Little Buenos Aires

It's a tropical summer night in the North Beach neighborhood of Little Buenos Aires. Silvina, a statuesque 34-year-old single mom in spandex and a navy blue sports bra, stands outside her kitchen door, sipping California white wine from a plastic cup. The humidity is total, true Miami, but Silvina doesn't sweat it.

It's almost midnight when a drug dealer on a bicycle flashes down 77th Street, which is freshly paved and lined with newly planted palm trees. From the ground up, white lights surround the palms like glowing auras. A Miami-Dade bus roars by. Two neighborhood hookers chat on the sidewalk, as casually as gossiping housewives (which they may be). Nearby, gathered on a corner, a group of Brazilians sing to the beat of their drums.

Inside Silvina's kitchen, yellow rubber cleaning gloves hang from the sink. A broom leans against a rusty refrigerator. The narrow kitchen's pink wallpaper reflects the shadows of a slowly rotating ceiling fan with light bulbs providing a warm, if tenuous, light. A CD by Los Redonditos Ricota, an Argentine rock group, is playing. Silvina's three kids -- two rambunctious adolescent boys and a three-year-old girl -- are, gratefully, fast asleep. So she is taking advantage.

Silvina lights up a Bronco brand pucho (cigarette in Argentine slang) and plops into a plastic lawn chair outside. Like a spotlight, the waning moon shines on her tanned body, on the red highlights in her dark, frazzled hair, on the painted green cement sidewalk running parallel to her apartment, and on the stairs leading to George and Andrew's pad, friends from the second floor.

Walter joins her, a young "homeless" guy from Silvina's Argentine coastal town of Miramar, in the province of Buenos Aires. Silvina starts to tell the story of how she came to Miami. It's at least the second time Walter has heard it, but he's happy to listen. Silvina's face lights up with Argentine craziness, and he feels a little less rootless, not so homesick.

"Bueno la entrada -- the entrance," Silvina begins. "I had them all laughing for days," she says, in an extended prologue to her story, exhaling smoke from her Bronco.

Walter can attest to this. So can George, Andrew, and "los chicos del siete," the guys from apartment seven -- John, Allen, John Paul, and Sean. These are Silvina's closest neighbors, and they constitute a kind of fan club; it's not too much to say they are her exile family.

Silvina left Miramar in August 1995. In a way she was trying to force Nelson, her sexy but dysfunctional husband of twelve years, to assume more responsibility. Though his job at a Pepsi factory was enough to support the family, Nelson spent most of his paycheck on himself, Silvina says. "We depended mostly on my mother, Maria," she recalls. (In Argentina Silvina, her husband, and children lived in a house on her overbearing mother's property.) In order to flee from under Maria's wing, Silvina had to radically cut loose. "I told Nelson: “Let's go to Norte America,'" she recalls with a smirk. "He said, “No.'" Silvina looks defiant, scanning the sky. "He wouldn't even leave Miramar for Buenos Aires, so you can imagine! I was tired of the cold weather. I was tired of the family bickering, of being pulled in different directions. So I said to Nelson: “Che, let's go to Miami. Let's catch some sun.'"

As it turned out, Nelson arrived a month before Silvina and the kids, got himself a job as a housepainter, and rented an efficiency in the North Beach neighborhood not yet called Little Buenos Aires.

Silvina flew from Buenos Aires with her two boys, Mathew and Anthony, then seven and five, respectively. For the trip she and the kids each strapped on a backpack and wore Eskimo-style winter jackets with hoods. (Argentina is colder than New York in winter.) "We could hardly move," she laughs. The family had to change planes in Rio de Janeiro. "It was hot in Rio," Silvina remembers. "I thought we would suffocate -- this is the part where everyone starts to laugh....

"When we arrived in Brazil, sabés como nos miraban los negros -- do you know how all the blacks looked at us? It was like we had come from another planet," Silvina says.

"I can still feel the heat wave that enveloped us as the doors slid open," she says, describing the moment they exited the airport in Rio to catch a minivan to another terminal, where they would hop a flight to Miami. Mathew stoically said, "Mom, it's hot," and then kept quiet for the rest of the trip.

Silvina and her children entered the airport shuttle like three astronauts lost in space: "Mis pibes [my kids] were sweating so much their cheeks were red," she remembers. "The shuttle was full and everyone was lightly clothed. A tall, muscular black man smiled at me as I entered the bus. I hung from the railing above and my kids hung onto me. Che, somehow the black Brazilian ended up standing behind me. His body shone with sweat."

