Clutching reins in one hand, cigars in the other, the two horsemen ride at an easy gait. Three other riders trail a few paces back. The group is crossing SW 152nd Street, so far west that Everglades National Park is just a half-dozen miles to the south. The horsemen are traversing one of Miami-Dade's last frontiers, where SW 152nd is a street in name only, a rutted dirt surface bordered by fields and wetlands and rendered nearly impassable by enormous, deep puddles. The moon, almost full, rises fat and smoky on the horizon at the tail end of a perfect January day. The lead riders pass a miniature bottle of Dewar's scotch back and forth. It's Saturday night after all, and a light breeze carries the sound of music and laughter from the distance.
The lead horseman, Wenceslao Aguilera, age 52, and his younger brother, 44-year-old Carlos, ride with a naturalness that conveys a lifetime in the saddle. The Aguileras fled Cuba after the Castro government took most of their family's property. In the 1980s they settled in this corner of Southwest Miami-Dade, where hundreds of other exiles live today. Many of them, like the Aguilera brothers, are from the Oriente, the eastern region of Cuba known for its rural character. These western Miami-Dade Cubans consider themselves guajiros, or country folk. In the United States they might be called cowboys.
Over the past twenty years, the exiles have created a community that reflects the ranching lifestyle they left behind. It's a world of pig roasts and calf-roping, a place where pride and independence are highly valued and American culture is accepted on Cuban terms. Neighbors often stop their cars, blocking the narrow roads, while they roll down their windows and engage in long conversations. These days much of the talk centers around their land, which they stand to lose if the federal and state governments have their way. The place they live in is known in countless official papers and press reports as the 81-2 Square Mile Area.
These few miles have a big problem: They lie just west of the earthen levee that protects much of Miami-Dade County against flooding from the Everglades watershed. Slightly elevated by a ridge and bordered by SW 168th Street to the south and Richmond Drive to the north, the tract is still mostly wetlands, the natural state for much of South Florida. It also forms the outer edge of a main artery of the River of Grass, the existence of which scientists and engineers have learned is essential for a healthy water supply.
To many environmentalists those who live in the 400 or so households in the 81-2 Square Mile Area are outlaws, daggers at the throat of restoration plans for the Everglades. They want them removed. On November 12, 1998, the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District voted to purchase the area as long as the federal government and Miami-Dade County helped the state pay for it. Once the money is secured, those who refuse to sell will have their land condemned.
Residents believe that if activists only knew their history and culture, they would understand why the land isn't for sale. These Cuban cowboys refuse to abandon a lifestyle they believe can't be replicated elsewhere. They are quietly building support among Hispanic politicians and inviting state officials in for private tours of the area. Their first goal is to convince county commissioners to reject allocating funds for a buyout. The residents say that here, unlike Cuba, where there was no legal system to which they could turn, they will stand strong. And they vow they will win.
They have carried their campaign to the airwaves of Spanish-language radio in the hopes of capturing the hearts and minds of Miami-Dade's Hispanic majority. One recent Thursday evening the Aguilera brothers, other residents, and the former head of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, Dexter Lehtinen, appeared on Radio Mambi's (WAQI-AM 710) Mesa Redonda, a program hosted by station director and Cuban exile activist Armando Perez Roura.
Lehtinen is helping the residents in his capacity as general counsel for the Miccosukee Indian tribe. He has filed a lawsuit claiming the water management district came to the November buyout decision illegally. Lehtinen has enlisted the Dade County Farm Bureau in the cause. "We think it is unconstitutional," he tells the radio listeners through an interpreter. "The Dade County Farm Bureau and the Indians believe that if [it] can be done to these people, it can be done to anybody."
Ibel Aguilera, Carlos's wife, attacks environmentalists who are demanding purchase of the land. "[The environmentalists] live in condominiums," she says, "and they don't have the slightest idea what it means to love the land, to live off the land, and to live like we live."
Perez Roura is captivated by the cowboys in his studio. He notes their hats and asks questions about their way of life. Carlos Aguilera tries to explain what it is like to worry about sick farm animals as though they were family. "You know all of the chickens you have," he says. "They are part of you."
But it is the story of Cuban exiles losing their land to a government again, that clearly holds Perez Roura's attention. "I ask that you support us," Wenceslao Aguilera pleads, "so that they don't commit an injustice and that what happened in Cuba doesn't happen here."
