows and horses because they were too much for him to care for alone. Mobel is buried in a cemetery down the road, which Goyo visits every day.

Goyo goes into his small bedroom, decorated with a framed poster of a Ferrari and furnished with a bed with a flowered spread and a small sofa. It is the only room on the property with air conditioning -- a matter of pride to Don Goyo -- and he keeps it cool. He pours a glass of wine from a bottle in a small refrigerator, and points to a photo of Mobel, a robust man with a moustache.

"Happiness doesn't exist," he murmurs, wiping his eyes. He claps his hands on his knees and sighs. "The only thing left for me is to try and make everyone else happy."

Two musicians sit on chairs at the back of the dance floor. One holds a guitar, the other an elegant oval-shaped, twelve-stringed lute, this one decorated with a large decal of the Cuban flag. A man in a bowler hat and rugby shirt stands behind them, scratching a guiro with a stick to produce a rhythmic, raspy sound. A curvaceous middle-age blonde with a beehive hairdo and high heels acts as mistress of ceremonies. Wielding a clipboard, she calls out the names of the regular performers, asking them to come onstage and sing a greeting to the audience.

The vocalists perform in a talk-sing style that may remind new listeners of flamenco, calypso, rap, or spoken-word poetry. As in a poetry slam, the guajiros compete for audience applause, improvising in informal contests called controversias. The improvisers use language as flowery and antiquated as bards at a Renaissance fair, but their subject matter tends to come from current experience.

"The problems in Cuba, nostalgia, longing for our homeland, love, life, freedom -- there are a lot of things we sing about," says Pablo Leon, the acknowledged leader of the aficionados.

"Por ser parte del paisaje dominical vine y traje a la familia," one man intones in a tuneless nasal twang, drawing applause from the crowd. "En el rancho de Don Goyo se pasa muy bien la vida." ("To be part of the Sunday landscape I came here and I brought my family. A great time is had at Don Goyo's ranch.")

The blonde steps up with her clipboard. "Don't forget," she announces, "in the kitchen we have pork, yuca, tamales, tostones, and beer." She calls the next contestant on her list, but he doesn't appear. He can be seen riding through the parking lot on a horse. "Oh well. Next!"

A thin older man who looks like an undertaker in a drab gray suit takes the stage.

"De Hialeah vino Trujillo aqui, no porque llevo traje pero por el sentimiento que tengo aqui ("Trujillo came here from Hialeah, not because I have a suit on but because of the feeling I have here") he sings, thumping his chest. This draws cheers from the crowd.

The performers -- about half a dozen are present today -- finish their greetings and the controversias begin. They come onstage two at a time and take turns ad-libbing rhymes about a given theme. These are silly or serious, ranging from metaphorical descriptions of the ancient sound of the Arabic lute to the beauty of the country landscape to the glories of Don Goyo's cooking. A journalist's presence in the audience sparks a 40-minute jag about newspapers and fame.

The improvised lyrics of punto guajiro take the form of the decima, a ten-line Spanish poem once employed by wandering troubadours to give news of battles, royal decrees, and general gossip. The name punto (point) comes from the position of the hand on the guitar fret when playing the spare chords of the accompanying music's three-by-eight beat rhythm. The punto style became popular in Cuba in the Seventeenth Century, when it was played at weekend parties of Spanish agriculturists who wanted to remember their homeland, even if they were of a generation born on the island.

"They brought this music from Spain to the New World and where did they do it best? In Cuba," says Manuel Soriano, one of the singers. "The most perfect decima is in Cuba. They may do it in Puerto Rico or Santo Domingo, but it's not even comparable."

The Cuban version of the Spanish song form is called punto guajiro, or simply punto Cubano. Different styles developed in disparate regions of the island: tranquil in Matanzas, more energetic in Las Villas, sleepier in CamagYey, and most lyrical in the eastern part of the island.

But the music is repetitive, and it's certainly not danceable. So while the old timers in the audience clap and cheer, most of the young people pay scant attention to the spectacle, which has the antiquated feel of a vaudeville act. Practitioners argue that the form is a high art, an intellectual pastime widely misunderstood and much maligned because of its country origins.

