The Bard of Memorial Park
I will anxiously wait to see the light of dawn,
of every dawn.
That the smell of life should excite me
when it brushes against my bones
and my gratitude, that of a banished man,
always responds to its call
All of us, all of us are in Memorial Park
Smoking his pipe, Leandro Eduardo Campa sits on a bench in front of Riverside Park, in East Little Havana, between a stalwart shade tree and a lamppost defaced with vulgar graffiti. Every morning Eddy Campa, as he is known to passersby, sits on this wooden perch. Sometimes he takes out one of the library books he carries with him, carefully wrapped in a plastic shopping bag. Sometimes he reads quietly, enriching his knowledge of philosophy or meditating on a poem. Usually, though, he sits placidly and watches the activity on the street before him, observing the days lapse into a lifetime on SW Eighth Avenue.
Today the homeless woman Campa calls Maritza la Loca sits on one end of the bench. Her chubby thighs inflate navy-blue stretch shorts, and a kerchief covering her hair obscures her face as she leans forward and counts the money she keeps hidden between the faded pages of an old magazine.
On the baseball diamond inside the fenced park, a man wearing a guayabera and shapeless slacks meticulously sweeps home plate with a broom. Each morning he grooms the field. Each evening he reappears to coach the neighborhood boys who gather here to play. "That's Vicente. He was a baseball player in Cuba," Campa says in the deliberate, grammatically refined Spanish of a college professor. "He was offered a contract with the Dodgers. The day before he was to debut with the team, he hurt his arm. He couldn't play baseball anymore. He ended up here."
Campa keeps a mental catalogue of such personal tragedies that have befallen the residents of his neighborhood, stories of the streets on whose sidewalks he has often slept, rooting for his dinner in nearby garbage cans. The griot of SW Eighth Avenue, Campa looks the part of a poet laureate in clean white shirt, gray pants, blue argyles, and loafers. The 46-year-old's Ivy League style and erudite vocabulary are belied only by his stained teeth and several beaded orisha necklaces that peek out from under his collar. Street-corner philosopher and neighborhood historian, Campa authoritatively points out the stone house where Al Capone is rumored to have lived one winter, and the steepled church, location of a bygone bar so rough that "a man woke up dead there every morning."
Campa has seen many unusual things from the vantage of his bench, nestled between Third and Fourth streets. But a very recent incident may be among the most remarkable. Campa watched as a man crossing the street punched himself hard in the face using both his fists. He struck himself with such force he cut open his lip, and blood dripped onto his shirt as he walked by, still swinging. "A sure manifestation of a sense of guilt," recounts Campa as he packs tobacco into his pipe and lights it. "A sense of guilt and the fallacy of hope for a better life is what dominates man, totally annihilating him." In Campa's view the masochistic stranger's actions succinctly expressed the Zeitgeist of the neighborhood, the deep desperation that drives "the pantheon of Little Havana characters" who populate his poems.
For the past several years Campa has used poetry to record a fictionalized diary of life in this obscure corner of Miami. He has written his verses on the back of Medicaid forms, supermarket flyers, and other daily ephemera, creating a lyric portrait of East Little Havana. His poetry has been collected in a slim volume, Little Havana Memorial Park, published last year by Pedro Damian, a Cuban painter who operates a small local publishing house, Colección Dylemma. Campa will read from his work at the upcoming Miami Book Fair International, where an exhibition of photographs of neighborhood residents by Pedro Portal, inspired by the book, will be on display.
In Little Havana Memorial Park, Campa depicts the immigrant barrio as a cemetery. The work, similar in structure to a traditional epic poem, contains 28 "chapters" that tell the stories of the people who live there. His vision of the neighborhood is set in the future, when all the current residents are dead and buried, a perspective that allows him to portray the arc of their lives, their daily interactions in the street, their successes and failures, and their ultimate demise.
The cemetery setting, he says, immortalizes his neighborhood's residents. But the graveyard is also a natural metaphor for a place where Miami's casualties reside. "My book reveals the decadence of Little Havana," Campa explains. "It's the story of a group of immigrants with no other destiny, really, than to die here in the United States. This is a sad place, not because of the location but because the people are sad."