Perez Roura responds sympathetically: "They want to convert your [American dream] into a nightmare."
Back on the moonlit trail disguised as a street, Wenceslao Aguilera's horse Diablo grows skittish at the sight of a smashed television on the roadside, at the edge of a sugar cane field. Because this area is on the frontier of Miami-Dade and often ignored by the law, city folk use it as a dumping ground for stray animals, junked cars, and old mattresses. The residents hold periodic cleanups, but decrepit castaways remain. Aguilera, or Lao as everybody knows him, reins in the horse, and the riders push on toward the music in the distance. On the northeast horizon the strip malls and housing developments of Kendall give off a bluish glow. The group turns left. They are near the end of their ride. The destination is a rancho, or small ranch, called Delio's.
Most of the ranchos are illegal. They don't have regular hours and are opened and closed at the whim of their owners. There appear to be six ranchos in the area, but the Aguileras admit there could be more. Usually the accommodations are extremely rustic. The owners often rent stalls so those who live outside the area can billet their horses. Some sell food and drink on patios filled with picnic tables or under the eaves of wooden roofs. On weekends families of horseback riders congregate at the ranchos. A few, like Delio's, have a rodeo ring.
At Delio's the rodeo ring stands at the entrance to the property. Portable bleachers are rusting off to the side. In the middle of the ring stands a metal replica of a calf, a sawhorse with horns used for roping practice. Beyond the ring are two long rows of stalls, enough to hold sixteen horses. The stalls flank a tiled walkway leading to an outdoor covered dining area and kitchen. Hanging from the ceiling and stapled to the posts are silver and gold Christmas decorations. In the corner sits a jukebox.
The Aguileras and company tie their animals to posts behind one of the stalls and saunter over to the outdoor cantina. Twelve people sit eating and drinking at a mismatched assortment of plastic and wooden tables. Dogs wander beneath the tables looking for fallen scraps. Almost all the patrons wear cowboy hats and riding boots. Four men take turns shooting a game of eight ball on a beat-up pool table. Many in the group hail Lao and his brother.
Among them is 55-year-old Jorge Rodriguez, known to most as Tijuaro, a former anti-Castro guerrilla from Matanzas who came to the United States in 1978 after serving fifteen years in a Cuban prison. Grizzled and gray, he works at one of the ranchos. After a few beers, he opens up, sounding like a cross between the exiled Jose Marti and the cowboy philosopher Will Rogers. Tijuaro turns a skeptical eye and a folksy wit to his adopted homeland. The problem in America, he explains, is television; Americans are glued to the tube instead of being in touch with their environment. "Life here is more healthy," he says of the 81-2 Square Mile Area. Guajiros have a proud heritage, he explains, "and we have an obligation to preserve that. Our customs are very similar to the American cowboys."
At a nearby table sits Blanca Hernandez, a horse enthusiast who lives near downtown Miami and spends many weekends riding in the area. She prefers this terrain to unincorporated South Miami-Dade's more developed horse country, which is bordered on the north and south at Bird Road and Sunset Drive and on the east and west by SW 127th Avenue and the turnpike, respectively.
"Horse country is great," she declares. "But there's no place to ride horses." Hernandez, a 39-year-old stockbroker of Cuban descent who grew up in Miami, considers herself an environmentalist. "I do want the Everglades to be restored," she insists. "I just don't think they need this area. I'd hate to think that it was because they thought [these people] were ignorant Hispanics."
In the kitchen a candle glows by a makeshift altar to San Lazarus, the patron saint of the infirm. The cook is a Nicaraguan woman named Maria. Her food is so esteemed by regulars that they often refer to this place as Rancho Maria, instead of Delio's. Down a pockmarked dirt road, the rancho is hard to find if you don't know where to look. So it comes as no surprise that most of those who come to Delio's are regulars or their guests.
"This is a place where you never see a problem," observes Bill Sprayberry, one of the few Anglos who has discovered Delio's, and by accident at that. "You don't see people getting drunk and fighting."
Sprayberry lives in Miami but is originally from west Texas. One day while exploring the area on horseback he stumbled upon Delio's. He found a welcome that reminded him of home. In parts of west Texas, he says, you can't go into bar and leave without meeting everyone inside.
