Caminero was born September 7, 1962, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. President Rafael Trujillo had just been assassinated the year before. Caminero's father had spent time in jail for criticizing the strongman and had been forced to flee to Buenos Aires for three years. He returned only after Trujillo's death.

investors dropped more than a half-billion dollars at Art Basel. But just a fraction of that went to local artists.

But the dictator's shadow still loomed over the small Caribbean country. Trujillo's chosen successor, Joaquín Balaguer, soon took over. Caminero grew up in a peaceful middle-class neighborhood called Los Prados on the edge of the city. But political opposition leaders kept disappearing, and police detained passersby for no reason. Máximo learned not to talk about his father's exile.

If Dominican politics were claustrophobic, Los Prados was not. Caminero escaped for hours into the plains. Summer rains formed dirty lakes, which Caminero and other boys used as swimming pools. "It was wide open," he says. "It was where I first tasted freedom."

Máximo Caminero inside his studio at 77th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
Michael E. Miller
Máximo Caminero inside his studio at 77th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
Ai Weiwei's Breaking a Han Dynasty Urn, which Caminero says he took as "a provocation by Weiwei to join him in an act of performance protest."
Michael E. Miller
Ai Weiwei's Breaking a Han Dynasty Urn, which Caminero says he took as "a provocation by Weiwei to join him in an act of performance protest."

It was also where Caminero had his first brush with death. He was 6 years old and had gone swimming with friends. But the other boys ran off, and Máximo could feel his feet slip in the mud. The water rose to his chin, then his mouth. Suddenly, a pair of dark hands grabbed him from behind and pulled him out of the pool.

"It was a poor kid, a black kid," Caminero remembers. "He saved my life. He showed me another humanity."

There would be many other near-death experiences for Caminero. Eleven, by his count. The second came during a drunken teen outing, when Caminero fell from the back of a pickup truck as it careened around a corner. He landed on his head and heard something snap, but stood up and walked away. The third was a motorcycle accident in which Caminero narrowly avoided breaking his neck.

With each incident, the quiet kid became more pensive, even spiritual. He was always drawing, scratching out quick caricatures of his friends to coax a laugh. But Caminero also began to paint strange cubist scenes that shocked his private-school teachers.

Art didn't pay the rent, though, and there were few other jobs in Santo Domingo, so Caminero tried out for the army. He easily passed the physical and written exams but skipped a final interview with a group of generals. He was 20 years old and wanted to paint, not plot coups.

Soon after sabotaging his military career, Caminero met a fiery woman named Rosanna. At first, the 18-year-old didn't think much of the shy artist with the startling hazel eyes. But Caminero pursued her with a steady intensity.

"He was my first love, my first man," Rosanna remembers. "When you fall in love when you are teenagers, you think you have the world in your hands."

They married against their parents' wishes, and when Máximo received American residency, the couple moved to New York City. The artist found a job in a metal factory making windows and doors. But New York seemed cold compared to Santo Domingo, and Máximo and Rosanna soon moved to the only other place where they knew Dominicans in the United States: Miami. Rosanna was pregnant with their first child, and the parents-to-be rented a room with a bare mattress from an old Cuban lady in North Miami Beach.

Caminero worked nights at Flanigan's, listening to folk music and writing a novel while selling bottles of booze. When he arrived home, Rosanna and baby Maxiell would be asleep, so Caminero would stay up until dawn painting on the tiny apartment's balcony.

His canvases gradually grew bigger and bolder. Some were chaotic swirls of expressionistic color. Others were cluttered with symbols and figures — the language in which Caminero explored issues of race, conquest, and colonialism in the Caribbean.

It was 1988, and South Beach looked like a bombed-out city. More shops were shuttered than open along Lincoln Road. And the few art galleries that existed weren't interested in Caminero's creations. A gallery in Puerto Rico began selling his paintings, however, and the occasional checks helped cover a move to Allapattah.

It was there that Caminero had his last brush with death. He was running when he suddenly fainted. As a friend dialed 911, Caminero could sense himself drifting toward a warm, uterine light. But then he thought of Maxiell and his other daughter, baby Leana. Caminero turned away from the glow and came back to life.

The episode scared him. He began spending more time with his daughters. The three of them would meditate together, lying on the floor and listening to Middle Eastern music. "It was my sister on his right arm, me on his left arm. We'd all stare up at the ceiling and just kind of live in that moment, side by side," Leana says. "Those little things just made my father's day."

Caminero also redoubled his devotion to art. He rented a small crumbling studio at NE 77th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, where he would spend hours before and after work. It paid off. He sold only five or six paintings a year for about $2,000 each, but for the first time he felt like a professional artist.

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