"And you liked it," Walter says, laughing.

Everyone laughs, mostly from too much wine, and also because Silvina admits she did enjoy the feeling of having such an exotic man standing so close behind her. "It made me hotter," she says frankly, smiling in her trademark twisted way. Her eyes light up with a swirl of insanity as her friends laugh uncontrollably.

"And so we said adios to Brasil," Silvina says. "We finally got smart, unzipped from our winter gear, and then fell asleep."

Silvina met Nelson at a boliche (nightclub) in Miramar. It was 1986, and Silvina was nineteen years old. Nelson was two years younger but hot, a jitterbug from Mar del Plata, an hour away, who would cruise over every weekend with his buddies to dance and get laid. "Le gustaba la milonga a ese," says Silvina. "Todavía le gusta la joda. [He liked to party. He still likes to party.]" But so did Silvina: "Era un tiro al aire yo. [I was a loose cannon. I liked Nelson, I liked his friend, I liked the neighbor, I liked them all.]" Three months after their eyes first locked, Silvina was pregnant. Yet they didn't marry until Mathew -- their oldest boy -- turned eleven months.

Having a child out of wedlock and being older than your groom-to-be are distinctions frowned upon in Argentine society. As in most Latin-American countries, "respectable" women in Argentina are still expected to remain virgins until marriage, and they usually marry much older men. "Usually there are two categories into which women fall," says Andrew, Silvina's gray-haired, 32-year-old confidante, who also is from Miramar. "There are women for the kitchen, the kind you want to have a relationship with, the type you want to have children with. And there are women who are only good for fucking." Silvina has blurred the lines. "She likes men," acknowledges Andrew. "But she's also a struggling mother trying to make it. La flaca es una buena mujer. Silvina [who's called la flaca -- the skinny one] is a good woman," he concludes.

"The first year of my marriage with Nelson was great," Silvina relates. "We got along very well. We had fun together and went out often. We led very social lives, and at first it was exciting." But by the second year, he began making his rounds with the ladies once again. "He had an affair with a girl from Buenos Aires. Even when my boys were sick in the hospital with respiratory problems, he had affairs. He had affairs through my pregnancies. It didn't matter. He fucked every woman he could.... My mother said to me: “He's never going to change.' She was right. Here it only got worse. There's more variety. Already he's been through Colombia and Brazil," Silvina laughs.

In Miami Beach, Silvina says, Nelson's white painter's pickup truck became his roving bachelor pad: "He had it equipped with everything he needed. I just got sick of it. I couldn't stand him touching a single hair on my head. I was disgusted by him."

Last December, soon after the last time Silvina caught Nelson in bed with yet another woman, she met a young guy named Alex through Andrew and George. Alex is also from Miramar. The skinny, black-haired 26-year-old, who's into motorcycles and has tattoos of an eagle and a unicorn, is the father of a five-year-old boy in Argentina. Silvina began a relationship with him and kicked Nelson out.

"George told me one day: “Guess who's got his eye on you?'

"“Who?' I asked, surprised. He said, “Alex.' I said, “QUEEEE! -- what!' I never looked at him in that way." Then one day Alex expressed his feelings. "He said, “¿No sabes las ganas que tengo de comerte a besos? [Don't you know I want to eat you with kisses?]'" Silvina recounts. "I melted. From then on we've been inseparable. He even keeps the cigarette butts of the first ones we smoked together."

But Alex put up with a lot, Silvina admits. During his weekend stays at her place, Nelson would burst into the house and hurl insults at the lovers. In their absence he'd break into Silvina's apartment and search through all of her and Alex's belongings. He'd follow the couple like a shadow, and on several occasions spied on them through the windows while they had sex. "Twice I caught him looking at us while we made love," Silvina says with her hands on her waist. Her eyes are smiling, and she's biting her bottom lip.

One day Nelson slipped into the back seat of Silvina's black Honda Civic just as she was parallel parking, with Alex in the passenger seat. "Keep driving," Nelson told her. When she refused, Silvina recounts, Nelson pulled her out of the car, threw her on the sidewalk, and began kicking her in the ribs. Alex leaped out of the passenger seat, and Nelson ran away. On the beach one day he grabbed Silvina by the stomach and twisted her skin. Alex was sunbathing nearby. "There were times I really struggled to contain myself," Alex says. Silvina's husband even threatened to run her over with his truck.

