Why Can't Barack Obama Speak English?
A wake of astonishment follows him through Miami International Airport on a windy Friday, 27 days before Election Day. A blond businesswoman with a cell phone glued to her cheek halts her hurried stride. "I think I just saw Bar ..." she exhales into the phone, but can't bring herself to finish the declaration. She joins a growing crowd stalking the entourage from a safe distance.
"That's the man!" yells one of a pair of airport workers, bounding down an escalator after spotting him.
Outside the airport's miniature version of Versailles restaurant, shrieks of "Barack!" and "Obama!" ring out, and the candidate, standing in line while a bearded, forbidding Secret Service agent purchases a bottle of water, is briefly engulfed by a now-familiar commotion.
He shakes a dozen hands and kisses a baby as airport employees from around the terminal come running. Camera phones emerge from seemingly every pocket.
A few bystanders wonder, "Why is Obama traveling with only one Secret Service agent?" The whole airport is locked down by other agents, reassures a journalist flanking the entourage.
The senator, most likely exhausted, seems to communicate mostly through peace signs, although he leans toward a few people's ears and utters — in a deep, deliberate voice — a slogan: "Believe in yourself. Believe in change."
The blond businesswoman, Amy Kelly, finally allows herself to admit her sighting. "That's something I'm going to tell my kids," she says. "I saw Obama."
A half-hour later, he's meandering through the sparsely populated halls of Dolphin Mall. The hands of a woman managing a beauty products kiosk tremble when she sees the senator reading the ingredients on the back of one of her facial creams. A Dutch tourist asks the candidate if he knows where Outdoor World is. A few minutes later, when the Dutchman and his wife realize who he is, they nearly melt with excitement. "Super!" they yell in unison.
"In the Netherlands, we are very proud of Obama," the husband explains.
A neck-craning mall security guard riding a Segway scooter follows the shifting mob of photo-takers and handshakers, but more out of his own fandom than any attempt to keep order. When the crowd dissipates, the guard quietly asks if he can have a photo with the senator. "Nobody told me he was coming," the guard says. "I was doing my report and — whoa!"
As Obama poses for pictures, he turns so that only his right side faces the lens. On the left, a slight but noticeable scar, long and thin, runs from his hairline to his temple. Perhaps this is an imperfection a makeup artist usually conceals.
But doesn't the senator have a mole near his left nostril? And on this day, Obama's famous grin seems to gleam a bit less brightly than usual; his teeth appear more brown than most photos show.
But it's unmistakably the figure — tall, lean, straight-backed — and the face — high forehead, firm chin, low-sloping eyebrows, those big ears — that has inundated television this election season.
After the wave of fans dissipates, Obama wanders into an FYE record store and silently contemplates the back of a Sex and the City: The Movie DVD. An employee, Zingah Wright, too excited to form much in the way of sentences, walks up to him carrying a cereal-box-size talking Obama doll. It's newly arrived merchandise. The senator and the employee cradle his likeness as a camera flashes. While the doll prattles on about America's destiny, the real-life version remains curiously tight-lipped.
Has the candidate contracted laryngitis?
On his way out of the mall, Obama and entourage traverse a food court, where the frenzy hits its shrill apex. Hair-netted employees of Chinese-food stands call him by name, offering chunks of glazed chicken on toothpicks (which he gracefully declines with a wave of the hand). A table of Sbarro-eating Republicans boos and flashes a thumbs-down signal. Two teenage girls, flush with baby fat and the word "Pink" emblazoned across the rears of their velour shorts, jump up and down like they've met the lead singer of Maroon 5. "Oh my God! Thank you so much!" one screams as she captures Obama on her neon camera phone.
"We were at Denny's, eating," explains the girl, who just turned 18, "and then we got a call, like, 'Obama's at Dolphin!' We were like —"
"Oh my God!" assists her friend.
"I ran over here; I came running with my car," continues the first breathless girl. "I almost crashed, like, 50 people!"
But a young Trinidadian tourist, who gives her name only as Anna, has managed a brief conversation with her hero. She smiles coyly. "Tell him not to talk," she says. "He sounds Latin."
