Pepe Garcia was exhausted, drained, burned out. Too many twelve-hour days at the garment factory in Hialeah. And the work was boring, definitely not the career for an enterprising Cuban immigrant. So Pepe decided he needed a change, a drastic change. One day while looking through a local newspaper, an ad caught his attention: "Cerebros usados.
Garantizados." ("Used Brains. Guaranteed.")
Pepe climbed into his Chevy Impala and headed for the tiny store on Bird Road. Here, he thought, he would find his ticket for a new life: a new brain. "How much?" he asked, pointing to the first specimen on a rickety display table.
"That one? That one is $5000," replied the salesman. "That is the brain of an American."
"And that one, the one with the strange writing on the jar, how much is it?" Pepe inquired, nervously fondling his wallet.
"Oh, now that is the brain of a Japanese," said the salesman. "That is $10,000. You have to understand, senor, everything in this store works on supply and demand, and Japanese brains are in hot demand these days. It's success guaranteed."
Pepe pursed his lips and let out a low whistle. "Y este?" he asked, focusing his attention on a glass jar at the front counter, the one containing an unusually large brain.
The salesman lowered his voice. "Albert Einstein's," he whispered, pausing dramatically before adding, "$20,000."
Pepe threw up his arms in exasperation and turned around to survey the dozen or so other containers. After a few moments, he pointed to a dust-covered Mason jar in the back corner of the store. Inside it was a brain the color and size of an oyster. "I only have $2000," he said. "I have to be able to afford that one."
"Ahhh, no senor," the salesman said slowly. "That one is even more expensive. One-hun-dred-thou-sand dollars. That, senor, is the brain of a Puerto Rican."
"A Puerto Rican!" Pepe shouted in disgust. "How can a Puerto Rican's brain cost more than Albert Einstein's?"
The salesman became indignant: "I told you, everything works on supply and demand. Do you have any idea how many Puerto Ricans we had to kill just to get that one puny brain?"
When he finishes telling the story, Ramon Inguanzo, a 52-year-old Cuban truck driver, pounds the table at Chico's Restaurant in Hialeah and erupts with laughter that carries clear across the room. Good joke, and Inguanzo takes pride in telling it well, even if he does fail to recognize that Pepe, for the right price, was more than happy to trade in his prized Cuban brain.
Technicalities of logic aside, Inguanzo's joke, and his subsequent comments, proved to be helpful in answering a depressing query: Have Miami Latins lost their sense of humor? Recent verbal combat in the letters section of this newspaper had given rise to the question. Latins versus Anglos: a classic case of culture clash. The city, it seemed, was operating full throttle in attack mode. Not a trace of fun. No jesting whatsoever. Very grim.
This has been all the more disturbing because Latins have a well-deserved reputation for habitually dipping into their deep reservoir of good humor. But if we were to determine whether they'd depleted that, the Latin-Anglo debate would be the wrong place to look. Better to snoop around and see if Miami's Latins had abandoned their traditional joke material: other Latins. Ramon Inguanzo helped put to rest our concerns. The delight he takes in lampooning his Latin American neighbors, he assures us, remains widespread. "We all make those kind of jokes," says Inguanzo. "Cubans tell jokes about Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans make jokes about Cubans. Sometimes you'll hear the same joke -- like the one about the brains -- but a Nica will say it about a Cuban. It's not that we hate each other. It's all in fun. It's our way of distinguishing ourselves from the others."
A highly scientific New Times survey has revealed that Inguanzo is mostly correct. In a place where the traditional borders between Latin nations have been reduced to nothing more than a neighborhood street or a fence across the back yard, serious wisecracks are as abundant as Henny Youngman one liners.
If Inguanzo's analysis can be faulted, it is in this: Some immigrant groups seem to distinguish themselves more than others. Take the Cubans...please. Having sweated, talked, and muscled themselves into positions of political and economic power, it shouldn't be news that they make lots of jokes at others' expense. And that, not surprisingly, has led to Miami Cubans themselves being targeted for a good laugh. Here's a local favorite: "How do you make an Argentine? Take a big pot, add two gallons of ego, two gallons of son-of-a-bitch, and a few drops of bullshit. But be careful not to addtoo much bullshit, because then you'll get a Cuban."
