Exit Philbert

Three-year-old Jorge Armenteros giggles and shrieks as he patters around barefoot on the tile floor of a Burger King in Little Havana. His brother Eric, a lanky six-year-old, happily wolfs down Chicken Tenders. French fries are scattered on the table in front of him, and ketchup is smeared on his white tank top.

Neither of them, nor Jorge's twin sister Raquel, knows that their dad Philbert might never come home again. And their mom, Luz Preciado, wants it to stay that way. "I tell them that their dad went on a trip," she says. "I want them to keep the good image they have of him. He's their role model."

Philbert Armenteros is a singer and percussionist best known for his throbbing, hypnotic rhythms rooted in Afro-Cuban tradition. He has performed and recorded with internationally renowned acts such as Don Dinero and Yerba Buena. And his burly six-foot-three frame and gold-tooth smile are fixtures in Miami's Latin music scene, where he has played with numerous groups, among them Palo!, the Nag Champayons, and his own band, Aina.

Music is not only a job but also a form of worship for Armenteros, a Santería priest who has played regularly at drumming ceremonies, where he beckoned the gods to Earth with fierce batá rhythms.

Now Armenteros, who has a green card and has lived in the United States for more than a decade, has been detained by immigration officials and is facing deportation. The 28-year-old has been at the Krome Detention Center since this past August 10. The apparent reason: He pled guilty to stealing three polo shirts and a couple of sweater vests from a Dillard's department store more than seven years ago.

"It's really ridiculous," says Anna Bryant, who tends bar at Jazid, a hip South Beach club where Armenteros played regularly. "So many people who live in this country do much worse things and only get a slap on the wrist. If he leaves, we're losing a really amazing person and a great musician. And what for?"

Armenteros was born in late Seventies Havana and early on discovered his twin passions -- Santería and music. His family was made up of santeros, or Santería priests. And his great grandmother, Mercedes Alfredo, danced and sang with the well-known rumba group Clave y Guaguanco, as well on Radio Cadena Havana and at Santería ceremonies. She served as Armenteros's spiritual guide and taught him music and dance while he was still a toddler. By age five, he was performing at ceremonies and festivals. He continued to drum and sing his way through Cuba until moving to Miami eleven years ago.

Almost as soon as he arrived here, Armenteros began getting into trouble. In December 1995, police picked him up for shoplifting, but the charges were eventually dropped. Seven months later, police charged him with possession of one joint and a small package of cocaine, according to court documents. This time he was released without a trial on the condition that he complete a drug treatment program, which he eventually did.

For a while Armenteros steered clear of the law. Then, on January 16, 1998, he walked into a Dillard's department store in Broward toting a gift box covered in green Christmas wrapping. The box had a slit on one side, and Armenteros shoved three polo shirts and two sweater vests, valued at $365, into it. He then attempted to leave, but an officer nabbed him outside the store. In March of that year, Armenteros pled guilty to grand theft and received three years' probation. Grand theft is considered an aggravated felony, a deportable offense, according to a 1996 federal law.

Homeland Security spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez wouldn't specify why Armenteros has been detained, but Preciado says it's because of the Dillard's incident.

In August 1998, Armenteros was arrested again for violating probation by smoking marijuana and failing to pay fines. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail. During this turbulent period, Armenteros met Preciado at a Santería drumming ceremony in Naples, Florida. She was seventeen years old and pretty, with soft, almond-shape eyes and a smattering of freckles sprinkled across her round face. "We started talking, and we hit it off right away," Preciado says. Within months, she was pregnant. And in July 1999, when Armenteros was 21 years old, their eldest son, Eric, arrived. In August 2002, Preciado gave birth again, this time to the twins, Jorge and Raquel.

For the first five years, the couple's relationship was bumpy, but Preciado says Armenteros was always a deeply devoted father. There were no new criminal charges, and his musical career flourished. He also began helping to organize music showcases, such as the Afro Roots World Music Festival, and became involved in projects to educate people about traditional Cuban music and culture, particularly his religion, Santería. He wrote regularly for Olofin.com, an online Santería magazine, and he recently made a presentation at Florida International University. "His goal is to dissolve fear," says José Elias, who plays guitar in Armenteros's band.

Armenteros began teaching his own children Afro-Cuban music and dance while they were still in diapers, and took them to Cuba to be initiated as santeros when Eric was three and the twins were five months old. He returned to Cuba with the children in May 2004 for ritual animal sacrifices, which he believed would protect them. During the trip, Preciado says, thieves broke into Armenteros's rental car and snatched his Sony digital camera along with his passport and green card.

When he returned to the United States, Armenteros was issued a temporary green card, which was good for only one year. In late June of this year -- less than two months before he was detained -- he bought a three-bedroom house on NW 56th Street near Eighteenth Avenue for his family. Around the same time, his band, Aina, found a weekly gig at Jazid. Employees there describe Armenteros as a sort of gentle giant. "He's a great big guy with almost frighteningly large hands," says bartender Anna Bryant. "But he's always smiling and polite, and he never drinks."

On August 10, Armenteros went to an Immigration Services office to renew the temporary green card, according to Preciado. That's when he was detained. Hours later, he called Preciado and told her, but she didn't believe him. "I thought it was a joke," she says. "He told me he was serious, and I burst into tears. But I still didn't believe it was really true."

Soon, Preciado says, she was flooded with phone calls from Armenteros's fans and fellow musicians, some of them strangers, offering help. Many who had hired him to play at Santería drumming rituals offered to postpone their events until Armenteros was free. Aina continues to play its weekly Jazid gig but has drawn sparser crowds.

Armenteros's fate remains an open question. His first deportation hearing, held September 22, was inconclusive. It's unclear what will happen if the judge rules against Armenteros, since the United States rarely deports people to Cuba.

Meanwhile, Armenteros missed the twins' birthday August 24. Preciado is struggling to keep the family afloat while holding down a job as a receptionist. Finances are tight. And she says all of the children have begun wetting their beds again. "Everybody makes mistakes," Preciado remarks wearily. "Philbert's paying for his. But it's not just consequences for him. It's a consequence for everyone."

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Mariah Blake
Contact: Mariah Blake

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