In fact, Gerardo Puisseaux was born in Cuba, with forebears of Haitian descent. He warmly greets a visitor in the reception area at the Hialeah studios of Spanish-language TV channel América TeVé. He is between takes of a sketch show, so he's in costume: a dark suit and a big mole plastered next to his left nostril. Sure there are a few imperfections: the scar on the temple, the smile, and a gold watch that dangles tackily from his right wrist. But these details do little to diminish that first impression: He doesn't just look like him; they share the same damn face.
And Puisseaux says that when he's playing his doppelganger, he "think[s] like Obama." Indeed, today there is something of a politician in his gait and mannerisms.
He's as casually intimate as a candidate on the campaign trail, prone to gently grabbing a knee, elbow, or shoulder as he speaks. And he makes eye contact so intense you might suspect he's trying to gauge your soul or calculate your mortgage. Of course, these traits of intimacy were hallmarks of Latin American culture before they were American political techniques.
"Gerardo is a little heavier than Obama, which you notice when you're up close," says former Hialeah mayor and congressional candidate Raul Martinez, who counts both men as friends. "But from 20 feet away, I've never met two men that look so much the same."
Adds Damian Romay, an executive producer at América TeVé: "The only difference is, I think he's missing some teeth, so he tries to not smile. He's angry Obama."
Puisseaux sidles through a sleekly designed lunchroom. Resting around him are fellow actors — niche stars with plucked eyebrows and concrete hairdos — drinking midafternoon coladas. A few greet Puisseaux politely, referring to him only as "Obama."
With men, he is decorous, constantly offering a cigarette or to fetch a cup of coffee. With women, he's a harmless Lothario, full of winks, grins, and thumbs-up symbols. In a span of 10 minutes, he declares that three actresses and a cafeteria worker are each "the most beautiful woman in América TeVé."
He eventually reports to his workplace, which today is a small set where actors have gathered around a boardroom table. A track running down the center guides a digital camera. The sketch being filmed is an example of the bizarre slapstick that characterizes Spanish-language comedy: It's a spoof of Donald Trump's The Apprentice. The billionaire is played by a dwarf, of course, wearing a giant orange wig, and he has decided to choose the next president based on audience vote. Among the actors at the table, a light-skinned man with hair sprayed white is stuffing his cheeks with cotton balls to achieve the John McCain look.
Puisseaux winks at a buxom woman wearing a bob haircut, eyeglasses, and a camouflage T-shirt; she's América TeVé's homage to Sarah Palin. To a reporter he whispers, with sincerity befitting a presidential candidate, "This is the most beautiful woman in América TeVé."
Before leaving Cuba for the United States in 2001, Gerardo Puisseaux earned less than $20 a month as a factory worker. He lived with his wife Hortensia in a tiny apartment in the Marianao section of Havana. His ex-wife and two kids, then ages 7 and 8, lived just a few doors down the street.
The laid-back Puisseaux is not the type to launch into rants against the Castro brothers. But he finds no romanticism in the poverty of his homeland. "For many people, it was a hard decision to leave Cuba. Not for me," he says. "In Cuba, you work and work and work, and you still have nothing."
Gerardo and Hortensia won a coveted spot in what's known as the Cuban lottery, which awards 20,000 Cubans permanent resident visas in America every year. The Puisseauxs were flown to Seattle, where Gerardo found work on various construction sites before getting a permanent gig applying dry wall. Hortensia got a job as a receptionist at Boeing, the aviation company famous for coddling its employees. It seemed the couple had bypassed the great struggle that usually accompanies immigration.
Puisseaux knew roughly 30 words in English. "My boss would be working on a ladder, and he'd ask me to get a hammer. I'd go like this, he says, and gives a thumbs-up symbol and a wide grin. "I didn't know what a hammer was. My boss would say, 'That's great. Can I have a hammer now?'"
But his new employers were patient, and with the help of some Mexican-Americans, Puisseaux's English steadily improved. Soon he earned a spot in the local union and began making a relative fortune: $27 an hour. Every month, he sent hundreds of dollars to his ex-wife in Havana to raise the kids. "In two years, I helped my family with more money than I did in 38 years before," he says.
It was in Seattle where strangers began stopping Puisseaux on the street to clutch his hands and congratulate him on his most recent eloquence in Chicago or New York or D.C. These incidents began in earnest after Barack Obama made the now-famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But Puisseaux knew nothing about it. "They would stop me and say, 'Oh, Mr. Obama, thank you,'" he says. "Sometimes I'd be a little scared. I'd think, What is Obama?"