And there is this from the Dominican owner of a sandwich shop in downtown Miami: "Three men -- a Dominican, an American, and a Cuban -- were to be hanged from a gallows built over a bay. The men would splash into the sea once they're cut from the rope. The Dominican, noose around his neck, looks to the sky and prays, `Oh, please, God, let the rope break. I don't want to die.' The trap door is dropped and snap! -- the rope breaks -- the Dominican falls into the water and swims safely away. The American also prays for the rope to break. It does and he, too, escapes. Finally it's the Cuban's turn. He looks heavenward and pleads, `Oh, God, please don't let the rope break. I don't know how to swim.'"
Local Puerto Ricans, the New Times survey shows, have added to the Cubans-are-funny repertoire: "A Puerto Rican pays a Cuban man twenty dollars to deliver two penguins to the zoo. A couple of days later he spots the Cuban on the street, the two penguins in tow. `What are you doing?' the Puerto Rican shouts. `I thought I told you to take them to the zoo.' `I did,' says the Cuban, `but I had money left over so I thought I'd take them to a movie, too.'"
But the Puerto Ricans, who may be great basketball players (see last week's cover story), are the hapless butts of a long, long list of jokes local Cubans love to tell -- colorfully, loudly, and mercilessly.
From a Cuban waitress at Lila's Restaurant in Westchester: "Two Puerto Rican engineers are commissioned to build a bridge over a stream in the middle of a desert. After months of work the two finish, but realize they've built the bridge over sand, not water. In a panic, they return to the officials who ordered the bridge. `Tear it down and start over again,' they are commanded. `But we can't,' says one of the engineers, `because there are 350 Puerto Ricans fishing off it.'"
From a Hialeah Cuban selling toys by the side of a road: "A Puerto Rican steps onto a plane for his first flight and hits his head on the door frame. He looks up and sees `DC-10,' which in Spanish translates as `Give yourself ten.' Assuming it is a directive, the Puerto Rican again pounds his head against the frame: `Two, three, four....'"
A Cuban butcher in West Miami offers this: "Three men -- two Cubans and a Puerto Rican -- are sentenced to die, either in the electric chair or by firing squad. The first Cuban chooses the electric chair, but it short-circuits and he's set free. The second Cuban also chooses the chair, which malfunctions again, and he walks away free. `Hey, I'm gonna use the chair, too,' says the Puerto Rican, wagging his finger at the executioner, `but not until it's fixed.'"
The same butcher follows up with a variation: "Three men -- that's right, two Cubans and a Puerto Rican -- stand before a firing squad. The first Cuban yells, `Earthquake!' While the firing squad scrambles for cover, he escapes. The second Cuban yells, `Tornado!' and scampers for safety during the confusion. The Puerto Rican, catching on now, waits for the firing squad to reassemble, and just as they're aiming, he yells, `Fire!'"
The New Times survey team marched through town gathering evidence, from Kendall to Hialeah to Wynwood to Sweetwater, from one friendly country to the next. Preliminary data indicate that Puerto Ricans and Cubans are not the only Latin settlers chumming for chuckles. In fact, any and all newcomers seem to be greeted with jokes, which in Miami are the equivalent of calling cards, one sure sign of having arrived. To be ignored is to be held in punch-line purgatory.
This from a local Peruvian: "God was handing out natural resources to different countries. To Venezuela he gave oil, beautiful mountains, a wondrous seacoast. St. Peter turned to God and said, `Wait, you're overdoing it.' God said, `No I'm not. Wait until you see the people I put in there.'" And this from a Venezuelan lawyer: "Why don't Colombians drink cold milk? Because they couldn't squeeze the cow into the refrigerator."