Elderly men, faintly elegant in their worn old suits, leisurely stroll down the avenue at the speed of another era. They pass by Campa en route to a nearby post office, bearing envelopes with addresses written in rococo script. A kid with a gold tooth and shaved head lopes down the sidewalk, his eyes skittering. He greets Campa by name. The poet waits a beat, then whispers, "He just got out of jail." A skinny bearded man crosses the street pushing a shopping cart filled with his possessions, neck and neck with a young father guiding a baby stroller. A shuffling woman with long gray hair wears bedroom slippers and carries a dollar-store umbrella against the sun. Down the street at La Cadena market, truck drivers unload their stock.
Around 11:00 a.m. a crew of construction workers files into La Nica Tortilla restaurant, where a sign reads, "Comida para llevar $3.50." Next door at La Fritanga, a Honduran place, tables with checkered cloths and rustic wooden chairs await a sparse lunch-hour clientele. On the corner, in front of OTI Coin Laundry, a motley crew of old men and young toughs is gathered, holding plastic thimbles of sweet café or swigging beverages from containers covered with small paper bags. A teenage boy with dreadlocks rides by on a bicycle, carrying his laughing girlfriend on the handlebars. A truck carting a load of stained mattresses rumbles down the street.
"This neighborhood has seen two eras," Campa says, as he watches the busy street from his bench, "one that started in the Sixties, the other in the Eighties. The Cubans from the first immigration to Miami lived here. Then more Cubans and Central Americans arrived. But the Cubans from the second immigration in 1980 were Cubans educated under the Castro regime, and Little Havana started to take on a more cosmopolitan character. The Cubans from the first era started to leave because they were educated; they had money. Now there are more Central Americans here than Cubans. Culturally that enriches the neighborhood, but economically it stagnates it.
"In Little Havana," he adds, "the squalor is due to two factors: You have one group marked by a regime that destroyed their hopes and dreams, and others who, for other reasons, reasons having to do with bad government, had to immigrate here. The ones who came for economic reasons aren't rich; they're not doctors or engineers or lawyers. If they were they wouldn't have ended up here in this neighborhood. These aren't people who lost it. They just never had it. It's not the story of those who haven't triumphed. It's the story of those who can't triumph."
Frequently Campa appears as one of the down-and-out characters in his own poetry, and he is not surprised that, as an educated man who speaks fluent English, he would end up living on the streets of Little Havana. "Remember, the only people who are masters of their destiny are those with the means to forge their own destiny," he says matter-of-factly. "The only thing I've aspired to is to be a little less unfortunate."
Campa grew up in a solar, a tenement in Havana's poor Centro Habana neighborhood. "One bathroom for 100 families," he recalls. "Thieves and degenerates lived there, and hard-working family men." His father, who was Chinese, was an English teacher who became a housepainter to support his family. His mother was black, and for that reason was not accepted by his father's relatives. So his parents struggled on their own.
He recalls two milestones of his childhood. The first was an operation when he was a toddler. Pointing to two knobby scars next to his thumbs, he explains that he was born with twelve fingers. He can still remember the horrifying scraping noise of a doctor cutting them off with a saw. The second momentous event came when he was fourteen: His mother died. "Things went downhill after that," says Campa, a handsome man with almond eyes and freckled mahogany skin. "I was fifteen when I was arrested."
The year was 1968. An honor student at school, Campa spent his free time hanging out with a group of teenagers who congregated around the fountain in front of Havana's seaside Hotel Nacional. "There were 2000 or 3000 young people in Cuba with long hair and stovepipe pants listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones," he recalls. "We were influenced by what was happening in the United States with the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers. We were young freethinkers.
"One day Castro heard about the young people going against the model of the revolution," Campa continues. "He didn't want the youth sitting around and talking and thinking for themselves. He wanted them to work for the system. So one day the police came and rounded them up and took them to a work camp. I was among them."
Campa was removed from high school and sent to a camp where he worked in the fields "from sunup to sundown." After fourteen months he was sent home. But rather than return to school, he began studying on his own. When he was nineteen years old, he passed an exam and entered the University of Havana. "I started living a double life," he explains. "I said what they wanted me to say and thought something else. It's a kind of conscious schizophrenia. What is [Castro's] 'new man'? The same old man in different clothes."