Puisseaux fell in love with Seattle but felt far from home in a city devoid of Cubans. Then there was the cold, gray weather. "Seattle is beautiful," he says, "but it snows."
So in April, Puisseaux transferred to a different union in Tampa. Hortensia quit her job, confident she'd find something in the new town. Perhaps they pushed their luck. Florida suffers no shortage of immigrant labor, and when he reported to his union office, he learned his salary had been cut to $13.75 per hour.
Insulted, Puisseaux quit the union and moved to Miami to stake his claim in the Cuban-American construction industry. He titled his start-up business — really just a back seat full of supplies — Felo Drywall, after his Spanish nickname. But he had no industry contacts in Florida and couldn't scare up clients. Making matters worse, Hortensia couldn't land a job here.
But people continued to remind him of his likeness to Obama. There was the driver who, idling beside Puisseaux's car as he waited for a light to change on NW 135th Street, jumped out and tapped on his window for an autograph. The unlikelihood that a senator in the throes of a primary might be tooling around town alone in a '96 Ford Escort, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, didn't phase this man.
Like many Americans, Puisseaux first saw Obama's face during primary season. He was watching the news when the senator's image appeared onscreen. At that point, Obama was just one of several Democratic candidates in a crowded pre-primary field. "I felt, right then, a connection," Puisseaux says, tapping his heart after apologizing for his grandiosity. "I told my wife: 'That man's going to win. I know it.' She told me: 'You're crazy.'"
Hortensia was less interested in any ethereal connection than in how they might capitalize. Their Miami Lakes apartment cost $950 a month, and Felo Drywall seemed to be fatally stalled. Relatives urged Puisseaux to turn his face into a hustle. "We were all pushing him to do something with it," says stepson Roberto Tormo, who lives in Tampa. "We hoped he might be able to make some money off it."
Puisseaux was reluctant. He shies away from confrontation and is not a showman. Those encounters with mistaken Obama-philes unnerved more than inspired him. But one April afternoon, he relented.
He didn't have much of a plan. He drove to the studios of América TeVé — chosen simply because the complex is close to his apartment — and approached the first person to emerge through the doors. "Excuse me," Puisseaux announced in Spanish. "People say I look like Barack Obama."
If Puisseaux was hoping for a quick rebuff, he was out of luck. He had snagged Carlos Otero, host of Pellízcame Que Estoy Soñando, or translated to English, Pinch Me I'm Dreaming — a variety show that peddles wacky lowbrow comedy sketches specializing in gratuitous use of dwarves, fat guys, and busty, bikini-clad women. Puisseaux's simple gag would fit right in.
Otero sternly told Puisseaux to stay put and forbade him from speaking to any other host or producer who might walk from the building. He went back inside and returned with Damian Romay, the station's executive producer of programming.
Recalls Romay: "I was like, 'Yeah, he looks like Obama.'"
And with that, the larva of a career in $100-a-gig show biz was hatched.
Like Puisseaux, Otero and Romay didn't overplan. That night they put him in a business suit and planted him in the audience of Pellízcame, hoping to gauge the crowd's reaction. The amiable viewers went wild when Barack Obama jumped from his seat midshow.
Romay couldn't promise him steady work, but Puisseaux needed a regular paycheck. So they worked out a unique agreement. Puisseaux would work on the station's maintenance crew for up to 40 hours a week — painting walls, fixing props, repairing tiles, and any other physical task that needed to be done. But when production needed "Obama," he'd be yanked to perform.
His maintenance job paid $8 per hour (he recently got a raise to $10). And there wasn't much hope of a pay raise for his acting — even role actors who have been at the station for years make the $100-per-appearance scale. But Puisseaux had no better alternative. And he had begun to harbor aspirations of, after cleaning up his English and taking a few acting classes that the station periodically offers, ending up on a national sketch-comedy show such as Saturday Night Live or MADtv. So he accepted the unusual offer.
After a few more in-studio appearances, Romay decided to take Puisseaux off studio grounds. For a segment titled "A Day with Obama," Romay piled Puisseaux, two actors dressed as Secret Service agents, and a cameraman into a black SUV. Their destinations: tourist magnet Bayside Marketplace and famed Cuban lair Versailles.
The populace was fooled: Puisseaux was cursed by a Hillary supporter, moistened by women crying on his shoulder, and, once they arrived at Republicano-hasta-muerte Versailles, chased from the property. "Their security people told us we should leave because people might think he's the real Obama and try to stab him," Romay says. "We got scared and left."
The excursion was considered a mild success. Romay says the show's ratings didn't get much of a boost, but it was a cheap way to eat five programming minutes. Puisseaux, although a bit overwhelmed, enjoyed taking a day off from his maintenance work.
And then, a few days before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, a producer of América TeVé's news division contacted Romay. They had a couple of extra credentials. Would he and "Obama" like to tag along?
It was at the convention when Puisseaux realized he had slammed face-first into a global cultural Zeitgeist. The experience would scare the shit out of him.
The frenzy began on the American Airlines plane ride to Denver. A woman sitting next to Romay tapped him on the shoulder and asked if that was Barack Obama snoozing next to him. Romay explained that he was, in fact, a look-alike.
The woman wasn't satisfied. "She said, 'No, that's Barack!'" Romay recalls. "She was sure Obama was sitting in coach."
From the moment Puisseaux landed in the Colorado capital, from the airport to the hotel, whether he was wearing a suit or not, he was hounded. "He can walk around unnoticed," says Romay, "but once one person says, 'That's Obama!' — all of a sudden we have a thousand people around us."
During shoots at Invesco Field, Puisseaux became terrified of the crowds of believers who surrounded him. "Too much, too much," Puisseaux says of the experience. "Everybody was touching me and hugging me and yelling, 'Obama! Obama!' I felt like I was losing myself, my identity."
Says Romay: "He's a person who has a hard time saying no to anybody, and here he has hundreds of people swarming him, asking him for autographs and photos."
Though Puisseaux hasn't yet gained the right to vote, he had read up on Obama and had come to admire him. Puisseaux began to think his charade degraded the senator. "He refused to do anything that he felt disrespected Obama," Romay says. That included Romay's idea of Puisseaux standing in a median and holding a sign reading "Will Be President for Food."
And Puisseaux felt gravely dishonest for deceiving Obama's earnest supporters. They would clutch his frame and tearfully confess their deepest fears in a language he has yet to master. They would talk about their houses in foreclosure or their children in Iraq. At one point, Puisseaux leaned into the embrace of an especially moved fan and whispered, "Woman, I am not Obama. But if he was here, he would hug you."
By the second day in Denver, Puisseaux refused to exit the satellite truck. "He was completely stressed," Romay says. "He was chain-smoking like a chimney and calling his wife every 10 minutes.... He also has that Cuban macho thing. He says, 'I don't like taking orders. I'm not a trained monkey.' My other actors do whatever I say. If I say put on a wig and jump around, they will, no questions asked."
Despite Puisseaux's reluctance, Romay gathered good footage. Puisseaux, who was interviewed by the New York Times, Denver Post, Inside Edition, and TV stations from Japan and Germany, achieved worldwide fame, if only for a day or two. And he earned a new nickname from bloggers: Faux-bama.
Puisseaux now claims he enjoyed the trip, especially his handshake with Ted Kennedy, who he says momentarily mistook him for his senate colleague. Puisseaux had carefully rehearsed the line he fed Kennedy: "I gratefully accept my party's nomination for president of the United States."
But when the crew returned from the tumultuous journey, Puisseaux resigned. "As soon as we got back," Romay recalls, "he said, 'I don't want to go out as Obama anymore. I'll work maintenance full-time.'"
They reached a compromise. Instead of taking his act outside, Puisseaux would work only on the Apprentice spoof and other in-house sketches. Puisseaux was pleased. Before he leads New Times through Miami International and Dolphin malls, he says he will do no more outings as Obama. Then he adds, "If they think it's Obama, it's a lie."
"Sometimes I think my life is worse because I look like Obama," laments Puisseaux, holed up on a Monday afternoon in his and Hortensia's small but immaculate one-bedroom apartment.
Puisseaux is prone to pendulum-like mood swings. And yesterday his Escort grinded to a smoky halt and had to be towed to a mechanic. This minor disaster, preventing him from reporting to work, has propelled him into an unforgiving assessment of his life.
He is broke, misses his kids, and is stressed by his acting career. Strangely, he has taken to comparing the progress of his life to that of Senator Obama — with predictably pathetic results. "Barack Obama has his life under control," he says. "He went to Harvard. He's a lawyer. He's rich. When he goes home to Illinois, he goes to a big house and hugs his kids. He's a smart man. He's a great man."
"Not me," Puisseaux concludes.
His children watch Pellízcame at the home of a neighboring family with outlaw cable in Havana, and Puisseaux has become something of a superstar dad among kids in their neighborhood. But their inflated opinion only makes Puisseaux feel shame at his three years without a visit and his inability to send more money home. "They see me on TV and they think, Whoa!" he says. "They think I'm living the high life. Are my kids proud of me? They tell me yes. But I don't agree. I'm supposed to do more for them."
Puisseaux hasn't ditched the doppelganger hustle, though. In fact he has turned up the gas, trying to find work outside América TeVé. When he is offered a ride in a car, the first place he wants to go is a hair salon where he has an appointment to trim his budding 'fro back into "The Obama." He is getting head shots made, and he has auditioned at a talent agency that specializes in look-alikes: Famous Faces, in Fort Lauderdale.
"Isn't he so amazing?" gushes Mickey Anderson, a scout at the agency. "He's very good as far as looks, although he has a bit of a Hispanic accent."
She lists the types of gigs he might get: "Corporate events, award banquets, political luncheons."
"I know this is money," Puisseaux says, squeezing his face at the cheeks. "I need to make as much as I can before November 4."
His mood swings to optimism a few days later when he travels to an appointment with another talent agency, One Source Talent in Aventura. As the name implies, it's a mass supplier of low-level actors and singers, the sort of place that threatens to cancel prospective clients' appointments if they show up wearing flip-flops.
Puisseaux casually arrives 10 minutes late for a group audition, straggling in alongside an aspiring reggaeton heartthrob and a child actress. As a catty talent wrangler looks up his booking, a misunderstanding arises because of Puisseaux's poor English. Soon he's indignant, asking for the name of a supervisor with whom he spoke earlier. "That was a national call center," the wrangler haughtily declares. "I'm Amber. And you're done. You're not auditioning today."
Puisseaux spins on his feet and walks out as one of the receptionists chides, "Fake-ass Barack Obama!"
But outside in the parking lot, Puisseaux is relieved. "I'm happy that happened, so I don't have to spend my time," he says. "I don't need that."
Then he utters what might be described as the Tao of Faux-bama: "Everything in my life, I want it to come to me. I don't want anything complicated. I want 'You impersonate Obama for me, how much do you want, here's $300, thank you.'" (Miami New Times paid him $250 for a photo shoot and the excursion through the airport and mall — after he requested $1,000.)
For Puisseaux, much hinges on the results tallied on Election Day. His acting career at América TeVé will likely be finished if Obama loses. And, Puisseaux fears, so might his maintenance job. "They don't say that," he says of the possibility that he might be fired, "but I think so."
(His maintenance boss, Jose Gonzalez, chuckles at the notion: "Nobody has said a word about that to me.")
Conversely, if Obama becomes president, Puisseaux foresees an entirely new realm of possibility opening. Even while stricken by self-pity, he harbors an outlandish dream, ripped from the plot of the 1993 movie Dave: that he might be hired as a decoy for President Obama. "Maybe the Secret Service calls me to come do dangerous work protecting my country. They give me a lot of money and give me an award," he riffs, pinning an imaginary medal on his chest. "I'll be a hero to the country. That's the American dream, man!"
Back at Dolphin Mall, Obama has shaken the crowds and now stands in the parking lot, suit jacket off, shirt sleeves rolled up, smoking a Marlboro. He looks ragged and a bit exhausted.
An older Cuban woman, Sylvia Casas, is walking by with her grown son Saul and her granddaughter when her heart appears to momentarily stop. She approaches cautiously, and her eyes tear up as she explains to the smoking man: "I'm a citizen just yesterday, to vote for you. You touch my soul."
After a couple of photos, she skips off, her step lively. Saul Casas seems skeptical, but he doesn't say anything to kill his mom's buzz. "Barack Obama!" she screams to the sky, hopping like a woman 50 years younger. "I love you!"
Why is one of the most important people in the world holding court by a Honda Civic flanked by a scruffy entourage of four? At this moment, it doesn't matter. Sylvia Casas wants to believe.
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