El Balserito

Because my Spanish is chips-and-salsa simple, and I am desirous of improving upon it, and delighted whenever I can puzzle out on my own some new word or phrase, I am listening in on the conversation of the two Cuban men next to me at the counter of the plumbing supply store in Little Haiti, and when I hear the word balserito, "the rafter," I recognize this to be a diminutive of balsero, "the rafter," that symbol of the Cuban-American experience, those cast ashore on scrapwood rafts emblematic of an entire community's exile, and when the one man goes out to his truck and comes back with a little plastic dashboard toy of Goofy and another Disney character floating in an inner tube, and the other man, laughing and smiling at the joke asks, Quien es el otro?, pointing at the smaller figure, I know that this is Max, Goofy's son, because we have just taken Sam to see "A Goofy Movie," a story of father-son bonding in the cartoon universe, a universe in many ways more familiar to me than this one, though of course I say nothing to the men, not wanting to admit I have been eavesdropping, or betray my linguistic insufficiency, the degree to which I am an outsider here, in Miami, a place unlike any other I have known, a city we have fixed upon like Rust Belt refugees eager to buy a little piece of the sunshine, to mortgage a corner of the American Dream, where already Sam has begun to master the local customs, youngest and most flexible, first to make landfall, betraying the generational nature of acculturation the way the poems of my students at the state university do, caught between past and present worlds, transplanted parents looking back to Havana while the children are native grown, rooted to the soil, though the roots of las palmas are notoriously shallow, hence their propensity to topple in a hurricane, tropical storm, even the steady winter tradewind bearing its flotilla of makeshift sails across the Straits of Florida, so many this season that some mornings, jogging along the boardwalk in the shadow of the luxury hotels, I have come upon three rafts washed up in a single mile of beach, ragged planks and styrofoam and chicken-wire, filthy and abandoned but curiously empowered, endowed with a violent, residual energy, like shotgun casings in a field of corn stubble or the ruptured jelly of turtle eggs among mangroves, chrysalides discarded as the cost of the journey, shells of arrival, shells of departure.

Campbell McGrath.