Strange Man in a Strange Land
He could be almost anyone, the clean-shaven black-haired man in his thirties wending his way through the strolling, posing, gossiping, blading masses along Ocean Drive on a Saturday afternoon. He's wearing a faded paisley shirt, brown pants, and rubber-soled brown leather lace-up shoes. In a black folder he carries several legal-size sheets of paper. Listening for fragments of conversations in Spanish, he stops near three teenage girls in identical white tank tops and denim short-shorts.
The man pulls out one of the papers, leans forward, and angles it toward the teens. "Excuse me," he says in Spanish, smiling respectfully and squinting slightly. His eyebrows form a continuous line across his brow. "I would like to offer you this poem." The girls look at the paper and then return the man's gaze with some curiosity. Encouraged, he continues: "This is a poem that is several hundred years old. The author is unknown, but it has become a classic among the indigenous people of South America because of its inspiring message. Read it. If you like it, you can keep it." Now the girls lean forward in an earnest attempt to make out the fuzzily photocopied words of the Desiderata, which is not really a poem but a popular meditation framed and hung in homes, shops, and dentists' offices around the world.
"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence," it begins, in perfect irony amid the overhyped, overhappening tumult of South Beach. Something about it captures the girls' interest, enough so that the man notices. "As I said, you can keep the poem," he says. "Here, I'll give one to each of you. Also, if you could, a donation to support artistic endeavors would be greatly appreciated."
The girls take the papers, hand the man $1.25, and don't ask him what artistic endeavors he's referring to. Maybe they'll read to the end of the Desiderata or maybe they'll just leave it on the sidewalk to be swept away by a breeze or broom. The man doesn't wait to find out. He moves on and soon spots two young women languishing over the remnants of their drinks at an umbrella-shaded sidewalk cafe. He starts up his usual conversation, and the women, who looked bored to begin with, assume expressions of even greater boredom. They let him speak, but when he gets to the part about supporting the arts, one just shakes her head and hands the paper back, telling him they're using her boyfriend's credit card and don't have any cash.
It's close to 6:00 p.m. now, and the man in the paisley shirt has barely picked up enough money to buy dinner. He's waiting for the C bus to take him across the MacArthur Causeway and into downtown Miami, where he'll transfer to the 77 and hop off at NW Seventh Avenue and 27th Street, a few blocks from where he lives for the time being: Beckham Hall, a Dade County facility that houses about 100 homeless men. "That's how it goes in the sales business," he says, adding that his past jobs have included selling everything from life insurance to computer software. "Some days people respond better. In reality, you're selling yourself."
The man should know. During the past year he has sold, or attempted to sell, various versions of himself. And that is one of the few things that can be said with any certainty about Mauricio Pavez Munilla, who holds a Chilean passport and an expired U.S. tourist visa and seems determined not to return to his country even if it means living in homeless shelters and scraping dollars off the street.
One other thing is certain about Pavez. He is angry. He's mad about being a crime victim last November, and angrier still at the legions of officials, public servants, and law enforcers in Florida who, as he sees it, have let him down. Since arriving in Miami from Orlando eight months ago, Pavez has been on a crusade to Dade County's various social or legal service offices. He has told his story to a huge contingent of bureaucrats and attorneys and a few reporters -- many of whom have noticed that the story is not always the same, that the details shift and slide. But the events did happen, one way or another, leaving Pavez to live in an American limbo, not at all the dream he seems to have been looking for.
Some claim he could go home to Chile today. But he insists he really can't go back, at least not until the State of Florida somehow recognizes its responsibility for what happened to him in Orlando, the tourist mecca Pavez calls, apparently without irony, la ciudad de Pato Donald -- the city of Donald Duck.
It was Pavez's 36th birthday, November 10, and he was on his way to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Orlando after spending the day at Disney World. He was walking to the station to pick up a duffel bag, his only luggage, which he'd left in a locker. It was around 11:00 p.m. As he neared the building, he says, a man in dreadlocks caught up with him, smashed a metal container over his head, and lifted his last $42. Bleeding from a gash near his left ear, Pavez made his way into the station, where someone called the police. An Orange County deputy sheriff showed up along with another officer, both of whom spoke Spanish, and filled out an incident report. They called an ambulance to transport Pavez to Princeton Hospital, where doctors diagnosed a perforated eardrum. "They told me if I didn't take care of it I could lose my hearing," Pavez recounts. He was bandaged and given free antibiotics and pain pills.
At the hospital, Pavez and the officers were soon joined by Greta Snitkin, the "tourist victim advocate" for the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Pavez remembers Snitkin "calling all around for help" but finally telling him there was nothing more she could do for him. What about relatives or friends? Couldn't he have gotten at least a little money from someone to keep him going, or to get home? "That possibility didn't exist," he says now. Penniless, his only alternative was to check into Orlando's giant downtown homeless shelter.