A jukebox against the wall blares Mexican rancheras and Colombian cumbias. A few couples dance. In the parking lot a group of young men pass around a bottle of Havana Club rum. The owner of the bottle speaks of the effort to remove the residents. "You struggle and struggle and struggle," he says, "and then they take it away."
Some of those gathered tonight say they once had ranchos in Hialeah before the zoning changed and they were forced out. They won't give up their land yet another time.
"There is no way to calculate [the price] of this," argues Lao as he plies his friends with food and drink. "What if we go somewhere and the neighbors don't like this? We've lost twenty years."
Roughly 1500 people live in the 81-2 Square Mile Area and the majority are Cuban, though a precise census has never been taken. The houses range from one-story, single-family homes to spacious villas. Many were built without permits and if you go by Miami-Dade County records, simply do not exist. The government has been halfhearted in providing services for a community it believes shouldn't be there. Many residents pick up their mail from boxes along Richmond Drive because carriers won't brave the rough dirt roads. Streetlights are infrequent and garbage collection can be sporadic.
Most of the residents who are not retired work outside the area, but a few make a living off their land, and their horses. Many of those with jobs elsewhere have orchards or animals here, sometimes because of the county's lucrative agricultural tax exemptions. But mostly they grow crops, tend to livestock, and ride horses because it is the life they love. The Aguilera brothers are independent contractors; they help build roads and dig drainage ditches, amenities they themselves live without. They both also have small farms, and it is there they keep their hearts and souls.
Tonight at Delio's Lao is dressed in a leather vest, and wears silver spurs on his boots and the cowboy hat that seldom leaves his head.
A retired Dominican Air Force colonel named Daniel Acosta, on vacation from Santo Domingo, dances in a corner with his wife. The couple is related to a resident by marriage and can't stop talking about what a friendly reception they are receiving at the rancho. It reminds them of home. "If you know one person," Acosta enthuses, "it's like knowing everyone."
Fulgencio Martinez, known by all as El Negro, sits on a picnic table. Martinez says he narrowly escaped assassination by Castro's agents in 1961 by taking refuge in the Uruguayan Embassy in Havana. He is now retired but has worked in construction in New Jersey, Illinois, and Florida. Today he owns one of the most elaborate ranchos and rodeo rings in the area, called Rancho Alegre, off SW 168th Street. It's not open to the public yet. Unlike some of his neighbors, El Negro wants all his licenses in place before he opens for business, a process that, with Miami-Dade County's slow-moving bureaucracy, could take years. Despite the fact that the state is considering condemning the area's homes, the county is still issuing building permits. El Negro will have one of the few local rodeo rings equipped for steer-wrestling and calf-roping. Carlos Aguilera confides that when everything is completed, Rancho Alegre will be the gathering spot.
El Negro is taking the day off from drinking after carousing especially hard the night before. He sits idle, observing the scene dressed like most everyone else, in a work shirt, blue jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat.
Jesus Velasquez drives up in a shiny white pickup truck. Emblazoned in fancy lettering along the side are the words "JB Classic Champion team roping." The 23-year-old Velasquez came from eastern Cuba in a raft five years ago. His brother-in-law had already settled in the 81-2 Square Mile Area. Although he grew up riding horses, friends introduced Velasquez to calf-roping at the neighborhood rodeo rings. Within a year of his arrival, he was competing. "The deer always finds the bush," he says. In January he won big in the Ocala rodeo in team roping and single-person calf-roping, placing four times, and garnering enough points to earn the $37,000 truck.
Velasquez is a large, muscular man with the pudgy face of a youngster. A beer in hand, he toasts to the good fortune he's found in his new country. "What a difference between Cuba and the United States!" he exclaims.
But he doesn't win all the time. On February 6 he participated in the calf-roping event at the Homestead Rodeo. It's hard to say whether the calf shot out from its holding pen particularly fast or Velasquez and his mount galloped after it particularly slowly. Whatever the reason, Velasquez didn't catch the calf around the neck with his lasso until it was halfway across the ring. By the time he had the creature trussed and immobile, his hat had flown off and a lengthy 13.7 seconds had passed. (The winning time at the end of the rodeo weekend was 9.1 seconds.) Velasquez grabbed his horse and left the event before it was over.