"The upper class in Cuba always said this is no good, but you have to be knowledgeable to understand it," says Meliton Perdomo, a dapper, moustached man dressed all in white. "Punto guajiro touches the heart and moves the soul," he notes

Unlike other genres of Cuban music, punto guajiro has remained virtually unaffected by African influences. It does not employ bongos or conga drums, and is about as black as American country and western music. "Africa, no, no, no," clucks Perdomo, who speaks with a slight Castilian lisp. "This is Spanish through and through."

Performers like Perdomo take extreme pride in the language of Cervantes. He says a true guajiro poet "has a voice, he has an ear, he can improvise, and his grammar is perfect. He has an utterly complete knowledge of Spanish." Someone, he points out, like Pablo Leon.

A native of the pastoral Pinar del Rio province who came to Miami in 1984, Leon hosts a Cuban country music radio show Saturday evenings on La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670). He talks fondly of a national punto contest held annually in Cuba, and an international competition that took place in Spain's Canary Islands last year.

He says there are about one thousand punto guajiro enthusiasts in Miami-Dade County. Although they meet periodically at various social clubs, Leon likes Don Goyo's best because it is a more natural environment for the country genre. Goyo agrees. "This is the music for this place," he says. "It's the music I've been listening to all my life."

Leon wants to keep the tradition alive, but his eleven-year-old daughter, who has accompanied him today, wrinkles her nose when he suggests she take part in the show.

"Punto guajiro has had its problems," Leon admits. "A lot of people have looked upon the guajiro with disdain, but it's kept on. Anyone who is sensitive or intelligent will keep listening to it. It will carry on."

Manuel Martinez, a lanky 79-year-old in a gray felt cowboy hat and huge aviator sunglasses, would agree. After all, he left Cuba for good in 1953 with a $23 round-trip plane ticket to Key West. But he kept singing punto guajiro. "My parents sang it, so I do," he reasons. "What's more, it's as Cuban as the flag."

The guajiros feel the same about Don Goyo's. "This is the most authentic place in Miami," says Manuel Soriano. "It's the place that's most like the Cuban countryside."

When the guajiros finish their performance a fantastic commotion breaks out on the dance floor. The senior citizens in their cowboy hats and boots start dancing frenetic merengue, some with their wives, others with the young waitresses. Teenage couples in baggy sport clothes show off fancy steps and turns. A two-year-old girl with dark skin and a blond afro twirls in a circle, mimicking her grandfather. The baby who was dancing with her father earlier is now sitting in the corner as her older siblings stand in a line performing a practiced routine.

Away from the dance floor, the restaurant has taken on the air of an outdoor bazaar. Several vendors move around carrying toy trucks and dolls, armfuls of polyester nightgowns, and boxes of video tapes dubbed in Spanish. A towering Senegalese man proffers wooden elephants and ceramic vases. His blue batik dashiki is printed with a cell phone motif.

The music stops and a Dominican singer with a pretty face and a large, shapely behind takes the stage. She wears a pink spandex dress two sizes too small. Singing in a strong, throaty voice to the backing tracks of a song recorded by salsa star Marc Anthony, she gyrates, turning her backside to the audience. Several of the guajiros' wives elbow their husbands and get up to leave. The singer sits in the lap of an old man at a front table. When the song ends, she gets up, swiveling her hips and her throwing up her hands: "Aplauso, pleeese!"

Don Goyo watches with detached amusement from a table in the back, where he sits for a minute with some regulars. The Dominican girl wandered in one day looking for work, he explains, so he gave her a break. Goyo jumps up to cut more pork, checks on the beer supply, then runs to the store to pay a local farmer for some produce. People constantly come up to hug him, or slap him on the back as he walks by. A group of young men call to him from the pool table on the porch. He waves and hurries on.

The music continues until about ten and then, quite abruptly, the weekend is over. A young Cuban truck driver climbs into the rig he's left out in the parking lot and roars off to New York. Others head off to clock in to their jobs on the graveyard shift. The rest of Don Goyo's customers stagger contentedly to their cars. It's time to head back to Miami.

Goyo, meanwhile, retreats to his room and retires, resting up for the day of chores to come. He is soon asleep, and the only noise is the hum of a lone air conditioner over the quiet of the country night.


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