One night he came close to following through on his threats. According to Silvina and her neighbor George, Nelson once again broke into her apartment through the living-room window and then began screaming he would kill himself with a kitchen knife if Silvina didn't leave Alex. "But first he tried to stab me," she says. Somehow Silvina managed to wrestle the knife away from Nelson. She chased him out of the apartment and her lanky husband made it to his white truck. But Silvina followed and they wrestled like WWF stars inside the pickup. "He kept saying he was going to kill himself," Silvina now laughs hysterically. "So I called 911. I thought he was going to do it." But then he drove away. "Es un hincha pelotas mi marido. Un boludo -- He's a nuisance, an idiot. He got lucky that night," she boasts, still laughing. "I was holding back because I really thought he'd do it." George, from upstairs, witnessed the scene. So did Silvina's three-year-old daughter, Jessica. "The only thing I could do was hold on to the girl," George says. "She's a rare woman, Silvina."

Eventually Alex went back to Argentina, and Silvina sometimes thinks of joining him.

When they first arrived in North Beach, Silvina, Nelson and the two boys rented an efficiency with the help of a family friend they knew from Argentina who had been living there for several months.

North Beach, an area that stretches from 63rd to 87th street between Collins Avenue and Indian Creek Drive (which becomes Dickens Avenue north of 71st Street), is a magnet for Argentines. "It's easier to adapt to North Beach," says Graciela Mitchelli, who co-owns a newspaper in Miami called El Argentino Mercosur with her husband, Alberto. "There are other Argentines living there, the rent is lower, there is greater access to public transportation, and the language barrier is minimal." Of course the main attraction in this neighborhood of Miami Modern apartment buildings, single-family homes, Jewish learning centers, and Argentine delis and restaurants, is the beach. "Argentines love the beach and the heat," says Mercedes Garcia, a 28-year-old economic reporter from Buenos Aires, recently in Miami looking for freelance work. Alberto Mitchelli agrees: "It's a dream most Argentines have to live in a tropical place." (He has been in Miami since 1981.)

But there are other reasons why Miami in general, as opposed to other cities in the country, is on Argentine immigrants' radar. "Argentines, especially porteños [natives of Buenos Aires], are all about living the good life," explains Garcia. And Miami has that image. "In Argentina it's considered cool, or chic, to live in Miami. The city represents a mix of prosperity and the good life. New York is for people who want to break their backs working. Miami is for people looking for a more laid-back approach."

But soon Argentines face reality. They find that even for those just trying to survive, Miami is not much different from New York, Graciela Mitchelli says.

Shortly after they arrived from Argentina, Nelson painted buildings and Silvina cleaned hotel rooms in South Beach at night for minimum wage. During the day she also cleaned apartments in Miami Lakes for about $30 each. After two months she got a job at a pasta factory, for a meager salary as well, and the family was able to move to her present address. The one-bedroom apartment was at least bigger, if not less dingy. In January 1998 Silvina had a third child by Nelson, a daughter, Jessica. Suddenly the family had to make do with one paycheck and more demands on it. "Me sentia para la mierda -- I felt like shit," Silvina says about having another child. By then finances were intruding on her dreams of America, and of marriage.

Every day Silvina struggles to make ends meet. Often the most basic necessities, such as food, are not easy to get. There are days when she goes "hunting" to feed her children. Hunting, in Silvina's world, is asking for enough money for food for the day. She'll corner her husband until she's finally able to scrape $40 from him. "That's on a good day," she gripes.

If Nelson turns out dry, Silvina resorts to neighbors. She owes Andrew ten dollars. And recently she borrowed $60 from Elsa the Paraguayan, who also lends Silvina her old Mercedes-Benz to run errands with. "Silvina is alone," Elsa says. "From the time I've known her she's always depended on the kindness of others." Then there's the Cuban girl who lives on 77th Street. When Silvina needs to use the phone because hers has been disconnected, she calls on the Cuban girl from her kitchen doorstep and voilà -- she's telephonic again. And when Silvina's electricity is cut off every now and then because she hasn't paid the bill, she'll cook over there, too. The Cuban girl saves for her everything from rice to toilet paper to leftover pizza, so Silvina's children won't have only a school lunch in their stomachs.

