And the arrival of Marta Larraz, one of my closest friends, made a difference - and life took a more adventurous turn. Many weekends I would spend whole days riding up and down Lincoln Road in the ‘tram’ next to Marta, while she drove it like a maniac, becoming the terror of the old Jewish ladies of the area. She spoke French very well, but hardly any English, so this job as a ‘chauffeur’ of the little trams -which I was able to negotiate for her- was the perfect one at that moment!
Some evenings Mami and Leon would also go with me to Miami Beach --and we all rode on the tram for hours and hours. And sometimes my friend Tony- whose mother was a childhood friend of my mother- would drive me to Miami Beach in his beautiful convertible, and spent time with us.
This was the time when Mami had started working in the tomato fields near Pompano Beach -the most sought-after-job among Cuban ladies -and the only one that paid the minimum wage; the second great job was working as hotel chambermaids! And it was also the time she had to quit, because she started suffering from fainting spells and acute anemia.
We were all so poor that pennies were carefully counted --and everyone knew that some things -like going to restaurants, the movies, buying clothes or buying an ice cream in the corner shop were totally off limits...Out of the question!
So our lives became very simple --and a daily challenge to face.
Many people had a worse tragedy, having parents, husbands, mothers or sisters in Castro’s prisons, serving long and cruel sentences, while others had been shot or killed or had died trying to escape the island. We were lucky in a way, because with the exception of my father’s very revolutionary brother Raúl Rodriguez Santos, who had been condemned to 12 years in Cuba's jails, we did not have more added pain to our lives.
One day Mami fainted in the ‘tomatera’ and was ‘unemployed’ and very sick for a few weeks. We had no money to buy medicines and our eating habits were all wrong, so her recovery was very slow. American cheese, some sort of pressed meat in the style of Spam the Refugee Center gave away and neighbors passed on to us (since we had come into the USA as residents through Mexico, we did not ‘qualify’ for any Refugee help), cornflour and bread were the staples of our diets –plus the ocassional hamburgers from a chain called “Royal Castle” where it was a treat to buy their 19 cents burgers and their 15 cents grits!.
I remember as a great ‘family outing’ merely going to church on Sunday mornings with my mother’s sister my Aunt Fela, my uncle Gustavo and our cousin Cristina, and afterwards having ‘breakfast’ at Royal Castle. I can still visualize my very stylish Tafela, dressed to the nines with her still elegant ‘Cuban clothes’, holding on to her beautiful calfskin italian handbag, while standing in line behind the orange vinyl stools of Royal Castle’s, waiting for our turn to sit and eat our 69 cents ‘full American’ breakfast of Bacon and Eggs or her favorite -and even cheaper- Chile con Carne!
When Mami got sick, I was terrified that we were not going to be able to pay the $65 rent for our apartment at The Betty -our new and by now beloved ‘home’! I worried day and night about being evicted or something worse. Mami’s salary was gone and my brother’s earnings barely paid for his lunches and school expenses. But (and I still dont understand how she found strenght to physically do it) --as soon as she felt better Mami started taking care of an old lady called Mrs. Franzelle, who lived with her alcoholic daughter Ethel a few blocks away from our house. She was paid in cash --$18 a week!
I used to go with her many times, just to keep her company, so she would not have to walk home in the dark at 2 or 3 am. On one ocassion the baby’s father drove us back home, and made a pass at my mother, who -not speaking English- never understood him and I never had the heart to tell her.