Adiós, Fidel

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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.

What does this group think about Castro?

"That man has to die," says the young Cuban woman. "I'm Cuban — my family went through a lot." Then she walks out the door — her shift is over.

Everyone else looks uncomfortable. They don't like the topic, and they're afraid that their comments could be misconstrued.

Sigfredo González, the restaurant's spry chef and owner, decides to play the diplomat, explaining carefully between winces that he has many Cuban-American friends. And the two islands have so much in common: music (i.e., salsa) and sports (i.e., baseball). They speak alike, sharing some vocabulary that many other Spanish speakers might not even recognize. Even their flags are easily confused.

In other words, González doesn't want to offend anyone.

Yet there are no commercial flights between San Juan and Havana. And the political scenario on the islands, with Puerto Rico a protectorate of the United States, is night and day.

So, it's not that González isn't interested in what's going on in Cuba. It's just that he feels there are so many other issues in the world that need to be covered too. "You can't avoid the news about Castro — it's on the Latin channels. And being Latino, you pay attention to what's going on in the economies and politics of Latin America. But we're very Americanized."

A few doors down in the same shopping center, New York's Finest Barber Shop is buzzing with activity. A chorus of electronic hair clippers whirs to service almost a dozen clients as salsa music blares from a flat-screen TV.

The barbers have nicknames like "Chino" (Chinaman), "Flako" (Skinny Dude) and "Rey" (King). The crowd is mostly roughnecks in new kicks — with the sneaker of choice being black or white Reeboks. Lots of baggy pants and sideways-worn hats. It's the kind of place where a street-smart young macho can get a perfect fade and carefully carved chin-strap. The hair is cut close to the scalp, and the beards are thin lines that hug the jawline.

It's a little slice of the South Bronx in the heart of redneck country.

Jeffrey Padín, 29, used to cut hair here, but now he just comes in to hang with the guys. Even though he's been living in Florida for eight years, the Puerto Rican prefers speaking Spanish and switches the conversation back to his native tongue at every opportunity. He has a shy smile, and when he talks, it's in a low, raspy voice.

Padín wears lots of big gold jewelry, two large diamond stud earrings, and plenty of camouflage. He's short, with a stocky build and Asian eyes. Instead of a gold grill on his teeth, he has braces. What might seem like a gruff exterior is actually a meticulously groomed look — and Padín is a gentle, polite young man.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie