Little Buenos Aires

It's a tropical summer night in the North Beach neighborhood of Little Buenos Aires. Silvina, a statuesque 34-year-old single mom in spandex and a navy blue sports bra, stands outside her kitchen door, sipping California white wine from a plastic cup. The humidity is total, true Miami, but Silvina doesn't sweat it.

It's almost midnight when a drug dealer on a bicycle flashes down 77th Street, which is freshly paved and lined with newly planted palm trees. From the ground up, white lights surround the palms like glowing auras. A Miami-Dade bus roars by. Two neighborhood hookers chat on the sidewalk, as casually as gossiping housewives (which they may be). Nearby, gathered on a corner, a group of Brazilians sing to the beat of their drums.

Inside Silvina's kitchen, yellow rubber cleaning gloves hang from the sink. A broom leans against a rusty refrigerator. The narrow kitchen's pink wallpaper reflects the shadows of a slowly rotating ceiling fan with light bulbs providing a warm, if tenuous, light. A CD by Los Redonditos Ricota, an Argentine rock group, is playing. Silvina's three kids -- two rambunctious adolescent boys and a three-year-old girl -- are, gratefully, fast asleep. So she is taking advantage.

Silvina lights up a Bronco brand pucho (cigarette in Argentine slang) and plops into a plastic lawn chair outside. Like a spotlight, the waning moon shines on her tanned body, on the red highlights in her dark, frazzled hair, on the painted green cement sidewalk running parallel to her apartment, and on the stairs leading to George and Andrew's pad, friends from the second floor.

Walter joins her, a young "homeless" guy from Silvina's Argentine coastal town of Miramar, in the province of Buenos Aires. Silvina starts to tell the story of how she came to Miami. It's at least the second time Walter has heard it, but he's happy to listen. Silvina's face lights up with Argentine craziness, and he feels a little less rootless, not so homesick.

"Bueno la entrada -- the entrance," Silvina begins. "I had them all laughing for days," she says, in an extended prologue to her story, exhaling smoke from her Bronco.

Walter can attest to this. So can George, Andrew, and "los chicos del siete," the guys from apartment seven -- John, Allen, John Paul, and Sean. These are Silvina's closest neighbors, and they constitute a kind of fan club; it's not too much to say they are her exile family.

Silvina left Miramar in August 1995. In a way she was trying to force Nelson, her sexy but dysfunctional husband of twelve years, to assume more responsibility. Though his job at a Pepsi factory was enough to support the family, Nelson spent most of his paycheck on himself, Silvina says. "We depended mostly on my mother, Maria," she recalls. (In Argentina Silvina, her husband, and children lived in a house on her overbearing mother's property.) In order to flee from under Maria's wing, Silvina had to radically cut loose. "I told Nelson: “Let's go to Norte America,'" she recalls with a smirk. "He said, “No.'" Silvina looks defiant, scanning the sky. "He wouldn't even leave Miramar for Buenos Aires, so you can imagine! I was tired of the cold weather. I was tired of the family bickering, of being pulled in different directions. So I said to Nelson: “Che, let's go to Miami. Let's catch some sun.'"

As it turned out, Nelson arrived a month before Silvina and the kids, got himself a job as a housepainter, and rented an efficiency in the North Beach neighborhood not yet called Little Buenos Aires.

Silvina flew from Buenos Aires with her two boys, Mathew and Anthony, then seven and five, respectively. For the trip she and the kids each strapped on a backpack and wore Eskimo-style winter jackets with hoods. (Argentina is colder than New York in winter.) "We could hardly move," she laughs. The family had to change planes in Rio de Janeiro. "It was hot in Rio," Silvina remembers. "I thought we would suffocate -- this is the part where everyone starts to laugh....

"When we arrived in Brazil, sabés como nos miraban los negros -- do you know how all the blacks looked at us? It was like we had come from another planet," Silvina says.

"I can still feel the heat wave that enveloped us as the doors slid open," she says, describing the moment they exited the airport in Rio to catch a minivan to another terminal, where they would hop a flight to Miami. Mathew stoically said, "Mom, it's hot," and then kept quiet for the rest of the trip.

Silvina and her children entered the airport shuttle like three astronauts lost in space: "Mis pibes [my kids] were sweating so much their cheeks were red," she remembers. "The shuttle was full and everyone was lightly clothed. A tall, muscular black man smiled at me as I entered the bus. I hung from the railing above and my kids hung onto me. Che, somehow the black Brazilian ended up standing behind me. His body shone with sweat."

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Lissette Corsa