On Tuesday nights Velasquez practices roping alone and with a partner (called team roping) in a ring that runs alongside the paved Richmond Drive. On nights when the ring is in use, the long driveway on the property fills up with pickups and horse trailers. One recent Tuesday he spent hours with friends chasing down cattle that scamper from caged chutes that open with a whoosh from the ring's holding pen. Velasquez performs as both a header and a footer, the names for ropers who throw their lassos on the calves' heads or feet. It is more difficult to be a footer because the roper must throw his rope slightly in front of the running cow so that it steps into the lasso. Steam rises off the horses, urged repeatedly to go from a standstill to a furious gallop in only seconds. Velasquez is on his quarter horse named Apache. The riders swing the ropes to get momentum before flicking their wrists to launch the lassos at the calves. Once caught, the calves are released and chased back to the pen to begin the process again.
This ring is owned by Manny Garcia, whose own shot at rodeo stardom, he says, was cut short when he fell from a horse, injuring his shoulder. Garcia, who owns a limousine service, does not live in the area himself, but he has outfitted his land here with a ring, stables, and a large enclosure for cattle. Leandro Falcon, a former Cuban political prisoner and racehorse jockey, acts as caretaker of the property.
Garcia loves to brag about his horses. "All my horses are really fat," he states proudly. "I feed them really well." Also Cuban, Garcia helps to sponsor Velasquez and others so they can afford the rodeo travel and entry fees. "This is a hobby that will cost you a hell of a lot of money," Garcia admits.
Back at Delio's rancho the night progresses and the Cubans grow playful. Some mount their horses and guide them to dance to the ranchera music playing on the jukebox. The horses step forward and then back; they move left, then right, and the men watching while puffing on cigars clap and catcall in approval. Soon Carlos Aguilera is on the floor astride Regalito, his wife's horse. "In the city you show off with your cars," says Ibel Aguilera as she watches her husband. "Here, guys take pride in their horses."
At around 10:30 p.m. the riders climb back on their horses and head home.
The story of the Aguilera family is full of losing stands against impossible odds. Lao was the last of seven brothers and sisters to escape from Cuba. He's the fourteenth Aguilera to carry the name Wenceslao. The name comes from a plaza he believes is in Russia, but he doesn't know how it came to be passed through the generations to first-born sons. (Lao's son and grandson also bear the name.) On the island the Aguileras represented the land-holding aristocracy the Cuban revolution hoped to eliminate.
The brothers are the great-great-grandsons of Francisco Vincente Aguilera, a hugely wealthy member of the Criollo elite who led the nineteenth-century independence struggle against Spain in the eastern city of Bayamo. Until Castro changed the currency, the gray-bearded Aguilera graced the 100-peso note. But the old don didn't live to see independence, nor did he keep his money. As the story goes, he donated it to the cause before being forced into exile. Aguilera died penniless in a park in New York City in 1895.
The brothers' grandfather Wenceslao Aguilera Feria helped found and then served as the first mayor of Antilla, a town along Nipe Bay that today is part of the province of Holguin. In 1923 their grandfather carved out 500 acres between the bay and the main road. The family farmed, raised livestock, and of course, rode horses.
"It was the only thing we knew," Carlos Aguilera remembers. "While most kids went to school on their bicycles, I went on a mare." When the children pleaded for bikes, their father told them a horse served just as well. During the school lunch break, young Carlos galloped home to help round up cattle.
The Aguilera land was confiscated by the Castro government in 1961 after the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion. Four years later Lao's father left the nineteen-year-old boy in charge of what remained of the household and went to Havana to try to arrange the family's departure from the island. Lao decided to use his father's absence to slaughter one of the few cows the authorities had allowed the family to keep. He planned to feed the family and then sell the rest of the beef, though he knew it was a felony to kill the animal without government permission. Authorities discovered the crime when a cousin sold the meat. The relative implicated Lao and the young man was sentenced to five years hard labor. He remembers the exact count: 47 months and nineteen days spent cutting sugar cane. "That's a lot of cane," he says with a rueful chuckle.
When Lao completed his sentence, he learned he would continue to be a prisoner of sorts. His father, mother, four sisters, and fourteen-year-old brother Carlos had waited for his release to leave the island. But the Cuban government refused to permit Lao to join them because he was eligible for military service. The family made the difficult decision to go without him. Lao spent the next eleven years working on haciendas and as a rodeo judge in Cuba -- until another historical event reunited the family. In 1980 Castro opened the floodgates of emigration with the Mariel boatlift. Aguilera family members set sail from Florida and ferried the then-33-year-old Lao, his wife, and two young children into this country.
