By Michael E. Miller
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By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Clerveaux loses some of his upbeat and jovial tone as he touches on the disparities between the treatment of national groups. His handsome face and almond eyes seem to dim as his big, warm smile disappears. "Can you imagine," he shakes his head from left to right, "sometimes they have Haitians in the same boat as Cubans and they say 'OK, you can stay' to the Cubans, but the Haitians have to go back."
A fan whirs in his windowless back office. It's warm, but Clerveaux appears cool in a crisp, white, linen shirt.
"There's an assumption that if you're a Haitian, all you want to do is come here to work, and if you're Cuban, you're a political prisoner," he says. "That's nonsense.
"We're not asking that they take away the [Cubans'] benefits," he continues. "And we're also not asking that they take in every refugee. But you don't just return somebody without hearing his case. This is America, where people fleeing persecution are given a chance."
Ultimately, recent immigrants say, they have more urgent matters to discuss than Fidel's health. Guatemalans face mass deportations as longstanding petitions for political asylum are being rejected wholesale by the federal government. Mexicans have ongoing economic problems that have prompted them to leave their homeland. And Venezuelans have Hugo Chávez.
The old-world ambience inside Lirio's Italian Deli & Restaurant seems somehow out of place amid all the sterile stucco of Weston. Whereas the town tries too hard with its unrelenting pastels, palm trees, and Mediterranean-style strip malls, Lirio's dispatches sidewalk tables and a simple wooden coffee bar to achieve a more convincing European feel. It's the kind of place where regular patrons hang out for hours. A salad may lead to a glass of wine, then dinner, more wine, and an espresso to cap it all off. On the way out, customers grab containers of homemade alfredo, pesto, and marinara sauces sitting in a fridge and ready to take home.
The atmosphere in the café is genuinely friendly, with Italo-Venezuelan owner Lirio Casino stopping at tables to chat in English, Italian, or Spanish, depending upon the customer.
Casino considers herself to be an apolitical person who looks for the positive in life. Yet she's here in Florida because of politics. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1998, Casino got a bad feeling. Like much of the middle and upper classes in Venezuela, she decided it would be safer to leave the country. Her lifelong friends are now spread around the world, living in voluntary exile.
"Venezuela is lost there's nothing that can be done about it," she says in soft, fast-paced Spanish. "He [Chávez] could have made a better Venezuela. With all that money and oil, it should be a rich country like Switzerland. Instead, he broke up families."
Although she misses Venezuela terribly, Casino simply doesn't want any negativity in her life, she says. Living in Caracas right now, she feels, would be toxic. The same goes for the news she sees too frequently on the television about Chávez's buddy and idol, Fidel Castro. To Casino, it's an old, tired story.
"Let him go already," she complains. "It's been the same music for 50 years now."
Casino stirs a straw slowly in her soft drink and exchanges a few quick comments with two Venezuelan women sitting at an adjacent table. One of those women is Carmela Tillero, whose rimless eyeglasses and stable of Spanish adages give her an academic air. She has just finished teaching an Italian lesson over bruschetta and glasses of red wine.
Tillero came to Florida 23 years ago, so she has had her fill of talk about Castro. She couldn't care in the least when or if he dies. "I'm extremely tired of hearing about his illness. But it's not Castro's fault the blame falls on the Cuban TV coverage in South Florida," she says in Spanish. "It seems like they have nothing better to think about, and by talking about him so much, they make him out to be this great man."
She sees the same thing happening with Chávez.
"Every time somebody says something about Chávez, he seizes the opportunity to go on television and talk about it for four hours. [The media is] making Chávez a symbol like they did with Castro."
It's that awkward time between lunch and dinner at the Borinqueya Restaurant on Stirling Road when hardly anyone is eating. Rain is falling hard on the Western-themed buildings and other remnants of the downhome horse culture that Davie is famous for, so the strip-mall restaurant is near empty.
Soon enough, though, a handful of customers gather at the counter and order a round of Puerto Rican comfort food. The mood is congenial, and everyone seems to know one another. There's a sassy, Jersey-raised Cuban gal working the register and a Puerto Rican father-son duo that runs the joint.
For a small group in the restaurant, they manage to represent most of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
Music videos flash across the TV behind the bar, moving seamlessly from Puerto Rican salsa to Mexican pop. The diners dig into soupy meat dishes like carne guisado and hearty mounds of mashed plantain-and-garlic mofongo.