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Puisseaux winks toward a buxom woman wearing glasses, a camouflage T-shirt, and her hair in a bob; she's América TeVe's homage to Sarah Palin. To a reporter, he whispers, with sincerity befitting a presidential candidate, "This is the most beautiful, beautiful woman in América TeVe."
Before leaving Havana 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 Maria Bao section of Havana. His ex-wife and two kids, then aged 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 Puisseauxes flew to Seattle, where Gerardo found work on various construction sites before getting a permanent gig applying drywall. Hortensia got a job as a receptionist at Boeing, the flight 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.
It was in Seattle that 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 Washington, D.C. These incidents began in earnest after Barack Obama made his now-famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But Puisseaux knew nothing about that. "They would stop me and say, 'Oh, Mr. Obama, thank you,' " he says now. "Sometimes, I'd be a little scared. I'd think, 'What is Obama?' "
Puisseaux fell in love with Seattle, but he 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 Florida. Perhaps they pushed their luck. Florida suffers no shortage of immigrant labor, and when he reported to his union office, he found that his salary had been cut to $13.75 per hour.
Insulted, Puisseaux quit the union and moved to Miami. He created a start-up construction business — really just a backseat full of supplies. He named it 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.
But people continued to remind Gerardo 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 in Miami, 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 faze this man.
Like many Americans, Puisseaux first saw Obama's face during primary season. "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 Gerardo to turn his face into a hustle.
Puisseaux was reluctant. He's not a showman. Those encounters with mistaken Obamaphiles 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 TeVe — chosen simply because the complex is close to his apartment. He confronted the first person to emerge from 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 Pellizcame Que Estoy Soñando, or Pinch Me I'm Dreaming. The variety show peddles wacky, low-brow comedy sketches with 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 out of the building. He went back inside and re-emerged with Damian Romay, the station's executive producer of programming.