Campa studied philosophy and literature at the university and simultaneously held a job teaching socioeconomics at a technical school. He says he was fired when a Santería amulet fell out of his pocket in the school director's office. (Like Catholicism and Judaism, the practice of Afro-Cuban religions was forbidden in Cuba at the time.)
He began selling books on the street, and worked in a factory. Since childhood Campa had written poetry, usually inspired by his immediate surroundings. In 1979 he wrote a book of poems about his poor Central Havana neighborhood. He says officials at the state publishing house found his descriptions of tenement life to be "too close to reality." Campa says he was arrested, charged with being anti-revolutionary, and sentenced to eight years in prison, but released after only 40 days when he signed a retraction admitting that his writing was subversive and apologizing for offending the state.
In 1980 the Mariel boatlift allowed the aspiring poet to leave Cuba. He joined an uncle in New York, but they suffered a falling-out three months later and Campa moved to Miami. "I found myself in the middle of a war among those who had been enemies in the Cuban prisons," he recalls. "It was normal to see someone walking down Flagler Street with a knife in one side of his belt and a revolver in the other." He was afraid of getting caught in the crossfire of small-time drug lords and gangs. "That scene," he says, "was too violent for me."
Campa was living in a tent city that had been set up for Mariel refugees near downtown Miami. Through a charity organization, he was relocated to Beaumont, Texas, where he met a girl who worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and moved in with her. He polished his English, which he first learned from his father as a boy and studied sporadically in school. To make a living, he relied on his experiences in Cuba, what on the island is known as resolver, resolving, and what Americans call hustling. He bought junked cars, fixed them up just enough to get them running for a couple of days, and sold them cheaply to poor people. He did not offer a warranty.
Campa then went into the fumigation business. "I bought a uniform and had American Pest Control printed on it, with Eddy stitched on the pocket," he says, laughing at the memory. He knew nothing about pest control, but he had a gimmick: "I'd bring a little box full of dead cockroaches, which I'd throw on the floor so the customers would think what I was doing worked."
In 1989, with his romantic relationship on the rocks and his ingenuity exhausted, Campa returned to Miami. He settled in Little Havana and began a yard-cleaning service. Soon he had two trucks and a couple of employees. "Then I realized I was losing perspective," he says. The poet got rid of his trucks, his television, and his furniture. "I sold everything and started going to the library every day. I didn't worry about anything. I lived in the street. Greatness is in simple things."
Campa recalls nights on the streets when he was attacked by gang members with knives. "There were a lot of times when I had to use my shoe as a shield," he remarks. "In time they got used to me and left me alone." Recently he has been renting a room on Third Street. To raise some cash, he peddles costume jewelry for a few hours a day.
"I try to live as simply as I can," he says. "I rent a room for $150 a month. I eat for two dollars on the corner. I spend two dollars every four days on pipe tobacco. I think if you live in a simple way, without complexities, without entering into the mechanisms of consumerism, you can dedicate more time to meditation and thought. One thing that man should achieve, what we need to teach our children, is to defend free thought."
Since his hippie days as a teenager in Havana, Campa has been especially aware of the boundaries imposed on freedom of speech. "Language is the only weapon of a totalitarian regime, which is why they try to create their own language," he says. "Language is only sincere when it doesn't betray reality. That's why those regimes are afraid of their poets."
Having found his soapbox on the street, Campa is a staunch proponent of democratic values. And despite his wariness of an undereducated consumer society, he's a believer in capitalism's class culture. "I've eaten out of garbage cans," he says. "I've also been in fancy hotel rooms. I've been where the rich have been. Why do I have to blame the rich because I've lived in the street and pulled a piece of chicken from the trash? That's my problem. Capitalism is the best system because it's closest to human nature. The rest is just deception."
Campa begins to quote Goethe when he is interrupted by an approaching couple, talking loudly in Spanish. "Can you settle an argument for us?" the man asks Campa. "If I was born in 1969, how old am I now?" Informed by Campa that he is 30, the man seems confused. "I was sure I was 34," he says, and the pair walks on.
"That is an example of why this neighborhood can't progress," Campa comments, puffing on his pipe.
How we find ourselves obliged to relive
in this cemetery the joys
and sadness of Little Havana!
