I stood on the porch with my mother that January of 2020 and watched the line of Red Cross buses idle on the hard road in front of our house, waiting for their turn to pull in to the Portico and discharge their passengers. The people sitting next to the windows on our side of the road looked at us as we stood there watching them, their dark faces blank. I raised my hand and waved to them. Nobody waved back.
“I’ve seen this before,” said my mother, turning on her heel and striding across the porch towards our house’s open screen door. “This is not going to end well.”
I followed her inside, trailing her into the kitchen. “Are you talking about the Haitians?”
My mother was from North Florida and had lived in Miami a long time ago, back in the last century. She’d told me a lot about the place, about how, even back then, her apartment on Alton Road would flood with raw sewage every time it rained. About how someone had paid to have billboards put up in Little Havana and Overtown that said “This is not America.” And about how sometimes, when she went to the beach, unexpected things would wash up on shore.
She’d ride her bike the 8 blocks to the other side of the sandbar that was Miami Beach, and would sit on the beach, watching the people. Her favorite spot was between 3rd and 5th streets, because, she told me, this was the stretch of the beach where all the families from Europe ended up. The German dads and Bulgarian moms and the kids from France would hit the sand and immediately take off all of their clothes. My mom had been to Europe and knew that they had different rules about this kind of thing over there, so she wasn’t surprised. But the families from Nebraska and Ohio who had saved up for years for this once-in-a-lifetime trip to paradise and who had mistakenly wandered down to this part of the beach? They were a completely different story.
The Europeans would shed their clothing, smiling and jabbering in some vaguely communist-sounding language, and the American families would “completely lose their shit,” as my mom liked to say. The sunburned fathers and the mothers in their tummy-hiding skirt-suits would leap up from their beach chairs and rush to collect their children. They’d yank them by the arms away from their sandcastles and drag them towards the pay lot on Ocean Drive where their rental car waited.
“But we just got here!” the kids would whine, completely unaware of what had motivated their parents to move more quickly than they ever had back home.
“Shut up!” the parents would respond, blocking their children’s view of the ocean and the various genitalia floating in it, “We’re going back to Parrot Jungle!”
And then, sometimes, things would get even weirder.
Three times this happened, mom told me. Three times, she’d been watching the first-world battle for decency play out when, suddenly, some new protagonists appeared. These people weren’t naked, but they weren’t exactly dressed for the beach. And they weren’t sunburned, either. Their skin was gray and dull from the salt water they’d been squatting in for a week, cracked and blistered from the relentless sun. Someone, some man who was still strong enough, would roll himself out of the wooden or inflatable raft and into the shallow ocean. He’d grab what passed for the boat and wade in to the shore, pulling it and the people in it behind him. When they finally reached the beach, the people in the raft would tumble out of it and lie there for a while like rags in the surf. Then they would sit up, women and girls and boys and men, and blink at the white people whose vacations they were interrupting.
“They were Haitians,” mom said, “washing right up on shore, on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. They didn’t know, or care. They were just trying to get out of Haiti.”
The naked Austrians and nervous Indianans would stand together on the beach and gape at the newcomers, their own differences forgotten. After a while, the immigration police would show up, stalking through the sand in their olive fatigues. They’d give the refugees bottles of water and herd them up the beach to a waiting bus, and then, just like that, they’d be gone.
“Gone where?” I’d always ask her, even though I’d heard this story a thousand times already.
“To the Krome Avenue Detention Center,” mom would respond, her face darkening. “That’s where anyone who wasn’t Cuban ended up.”
I never asked mom what happened to them after that. Did they get on Red Cross buses like the people on the road outside and go to a small town in north Georgia, like ours? Or maybe back to Haiti? Or were they still at “Krome,” which my mother once said was a jail you couldn’t get out of? I never asked her. The look on her face when she got to this part of the story told me not to.
Mom was now rifling through our cabinets, pulling out granola bars and cans of corn and beans. I repeated my question. “What do you mean, you’ve seen this before? In Miami?
Mom turned to look at me, a jar of peanut butter in her hand. “No,” she said flatly. “With Katrina. Now, don’t just stand there, Vera. Get a sack to put these in. We need to get down to the Portico. Those people are going to need food.”