Silvina's last job was cleaning the Key Biscayne home of a rich Buenos Airean family who owns an air cargo company with offices in Miami, Chile, and Argentina. They paid her $250 per week to clean, do the laundry, iron clothes, and bathe the dogs. Silvina says that aside from exploiting her, the family was also verbally abusive, though not intentionally. "It's just the way they are," she asserts. "Although la mujer es un asco [the missus is disgusting], and she screams at me for nothing, she likes me. She's just very domineering." (Like Silvina's mother.) "The other day she called me every name in the book because I mixed colored towels with white ones in the dryer. You should see their house. They buy rare, exotic objects from places like Russia and Greece. I'm afraid to even go near them. Can you imagine if I broke some high-priced vase? I'd probably be working for a year to pay for it."

Silvina's way of overcoming humiliating experiences is by laughing. The smelly sneakers she wears to work became a big joke between her and Ronaldo, a Nicaraguan man who worked with her in Key Biscayne. "The other day I was cleaning the dining room when Ronaldo said, “Silvina, the smell coming from your feet es impresionante -- impressive.' So I grabbed a can of country-scent Raid and sprayed out the room." Silvina laughs at the thought of using roach spray as an air freshener.

But she doesn't take everything lightly. "When it gets to be too much, I lose it," she says. "I have a very short temper. Me rayo." Recently she told Estela, the rich Key Biscayne Argentine, to basically "fuck off." She got fired but the next day was hired back, with an apology. "She told me: “Voz sos una barbara Silvina, eres unica.' [You're a barbarian, Silvina, you're unique.]" But eventually Silvina quit that job. Currently she's out of work.

In the past, when there was no other way, Silvina lap-danced at Porky's II in Miami. For three months beginning in March, she worked steadily at the nude bar and made about $500 every weekend. One night at my house she proudly showed off her routine.

Silvina leaped up from a rocking chair, admitting she enjoys lap dancing, and sashayed across the living room and into the dining room, where she mounted a chair. "If you saw me you wouldn't recognize me," she said, while slowly grinding an invisible man. "Me transformo -- I transform myself." The vertical blinds of my dining-room window were open. Silvina's friends from above her apartment have an inside view of my home. That night los chicos del siete were also at Andrew and George's place playing video games. They became her audience. I warned Silvina about peeping Toms, but she didn't care. "Three or four girls do the lap dance together in a room," she explained. "There's one man for each girl. Then we rotate. You should see how those old men wet themselves. It really turns me on," she said, lifting up her shirt, her nipples erect. The following day, whispering excitedly, she confided like a teenager: "The guys from upstairs told me they were dying last night."

Though Silvina may escape most problems via comic relief, when it comes to her children, she's stern and often gets physical. Indeed dealing with her adolescent boys has become more of a challenge since her separation from Nelson, she admits. To each other the boys speak English, a language their mother doesn't understand. And of course Silvina receives no moral support from her husband. "The other day one of the boys asked his father for money. Nelson said, “Go tell your mother to turn tricks so she can give you a few bucks.' Do you think after hearing that my boys will respect me? That's why they act they way they do."

Thirteen-year-old Mathew and twelve-year-old Anthony began getting into trouble in the neighborhood. One day in June the brothers were shooting rockets out on the street. Night had fallen when Anthony threw one and it landed inside a Brazilian woman's apartment, setting her curtains on fire. Amid the fire-rescue sirens the woman ran to Silvina's home. Clutching her cordless phone, she began lecturing Silvina on how to raise her children. But in the broken Spanish with a Portuguese twang, the lesson fell on deaf ears. After the incoherent sermon, Silvina called Anthony to her and smacked his face. The boy ran away crying.

Trying to make ends meet and raising three children on her own is just part of Silvina's struggle in a foreign land. Staying healthy is another. Because she has no medical insurance, Silvina hasn't been treating a kidney infection. On a recent night she drove herself to Jackson Memorial Hospital when the pains became unbearable. "It was like I was going through labor," she says, horrified. The doctor gave her a prescription, but Silvina hasn't filled it. Recently she suffered from a strong headache, and her physical therapist referred her to a neurologist who, according to Silvina, said she had suffered a brain convulsion. "He said I could have died," she shrugs.

Silvina was the twelfth child born to a poor family from Mar del Plata, 60 miles from Miramar. When she was two months old, her biological mother abandoned her in a stroller in the middle of a road. "I don't understand why she left me," Silvina recounts. "She already had so many children. What difference would one more make?" According to Silvina, a driver came upon the baby and took her to a hospital in Mar del Plata. There a well-off but childless Italian couple living in Miramar adopted her.

