It's 12:15 p.m. at Mary's Restaurant on NE Second Avenue. The only meal served here is lunch, so this should be the busiest time of day. Yet the fourteen-seat eatery has no customers. Owner Osvaldo Perez and barmaid Luisa Serrano sit and stare out the front window. It's been 30 years since Perez purchased the place with winnings from a long shot bet on the horses. Only today there is no money to celebrate. The 68-year-old Cuban exile has been trying unsuccessfully to sell Mary's for the past two years.
When Mario Solano, a regular, finally walks through the door, Serrano hands him a Budweiser before he can open his mouth. Solano is one of a half-dozen retired Cubans with nicknames like El Moro and Pepe Platano who usually fill the fixed stools spaced around the long, curved counter. Mary's, which offers cheap beer and strong coffee for twelve hours each day starting at 7:00 a.m., is their clubhouse.
Serrano, a 48-year-old originally from Grenada, Nicaragua, doubles as a cook and den mother. She takes no guff from any of the men and often silences their outbursts with a hand gesture or a hard stare. "Here I command," she declares. Yet despite her formidable demeanor, she keeps a stash of lollipops hidden away for the neighborhood children who occasionally visit.
Solano and Serrano instantly fall into bawdy repartee while Perez looks on bemusedly. Solano, who works nights as a security guard, propositions the married Serrano with a very expressive wiggle of his eyebrow and a tilt of his head. She retorts: "You think I am going to waste the little youth I have with a viejo (old man) like yourself?"
Soon they are on to a popular topic at Mary's: the difference between Nicaraguans and Cubans. Solano is only too happy to elucidate. Cubans are more educated, more cultured, less Indian, and essentially superior in every way, he opines. "You know the difference between the two? You know what it is?" Serrano asks rhetorically. "The difference is that Cubans talk a lot more bullshit."
All jokes aside it is precisely the changing demographics of this neighborhood, located between downtown and the Design District, that Perez attributes to the drop in his clientele. Cubans here have been replaced by Central Americans, he believes. (In 1970 Cubans accounted for 90 percent of the Hispanic population in Miami-Dade County. Twenty-nine years later the proportion has dropped to about half, with Central American and Caribbean refugees making up the difference.)
"We are surrounded by Hondurans now," comments Perez. "They don't eat our food. We eat bread and butter. They eat tortillas with beans." It probably doesn't help that the restaurant offers a limited meal selection. (Today it's fish, garbanzos, and rice.) If the customer doesn't like it, the alternative is to go elsewhere.
It wasn't always this way. Once the restaurant had a full menu, was much frequented, and stayed open until 1:00 a.m. Thirty years ago three apartment buildings of about 125 units stood across the street. They were filled with Cuban exiles trying to make their way in a strange land. By the late Eighties fires and neglect caused the building owners (or the city, Perez doesn't know) to demolish the buildings. Today there is only a grassy, vacant lot at the site.
Perez was one of those struggling immigrants. In 1961 he came from a small town in Santa Clara province, confident he would soon return to his island as a member of a victorious army. By 1962, after the debacle at the Bay of Pigs, those hopes were dashed and the struggle to survive became all-consuming. "When we first arrived [we] were given $68 a month and an inspector came by every fifteen days to see how [we] spent it," he recalls. "It was impossible to find work."
The taciturn and often gruff restaurateur sports thick glasses and sparse gray hair combed over a balding pate. He rarely takes part in the lunch-counter chatter, but seems to come alive when relating bitter memories of the past. Perez and fifteen others lived in a rented Little Havana house that consisted of a bedroom and a living room. Residents salvaged mattresses off the street for furniture.
After picking tomatoes to eke out a living, he and his wife, Yolanda Cremata, ten years his senior, found jobs at a Puerto Rican restaurant north of downtown. In 1968 the owner closed the place. The situation looked grim until December of that year, when providence smiled. While visiting a now-defunct racetrack where Tropical Park is today, Perez bet on a double; he wagered two dollars that he could choose the winning horses in two consecutive races. He took home $6000.
Perez bought a then-shuttered hamburger joint and an attached house at NE Second Avenue and 27th Street. The restaurant wasn't much to look at, nothing more than a grill and a few seats. He decided to name it after his mother, Maria. The couple worked long hours and did well enough to expand the place to its present size in 1971.
The neighborhood has always been a little rough, Perez comments, pointing to the gashes in the wood paneling that lines the walls. These are the visible remnants left from more than 30 robbery attempts. The forced entries have all but stopped since Perez bought an alarm system and added a metal gate.
The signs of forced entry are mainly grouped around one corner of the rectangular-shape restaurant, where thieves have tried to gain entrance unobserved. The dominant feature in that area is a religious display centered around a small altar, which stands on a five-foot-high shelf. The display also includes plaster images of St. Barbara and Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity. A candle burns before each of them. An upside-down apple on a plate is an offering to St. Barbara, an attempt to encourage her to spread a little good luck. Nearby are tacked a horseshoe and a Mason's emblem, an eye with a bloody dagger underneath. There's also a certificate recognizing Perez for four months of handgun training. Cases of beer are stacked beneath the display. Two other corners are occupied by a giant standing fan and a rented jukebox filled with a grab bag of Latin music.
At 2:00 p.m. Solano sneezes loudly and Serrano gets a lot of mileage from covering her nose with her shirt. A man enters and asks for a colada. In the past two hours only three customers have eaten lunch and two have ordered coffee. On average Perez takes in less than $900 for a six-day week. With operating costs around $70 per day, the profit margin is tight. "I have the property but I don't have the money," he laments.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.