"How does an Argentine commit suicide?" other Hispanics ask with sly grins that hint at Argentines' reputation for supreme arrogance. "He climbs on top of his ego and throws himself off." A frequently heard variation: "How do you kill an Argentine? Perch him on top of his ego and push him off." Other bromas abound, including these from a Peruvian businessman: "What's the best business in the world? Buy an Argentine for what he's worth and sell him for what he thinks he's worth." And: "What's the definition of ego? It's that little bit of Argentine we all have within us."
But there's certainly no need to cry for Argentines displaced in Miami. Those here, survey results suggest, are more than happy to kick back, especially at a former neighbor they might bump into at Dadeland.
An Argentine jai alai aficionado contributes this: "A wealthy [added emphasis on wealthy] Argentine landowner was giving friends a tour of his mansion. But every few seconds he'd stick his head out a window and yell, `Green side up! Green side up!' After a few such incidents, one of the friends asked what he was doing. The landowner explained, `I'm having a few Bolivians sod my yard, but I have to remind them that the green side goes up.'"
While it's true that most jokes making the rounds today seem to be aimed across national frontiers, a surprising number of local Hispanics appear to have a capacity for the self-deprecating laugh. Miami's Ecuadoreans, for example, can present this: "An Ecuadorean father and his young son sit beneath a shade tree talking to a North American journalist. As the man and the journalist speak, the boy anxiously nudges his father, who sits in his shorts, legs spread. `Papa, one of your testicles is showing,' the red-faced little boy says. The man tucks himself into place and the journalist praises the father for his son's use of the correct anatomical term rather than the more vulgar huevos, which in Spanish also means eggs. `Are you kidding?' the father says. `We're so hungry that if I'd taught him that those are huevos, he would have eaten them.'"
Venezuelans are willing to poke fun at their country's reputation for underhanded business deals: "One of the delegates at a United Nations conference asks, `Would someone please give me an honest opinion about why there's such a scarcity of meat throughout the world?' The African delegate asks, `What's meat?' The American asks, `What's scarcity?' The Cuban asks, `What's an opinion?' And the Venezuelan asks, `What's honest?'"
Nicaraguans can giggle at their own language problems: "A Nicaraguan driver is pulled over by a highway patrolman for speeding on I-95. `Do you have any idea how fast you were going?' the cop asks. `Yeah, I was going 95 miles per hour, the speed limit,' the Nica answers. `No, you dummy. That wasn't the speed limit, that was the name of the highway -- I-95.' `Oh,' replies the driver, `you should have seen me on 836.'"
Enrique Hubbard, consul general for Mexico and an accomplished jokester consulted by New Times, believes that type of self-effacing humor is typical. "The Latin American looks at himself critically," Hubbard says good-naturedly from his Coral Gables office. "At the same time he's making the joke, there's a grain of truth. It's not aggressiveness, not meant to offend. People of all nationalities like for you to tell the jokes. It's socially acceptable. So when you go to a social function, you prepare. You try to think of all the jokes pertaining to all the countries. I know I do."
That sounds definitive, and reassuring. Here, then, is one for your next function, Senor Hubbard:
The Mexican government wants to launch its own space program and advertises for an astronaut who would fly to the moon -- and live there permanently. Three applications arrive: from a Frenchman, a German, and a Mexican. Each applicant, however, attaches a demand. The Frenchman wants a million dollars so his family can survive after he blasts off. The German demands two million. The Mexican asks for three million.
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At a press conference the next day, officials announce they've chosen their fellow countryman. "Why you, who demanded the most money?" a journalist asks the new astronaut. "Well, my family is only getting one million," he replies, "because I had to bribe the government with one million so they'd give me the job, and I paid the other million to the Frenchman so he'd go in my place."
Rim shot, please.
Punch line: "But be careful not to add too much bullshit, because then you'll get a Cuban."
Punch line: "Hey, I'm gonna use the chair, too, but not until it's fixed."
Punch line: "Perch him on top of his ego and push him off."
Punch line: "We're so hungry that if I'd taught him that those are huevos, he would have eaten them.