Once on U.S. shores, Lao and his wife struggled to build their version of the American dream. For the first two years they worked cleaning swimming pools. In the evenings, Lao worked as a security guard. In 1983 he borrowed money to buy a bulldozer. Now he runs a successful construction company that competes for public-works contracts.
From the beginning Lao wanted a place to settle, for good, and he wanted to ranch. His first cousin Guillermo Revuelta owned twenty acres of land in the 81-2 Square Mile Area; within the first year of Lao's arrival, a brother-in-law lent him the money for a down payment on two and a half acres of his cousin's rural property.
A week after his purchase, Lao's brother Carlos bought one and a quarter acres across the street. (Carlos later bought an adjacent tract that doubled his holding.) In the next few years, their parents, a sister, and some cousins all moved into the area. "They can keep us apart in Cuba," Carlos says. "But here we are not going anywhere."
Carlos and his wife Ibel began simple lives on the land, residing in a trailer with a light powered by a car battery. Lao started on his land in similar humble conditions. The two families slowly built their houses over the next five years as their fortunes improved. Their new homes, on ample plots, stood as the antithesis to the cookie-cutter subdivisions springing up at the same time in Kendall, a few miles to the northeast. "You can't even spit out the window because people are on the side [in Kendall]," Carlos says, shaking his head. "We don't like the city -- all the screaming and yelling. We don't want this to become another Kendall.
"It is hard to believe we can live this kind of life in the year 2000," he continues. "Here the neighbors are like family. If it's eleven at night and you're roasting a pig, [they] don't care. Of course they might get pissed off if you don't invite them."
What helped to bond the neighborhood was a seminal event for all South Floridians: Hurricane Andrew. The eye of that terrible storm passed directly over the region. When it relented Lao and Carlos emerged from their homes and climbed atop backhoes. They cleared paths through roadways blocked by debris and downed telephone and utility poles, and checked the ruined dwellings for injured people and animals. The neighborhood went ten weeks without electricity: People worked together to survive the ordeal. The brothers' houses became focal points for the community to gather. Ibel Aguilera fired up a gas stove, and for a while neighbors bathed at her house because it had the only working water pump. The community and the Aguileras rebuilt after the storm, though some are still rebuilding. They say that if the government wanted to buy them out, it should have done so after the hurricane, when they had little to give up.
Behind their house Carlos and Ibel Aguilera built horse stalls, a shelter for cows, and a coop for ducks, chickens, and geese. And the couple continues to build a ranching life. Among their menagerie is an African Watusi cow. The animal carries a giant crest of horns that puts Texas cattle to shame. "It gives very little milk," Ibel admits. "It's just for show." They've reluctantly collected an assortment of stray dogs. Ibel decided they had to give up their potbellied pig, however, after it devoured its young.
But the pride of the Aguilera clan are their horses. Altogether the Aguileras own about 50 horses, Ibel estimates. Lao likes to show off his seventeen-year-old stallion El Padrote, which loosely means "big daddy." The brother of a champion, El Padrote is a registered quarter horse. His coppery coat gleams in the sunlight; his semen alone is worth $1200, Lao claims.
Before there were cowboys, before civilization conquered the peninsula, the eight and a half miles were simply part of the outer edges of Shark River Slough. The Everglades carried water from Lake Okeechobee south in a wide, lazy serpentine path, all the way to the Florida Bay. Much of the southern part of this flow passed through Shark River Slough. Along its route grew pine forests, tree islands, and saw grass. Great flocks of birds darkened the sky. Panthers prowled the land as the predator kings.
In a story that is now painfully well-known, flooding and development pressures prompted the Army Corps of Engineers in 1948 to begin building a vast system of canals and levees known as the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project. Propelled by an attitude that the natural system was more nuisance than necessity, the army and developers envisioned the Everglades as an unbroken expanse of towns and farmland, swampland turned to subdivision, like dross to gold. Around the same time the lowest portion of the watershed was declared a national park.
Plans from the time show how the corps could divide and drain everything south of the Tamiami Trail down to the park boundaries. With that in mind, developers began to subdivide and sell off the 81-2 Square Mile Area. Environmentalists, however, questioned whether further development would contaminate the Florida aquifer and destroy the national park.