Who can forget Papiro, the usurer
and his duel with Mr. Dinero
for the love of Rosario, the whore? (Here,
in eternal discord reunited.)
Where the splendor of this column is born
ebbs the almond tree where Papiro rested
in his folding chair that opened
like a woman's legs
and he slept:
he slept beneath the clamor of the almond trees
in the low income mornings
and the people wishing that
he would never awaken
but that never happened,
and when he woke up
even the indigent forgot their misery
"At twenty for a hundred,
gentlemen," he declared.
And patrol cars, ambulances, fire trucks came
and Maritza, la loca, running after the seagulls
and Wichinchi Prenda Fu singing guaguanco
and Pedro Marijuana hawking his wares
and Eddy Campa, the poet, reciting his poems.
while the usurer,
that old falcon,
in his feigned sleep,
thought about the black woman who took him in
as a boy, when he begged in the streets of Havana.
"Everything I have, little mother,
is for you when I die."
That's what he said.
What's become of Papiro the usurer's truck?
The red double cab truck, a Ford.
At six in the evening, the corner in front of OTI Coin Laundry is crowded. Men of all ages gesticulate with hands holding brown paper bags that shield their liquor, recounting the legends of their lives in their native lands. The young ex-con Campa saw this morning sits on the curb on the opposite street corner, talking with a friend about cocaine.
A shifty man in a baseball cap, whom Campa calls "the mysterious Sherman," approaches the bench. Campa says Sherman was a political prisoner for eighteen years. Since then he's been "resolving." A thick-limbed woman in a sleeveless blouse stands in the garden of the house across the street. She's Otilia, for whom OTI Coin Laundry is named. Campa refers to her husband as Mr. Dinero, and says he owns most of the buildings on the block.
Campa notes that his neighborhood has its share of criminals as well as businessmen, and that sometimes they're one and the same. "Still, in these marginal neighborhoods is where the purest forms of humanity exist," muses the writer. "Here a thief doesn't have to pretend he's honest. There's a nobility here even if it may not look it."
Campa is pleased he's been able to bring a little attention to the area through his poems. The other day, for example, he was interviewed by Radio Martí, and he's looking forward to his Miami Book Fair appearance. But he sometimes worries about the future of his neighborhood. Especially troubling to him are rumors of urban renewal plans that may or may not include an expressway extension through this part of Little Havana.
"The only thing that lasts is what is written by poets," Campa declares. "And maybe that's my only reason for being. What would have happened if I didn't write this book? Two hundred years from now, when this is all an empty lot or maybe a great metropolis, nobody would have known that here lived a group of people who died not for love but for the lack of it."
He takes a pair of thick-lensed, wire-rim glasses from his shirt pocket, pulls a copy of Little Havana Memorial Park from his plastic bag, and begins to read, narrating the future of his neighborhood. His clear voice rings along the avenue.
Now everything is different on Eighth Avenue and Third Street in Little Havana.
But, underneath that expressway
below the skyscrapers,
remains the dollar store owned by Paco, the
who one day, after relating his adventures in
told us, almost crying, about the time that
Mas Canosa informed him
that he could no longer be his friend.
and the cafeteria-Laundromat of Oti, the wife
of Mr. Dinero,
who didn't wait until her husband was buried
to marry Danton,
the policeman with blue eyes,
with whom she lived for the rest of her days;
And La Fritanga owned by Samuel, native of
where they sold the best coffee in the Southwest
and also the best marijuana;
and the pharmacy where "Docto," was so
until the afternoon when he disappeared
reappearing three days later on the evening news
for money laundering
Ah! and the Martí Park baseball field,
so well cared for by that the ex-Almendares
raking it with his old Buick
(dusting it with dreams)
There's also the gray house crowned with
and cocaine, belonging to Ruben, the Sandinista,
who ended up in jail;
and La Cadena Supermarket (Latin butcher),
owned by Sr. Valdivia and his partner Arturito,
who shut themselves
in the office together for long hours to count
out the register;
and the curb
the imperishable curb
of the afternoons (tedious wall
marked by my footprint)
in which Wichinchi, Ordonez, el Puro;
Quintana; Orlando, the Ecuadorian;
Miranda, the elusive; Pedro the blowtorch;
the atomic Jorge Avila and many more
we sat to simply
watch the hours flow
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