Though her family treated her as if she were their biological daughter, Silvina says she grew up feeling discriminated against by extended family members. When she was eight or nine, she began asking questions. "I first began noticing through photos. I always thought I looked so different. It was a strong feeling I had of not really belonging," says Silvina, a curvaceous woman whose full lips naturally pout when she complains, which is often.

On its official Website, Miramar is described as "la ciudad de los niños -- los chicos nunca se olvidan [the city of children -- children never forget]." The coastal town, population 20,000, faces the Atlantic and is about 500 kilometers south of Buenos Aires. It is heavily dependent on tourism in the summer; its beaches are good for surfing. In the winter "we die of hunger," say the Miramarans living in Little Buenos Aires. The winters are harsh, jobs are few, only the butcher and the baker have work, attests Allen, a witty, curly-haired 24-year-old who arrived from Miramar about five months ago and who lives in apartment seven, behind Silvina's place. But, he cautions, Argentines, as part of their national character, tend to exaggerate a lot.

Indeed says Mark Szuchman, professor of Latin-American history at Florida International University, anguish is an Argentine way of life. In fact, he says, there are more psychoanalysts in Buenos Aires per capita than in any other place in the world. "If Woody Allen knew this, he would move from New York," Szuchman assures.

Mercedes Garcia, the Argentine economic reporter, agrees. "We're a pessimistic people," Garcia concedes. "We're tragic, melancholic, and we like to complain a lot. Individually, we're overconfident and arrogant -- in Argentine slang we call it being chanta. But we lack those qualities as a nation. Argentines have no faith in Argentina."

According to last year's census, there were nearly 23,000 Argentines concentrated in South Florida. But according to the General Consul of Argentina in Miami, Deputy Maximo Gowland, there are more than twice that number -- about 60,000 -- residing in Miami-Dade alone, a growth of 61 percent since 1992. He warns the figure is only approximate. "More or less," Gowland says. "Though I would venture to say it's more." (By some accounts at least 100,000 Argentines have reached South Florida.)

Three years ago the number of Argentines coming to Miami-Dade increased sharply, as South America's second largest economy entered a demoralizing slump. To date Argentina remains mired in a muck of economic and political turmoil. "Things have gotten worse," says Szuchman. "There's been a considerable and growing amount of unemployment."

Mercedes Garcia, who works for El Cronista, says her country's economic woes are deeply entrenched in the nation's idiosyncrasies. "During the years of President Carlos Menem, between 1990 and 1999, there was a lack of economic reform," she explains. "The economy was growing, there was a lot of privatization going on, but instead of embracing needed changes, the government went all out. Argentina's foreign debt was enormous. Yet despite the country's growing deficit, the public sector continued to spend money left and right and nothing was really getting done. The mentality was “mientras pueda safo' --get away with it while you can. It's the Argentine way."

Currently, Garcia explains, international markets have no faith in Argentina. The South American country was pounded into a recession three years ago when Brazil, Argentina's biggest trading partner, devalued the real, Brazil's currency. As a result Argentina, which depended heavily on Brazil to purchase its exports, lost one of its biggest customers.

In Argentina salaries have been slashed, workers have been laid off, hundreds of small businesses have closed, and consumers have stopped spending. "It's a cycle that seems to never end," Garcia says. Argentine political scandals have aggravated the situation. (Last year former Vice President Carlos Alvarez resigned in the aftermath of a vote-buying debacle in the Senate. Menem is under house arrest for his alleged role in arms sales to Croatia, while an international arms-sales embargo was in place during the Balkan wars, and to Ecuador during its border war with Peru; ironically Argentina was a peace guarantor for a cease-fire.) "Just one of 20,000 cases of corruption," Garcia contends. Like most of her countrymen, she is cynical about her government. The disillusion is strongest among young people attempting to come into their places in Argentine society. They feel shut out by age and corruption.

Raul Costa, a political analyst from Cordoba, Argentina, paints a dismal picture affecting not just Argentine youth. "No matter what the government does in reaction to the economic crises, common Argentines, the ones sitting out in the bleachers, will have no victories to celebrate, no matter what the result of the game," writes Costa via e-mail. "For ordinary Argentines the suffering won't end when the referee blows his whistle.