"We came to an understanding that additional drainage to fulfill what the developers had promised would damage the water supply to the park," says Sam Poole, who worked in the Dade County planning department in the 1980s. Until he was fired this past week, Poole was executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, which is charged with operating the corps' system of levees and canals.
In the late Seventies, the corps expanded an existing levee and added a pump station that provided flood protection for those who lived to the east of it, in effect drawing a line between inhabitable and uninhabitable land. But by that time there were already people residing west of the levee in the 81-2 Square Mile Area. So in 1981 the Dade County Commission passed a zoning overlay ordinance to limit any further development, permitting only one house per every 40 acres. The Aguileras were some of the last people to get building permits before the ordinance was enacted.
Meanwhile environmentalists and the Army Corps of Engineers worked together to help restore water flow to the Everglades. In 1989 the Modified Water Deliveries to Everglades National Park Project was authorized by Congress. The corps would rehydrate Shark River Slough by sending more water across more land. As a compromise a small levee and pump system would be built to ensure that any raised water levels would not hurt the 81-2 Square Mile Area.
But thinking changed. Environmentalists, county, water district, and park officials came to the consensus that even more water was needed to save the Everglades and that the corps project wouldn't work. They proposed buying the land. As long as there is any development, they claim, people will flock to the area and transform its rural character into suburban sprawl. "[Residents] say, 'We don't need flood protection' until it rains," Poole asserts. "They say they'll live in those houses without services, until they need those services." The South Florida Water Management District, prompted in part by Everglades National Park Superintendent Richard Ring, rejected the corps' levee plan officially on November 12, 1998, almost a decade after it had been authorized. Instead the water district opted to purchase the area using federal, state, and local funds. Those who would not sell their land would see it condemned, though they would be reimbursed.
Since the November decision, federal, state, and county officials have been casting about trying to find the money to buy the area. The county will vote on whether to provide $20 million in funds, but the county manager has yet to place the motion on the commission's calendar. Both sides of the issue have been lobbying county commissioners for their support. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen says he thinks the residents have the votes to win. If they do, the water district will go back to the corps' plan, Lehtinen believes. But even if the county commission supports the buyout, it still won't happen, he promises. "The bottom line is the county vote is important, but this project is dead no matter what the county commission does," he argues. "I would bank everything that this will never happen."
In the meantime the Cubans who have rarely been heard in public debates or in the media have found a voice. They hired Ibel Aguilera full-time to lobby politicians to their cause. One of the earliest governmental converts was State Sen. Manuel Prieguez, who represents a large part of Little Havana. Prieguez helped organize a fact-finding tour of the area for State Sen. J.D. Alexander and Allison DeFoor, Gov. Jeb Bush's Everglades restoration coordinator. DeFoor also invited Bill Leary, an advisor to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
"If I was going to live in Dade County, that's where I would want to be," DeFoor says. "It's a neat place."
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He says the extent of development in the area is much greater than he was led to believe, and he thinks it's unlikely that people will leave willingly. In addition he is not convinced there is a true scientific need for them to go. The tour ended with a feast of barbecued pork at Rancho Alegre.
There is another, very unscientific, element to the land controversy, residents claim: "This could boil down to a racial issue," Ibel Aguilera says. She and other locals think their Hispanic origins play a role, and point to the wealthy west Broward suburb of Weston, which was constructed directly in the path of Shark River Slough. Nobody is threatening their homes, residents protest. Lehtinen doesn't believe the motivation to take over the land is racist, but rather that procurement would be easier if the residents don't speak English. "The ability to pull it off is significantly founded on [the idea that] 'It's the poor and the minorities who get hurt, so who cares?'" he says.
Environmentalists reject the notion. "I find it hard to call it a racial thing," offers Mark Kraus, conservation director for the National Audubon Society's Everglades task force. "It is unfortunate, but they are in the wrong place."
For the Aguileras, short of Cuba, there is no other place.
"We need this," Lao says a few weeks after the night at Delio's, as he patiently soaps down a horse in the stable behind his house now bathed in the soft glow of afternoon twilight. "There comes a time when us guajiros build a love of a piece of land. Since I left Cuba, I've had the same telephone number, the same address. If I fall asleep on my horse, it will come here.