The "baseball game," as Pavez would later describe his experiences, had begun, with him as la pelota. "The next day I was on the street," he says. The police officers had given him their business cards and told him to call if he had any problems or questions about his case, so he called. "First [the person who answered] told me to explain my situation, then they said there was nothing they could do. Then I went to the courthouse, and they told me it would take ten days to process the papers and another month to see if the case was continued, and blah, blah, blah, and a tourist can't spend that much time there."
Meanwhile, when he was living at the Salvation Army, someone told him the Red Cross could compensate him. They couldn't. Instead they sent Pavez to a hospital that they said had a "tourist program." It didn't. The search for compensation dragged on. "I went to more than fifteen places," he says. "I went to a lawyer, but she said she only had divorce cases. I went to a civil rights office, but they said they handled other types of discrimination. I was sent from place to place. I went to the press to speak to a reporter."
What was all the fuss? Well, Pavez had become increasingly convinced the City of Orlando or the State of Florida, or both, owed him bigtime. "People told me the place where I was assaulted is a high-crime area. This is something the tourists don't know. No one tells them. Tourists arrive here thinking nothing's going to happen to them. They see the advertising showing families having a great time. But the question is, what is it that puts food in the mouths of the citizens of Orlando? Tourism. So where are the rights of tourists? Who's going to protect them?"
Pavez claims he is living proof that tourism represents some sort of criminal lure. He himself had been lured to California and Florida, he asserts, by irresistible come-ons that included special-package bus fares. "When I was in Mexico, I read a Greyhound promotional flyer that, among other things, said, 'Travel three days in the U.S. for only $87.' I'm like many young tourists and North American students who want to see foreign lands but don't have much money."
In the grip of that wanderlust, Pavez left Chile and bounced from Mexico City to Cancn to Laredo, Texas, to Los Angeles, along the way acquiring a U.S. tourist visa that allowed him to stay in the country for one year after its issue date of April 1996. By early November he found himself in Orlando, but then came the man with the dreadlocks. Around the first of December a pastor at a downtown Orlando church put him on a bus to Miami, he says, "so I could seek help from the Chilean consulate."
In the early days of Pavez's stay here, he slept at a small homeless encampment near the Venetian Causeway on the western shores of Biscayne Bay. "Then some of the street people told me I should go to the [Miami] Rescue Mission, so I went there," he recalls. "They kept me for two weeks." He checked into the 350-bed Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) on North Miami Avenue in Overtown in mid-December. And again he began to wade through the red tape, visiting the Chilean consulate, the Metro-Dade victims assistance program, the State Attorney's Office, even the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. He got his injured ear checked for free at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The eardrum was healing nicely. But his experiences at the other places were less rewarding. "The consulate told me they could help me get back to Chile, but I didn't want to burden my family," Pavez recounts. "And since I wasn't assaulted in Dade County, the victims' office and the State Attorney's Office couldn't get involved. No one could understand why Orlando hadn't done anything for me."
The HAC normally has a 60-day stay limit, but it's common to bend the rules for special cases, and Pavez was deemed a special case. During the six months he was there, Pavez joined other "residents" in vocational classes at the Miami Skill Center, training to enter (or re-enter) the job market. He wound up with a certificate qualifying him to be a tile setter but found he couldn't work using a tourist visa. Pavez says he explained his plight to a lawyer from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "He told me since I wasn't Cuban or Haitian, there was nothing he could do," Pavez claims. (Center officials say that is nonsense, that his nationality wasn't the reason they couldn't help him.)
In midspring Pavez showed up at the Miami office of U.S. Sen. Connie Mack. His tourist visa would expire on April 26, 1997, and he told Mack aide Rey Castellanos, who handles Miami immigration cases, that he wanted to get permission to stay in the U.S. and work to earn enough to pay his way home. A tourist visa, however, can be extended only if, among other things, the tourist can prove that he has enough money to continue being a tourist, explains Castellanos. Since Pavez didn't have a dime and apparently no one to fund his travels, Castellanos advised him to apply for voluntary departure status owing to medical need.
Under past immigration law, that would have given him additional time to stay here and work, according to Castellanos. The new immigration law that went into effect April 1, however, allows a maximum 120-day extension but not the right to work. Pavez's application is still pending, but he says he no longer believes Mack's office is trying to help him. Castellanos declined to discuss the case unless Pavez gave his permission, which he didn't.
Pavez, shuttling among several government offices throughout the spring and living at the HAC, says he was advised by "a secretary" at the local Immigration and Naturalization Office to apply for an extension of his visa, and he did fill out an application but apparently never submitted it. Meanwhile, the Chilean consulate had long since given up counseling Pavez.
In May, soon after his visa expired, the Homeless Assistance Center sent him to Beckham Hall. "He became a problem for us," says HAC director Lynn Summers, "because his problem was, 'I want to sue the State of Florida for having been robbed.' We said, 'That's fine, but you are illegally present in the U.S. and there's nothing we can do for you if you won't work with your consulate.'" HAC officials did not report Pavez's illegal status to the INS, Summers says, but decided they had exhausted all means to help him and thus couldn't continue to subsidize him. So they "out-placed" him to Beckham Hall, which has a 90-day stay limit.