"Here there is not a single day that goes by without protests or bad news," Costa writes. "The economic slump has translated into a national psychological depression. The situation is worse for young adults. You can't find work without a profession. But even for young pros, it's hard. In Argentina there are no social programs for people without jobs. Being without work can easily translate into homelessness. To have to live in a country where you can't plan beyond a few days is truly difficult."

Indeed the middle class has been pulling up roots and settling in places like Italy and Spain, where many Argentines not only have strong cultural ties, but citizenship as well, and for the more adventurous there's Miami. Professor Szuchman, an Argentine specialist, explains Miami is a natural attraction for business types and professionals. "I hear that every other Argentine waiter in South Beach is an architect."

But Deputy Maximo Gowland describes the exodus as being heterogeneous. "There are all kinds," he says. "From investors to blue-collar workers to the sons and daughters of the comfortable middle class." This group of young people, in their midtwenties to early thirties, comes as tourists and then sticks around to "see what happens." Some are students, others are typical middle-class slackers, often partly subsidized from home by Mom and Dad.

In the North Beach enclave known as Little Buenos Aires, working-class Argentine families with little or no educational background mix with the sons and daughters of the privileged middle class. "Their parents were European immigrants who saw Argentina rise. Ironically just as their parents emigrated to Argentina from Europe, this new generation have themselves become immigrants, however temporary it may be," professor Szuchman says.

Argentines can travel as tourists to the United States without American visas and stay in the country for up to 90 days, thanks to something called the Visa Waiver Permit Program. Owing to hard times back home, many Argentines are taking advantage of their traveling perks. But they're overstaying their visits in Miami-Dade. According to Gowland, there about six flights daily arriving at Miami International Airport from Argentina. More and more are beginning to drink their maté in public.

In Miami there are at least ten publications for Argentines, according to Gowland. Three civic organizations in the area -- the Association of Argentines in Miami, the Lions Club, and Association San Martiniana (named after Argentine independence hero San Martin) -- are among the dozen groups throughout Florida. On the beach soccer fans wear their favorite team jerseys everywhere -- red and white River Plate fans; yellow and blue for Boca Juniors. (Fútbol is Argentina's passion, and the game played in North Shore Park often sparks into flame.) One guy I met had Diego Maradona's face -- an Argentine soccer legend-turned-coke addict -- tattooed on his arm. Neighborhood cars are adorned with Argentine flags and nationalistic paraphernalia. Argentine delis, cafés, and restaurants are lined along Collins Avenue between 65th and 75th streets and along the 71st Street commercial corridor. "They stand out from other Latin Americans," says one non-Argentine neighbor. "They come, they stay, and they're loud about it."

"The question is how long are they here for," Szuchman says. "Argentines have had a history of migrating and then returning. They don't leave Argentina happily."

Silvina is an exception. She was thrilled to leave Miramar, the cold weather, and her domineering mom. "I was one of the first to arrive here," she claims. "In 1995, when I came, there were very few Argentines. Now they're everywhere."

"I tried to get away from [los Argentinos], and they followed me," Silvina contends sarcastically. "They should all go back to Argentina. Que se vayan," she says loudly, one day walking back from the beach. A young Argentine couple is walking hand in hand just a few steps in front of her. Silvina breaks out into frenzied laughter. "Que se vayan todos los Argentinos. Son una porqueria -- they're trash."

Apartment seven, behind Silvina's place, is the nightly gathering spot for the clan of Miramarans inhabiting this slice of Miami Beach, Silvina's fan club, los chicos del siete, of which Allen is the newest member. Jokingly he calls his place el boliche -- the nightclub. "People are constantly coming and going," he says "We can even identify everyone's particular knock. So we don't bother opening the door anymore, we just shout, “Come in,' or else we leave the door open. Though lately the mosquitoes and palmetto bugs have been forcing us to close up." Los chicos used to throw asados [barbecues] every Friday, just outside their apartment. The Argentine tradition is perhaps the closest thing to a meat-eater's nirvana on Earth: "If I go a day without meat, I feel something is not right," Allen affirms. "We're carnivores," he adds with a mischievous smile. "Vampires!" Birra -- beer -- is usually the chicos' drink of choice. And cigarettes (puchos) are chain-smoked. "Oh ... I can tell you some anecdotes about our gatherings," John says one night, while sitting near the sidewalk.

Now that Alex is gone, Silvina has started frequenting apartment seven again, once her children are tucked into bed. There she is the center of attention. The "boys" from Miramar see her as both a mother figure and sexually tempting. "When I hang out with them, se cagan de la risa -- they die of laughter. Que tengo, payasos en la cara. What is it with me? Do I have clowns coming out of my face? No la verdad es que son unos buitres. No, really, they're vultures. You see their faces, and you think they're angels. They're not," Silvina warns. "Mujer que ven, mujer que quieren montar. Any woman they see they want to ride. In fact," she adds, "there's so much jerking off going on in apartment seven they could open a ricotta factory.

"But I have no problems," Silvina continues. "I'm into menores [minors]." Silvana, however, is mostly all talk. Lately her mind has been on Alex, who's back in Miramar. "Alex used to say to me: “Silvina, you're so liberal. I love that in a woman. You have no problems with sex.'"

"Do you consider yourself a feminist?" I ask.

"Yo lo que soy es una desgenerada -- I'm more of a degenerate," Silvina answers with a smirk, biting her bottom lip. A sexual predator in the most pure and innocent way, Silvina loves sex, men, and flirting. Riding in the car with her one night, on our way back from Normandy Supermarket, she flirts with every man walking on Dickens Avenue: "Here all you have to do is smile and wave and before you know it you'll have a handsome bachelor sitting in the passenger seat of your car."

Most of the things Silvina says are expressed with sexual undertones. She loves to pose in front of the camera. Before Alex left he shot photos of her dressed in black Victoria's Secret lingerie. He left her one photo and took the rest to Argentina. Silvina showed most of her young male neighbors and even displayed the pic on her refrigerator. Back in Argentina Alex showed the ones he took with him to his father and friends. "They told him he was crazy for leaving behind such a woman," Silvina says.

One night in apartment seven, John and his roommates were playing a soccer video game. (Losers wash the dishes.) AC/DC was playing on the stereo, and the slackers from Miramar were passing around a faso (a joint). The walls are adorned with a Bob Marley poster, a magazine cut-out of a marijuana plant, and a giant Indian dream catcher. A bookcase is filled with empty liquor, beer, and wine bottles. "The bottles are an offering to La Virgen de las montañas," Allen says. But, I remark, there's no statue of a Virgin to place an offering to. "I don't think she'll be coming here," Allen laughs. "We just want to be ready."

Once the weed kicks in, John answers my questions about why he came to Miami. "Our parents are comfortable in Miramar," he says. "But they have only enough for themselves. There's nothing for us there. In South America Miami is the golden dream." A friend who is visiting argues that leaving Argentina for Miami, Spain, or Italy has become fashionable among young Argentines. "Okay, so it's appealing, but people are leaving because they are prompted by a reality," John counters. "The reality is that there's no room for us. But now that I've lived the dream, I think I'd rather go back."

Economics wasn't the motive for Silvina's move, she contends. She was upper middle class, her family traveled frequently to Europe. Her father, who passed away in Silvina's arms when she was sixteen, was in the military for ten years, then became a contractor on profitable construction projects. Silvina hardly ever worked. In fact, confirms her mother in Argentina, she owns two homes, five apartments, and two retail spaces in her native country. But none of the rental property is occupied. "I attended the best private schools," Silvina says. "The only thing missing was knowing where I came from."

When Silvina married Nelson, the couple depended partly on the family's riches and partly on Nelson's job working at a Pepsi factory. "My mother gave us anything we needed," Silvina revealed one night while hanging wet clothes on a line outside her place. "I wanted Nelson to start playing a more dominant role as the family's breadwinner. That's why I decided we should relocate. But look at me. Here in Norte America I'm poor, working as a housecleaner, de cabaretera [lap-dancing] on the side." Recently Nelson was fired from his job painting buildings. "He would show up to work whenever he felt like it," Silvina says. For her part she couldn't take any more of the cleaning life. So tonight, in a different part of town, Silvina is looking for work as an exotic dancer. By the end of the month she'll have to pay rent.

"I'm probably going to end up moving in with my husband," Silvina pouts. "Where else am I going to go? Me, the kids, and the big-screen TV....

"I suppose I could sell the TV ... but no, what am I crazy? I can't sell that TV -- it's a great TV....

"I mostly just glance at it when I can. My kids have it mostly tuned to music videos. But I don't care what's on. Che, the few seconds I get sucked into it is like being at the movies. It's one of my few escapes, sabes? Alex is another escape for me ... even though he's gone."

Names in this article have been altered in some cases. All incidents are true.


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