As a resident of Beckham Hall, Pavez is going to school again, studying interior design at the University of Miami's Koubek Center for continuing education. His three-month limit has expired, but on September 1 Beckham Hall will be turned over to a private nonprofit corporation, and the incoming director will probably have to decide what to do with Pavez.
Outgoing director Elizabeth Regalado, struggling with severe staff cutbacks, says she knew nothing about Pavez when he appeared at her front door and has learned little since then. "The HAC sent him to me," she explains. "I asked him why didn't the Chilean consulate get him back [to Chile]. He just says they couldn't help him. There are several things I can't figure out."
Regalado has plenty of company, both here and in Orlando -- people like the Orange County Sheriff's Office's Greta Snitkin, who was the first person to try to coordinate some assistance for Pavez after he was robbed. "We have a tourist advocate -- that's me -- and normally after something like this, I'd put him on a plane home," says Snitkin, speaking by phone from Orlando. "I offered to call his family in Chile on our nickel; he wouldn't let me do that. First of all, he didn't qualify as a tourist; he qualified as a transient. He told us the last place he'd lived was under bridge abutments in Miami. He looked filthy, hadn't had a bath in ages." Snitkin acknowledges that Pavez "had good manners, he wasn't emaciated, he wasn't a bad-looking man, but please, Disney World? Donald Duck would never have let him in the gate looking the way he looked that night.
"If he had had a home address, he would have qualified for [state] crime victim compensation," Snitkin adds, "but he wasn't telling us anything we could verify. In other words, he wasn't telling us everything. Nobody figured out what he wanted. I think he's one of these people who play the system."
Metro-Dade victims-compensation social worker Mary Peters had the same feeling. "I could give him advice as one human being to another. I could put him on the bus to Jackson," says Peters, who retired at the end of 1996. "But I couldn't open a file for him because [the assault] happened outside our jurisdiction. I remember it was some kind of strange case because, when he came to see me, he must have been to a lot of other programs. As a tourist, he knew too much."
And then there's Chilean Vice Consul Julio Fiol, who says he actually spoke with Pavez's mother twice by phone, and that Pavez's family offered to pay his plane fare home. "'No, I want to work here, I want to apply for a working visa,'" Fiol remembers Pavez insisting. "He was being really stubborn, he was rude and giving a hard time to the people here. It's a kind of a long story and lots of pieces don't make sense. I told him the new laws make it tougher and tougher to be an immigrant, but I assume he wants to try his luck here -- what you call the American dream."
Some assume he wants to try his luck here because he's on the run from someone or something in Chile, though he denies having any legal problems anywhere. If there's any criminal trouble shadowing Pavez at home, it hasn't found its way to the United States; he hasn't been arrested in Florida or California.
Still, one form of trouble seems to dog Pavez wherever he goes -- trouble keeping his story straight. In the past, he has claimed he's been offered work in Miami and is in the process of obtaining false Social Security documents so he could take the job. Now he adamantly denies the claim, although he offers a rationalization for anyone who might be driven to falsify paperwork: "If the system doesn't protect you, what choice does anyone have?"
Meanwhile, Pavez continues to tilt at windmills. In recent months he has written -- in literate and not-ungraceful Spanish -- two polemics, ostensibly requests for a personal interview with the INS director in Miami. In the letters, which describe his experiences since November, he reiterates the case for "tourists' rights," setting out detailed arguments for protecting tourists by conducting periodic evaluations of crime statistics in major tourist centers, incorporating tourism studies into relevant university curricula, and even passing laws setting "standards" for tourist treatment. To date he has not sent either letter.
The environment at Beckham Hall is sometimes grim, which isn't to say the currently minuscule staff doesn't do its best with what it's got. It just doesn't have much to work with. The small second-floor bedrooms barely house the two men who sleep in each, and the public spaces in the decades-old utilitarian building are colorless and bare. Residents are often enmeshed in dire and seemingly unresolvable personal circumstances. They're required to attend classes in "life skills" and "decision-making"; in-house Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are also mandatory for those with substance-abuse problems. Pavez, who says he has studied construction techniques, especially earthquake-proofing, in Chile, does something else at Beckham Hall that seems to greatly impress many of his peers despite its seeming incongruity with his often angry and secretive personality: He paints pictures of flowers.
They're unusual-looking assemblages because they're made of papier-máche, mostly bits of newspaper he painstakingly rolls into tiny balls and pastes onto a board. He says he learned the technique in Mexico City. The little balls make a gravelly background for a raised papier-máche image he forms on top, usually some variation on flowers in a vase. When it all dries, he paints it with acrylics and adds a frame.
He's taken the pictures to shops and galleries in South Beach and has placed several on consignment at one Lincoln Road shop. But so far none of the pictures, priced in the $25 to $45 range, has sold, he says. Much in the same way that his demands for "tourist justice" haven't sold.
But maybe he can find some inspiration, or at least consolation, in the Desiderata, which he continues to hand out to teens and tourists in hopes of earning basic spending money. The Spanish translation reads: "Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
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