My Miami Story: Sugar Cane And World War II (Part 2 of 2)

As mentioned in my previous blog post, in fall 2018, The Miami Foundation hosted a series of round table forums across the region called My Miami Story. Groups of professionals convened at various assigned sites across Miami and were given a basic (but deeply layered) discussion question: What brought you to Miami?

Coincidentally my small group of 15 professionals mainly comprised of immigrants (albeit some were American migrants from others states). We all now lived or worked as transplants in Miami. What magnetic force drew us here?

My Miami Story, has roots stretching back to the 1940s, when my grandfather first made his trek via boat as a US imported farm worker assigned to the sugar cane fields of central Florida.

Grandpa David would make his mark in history amongst the thousands of farm workers, imported by the US government, who toiled in fields across the US. Their presence ensured the nation was fed during the labor shortage of the 1940s. My grandfather’s journey also marked the beginning of my family’s passage to the United States. Over 40 years later, our family left footprints yet again in Florida. This time it was in Miami during the 1970s.

There was a lot happening in the 1970s. The year 1978, in particular, was a memorable year. It was the year Lionel Richie’s hit song rocked the air waves,

Your once, twice

Three times a lady

And I love you

Yes, your once, twice

Three times a lady

And I looove you!

In 1978, those tasty bite size little White Castle sliders sold for a whopping $0.20 cents and a McDonald’s burger sold for $1.09. Jimmy Carter was U.S. president that year and the hit TV series All in the Family and M A.S.H. were the mainstay of the day.

Amidst the hype, headlines and happenings of that year, 1978 was also the year my Mother Lolethia left Jamaica in pursuit of career opportunities in Miami, Florida. Seemed like the repetitious wheel of fate brought opportunity knocking at my family’s door yet again. Like my grandfather who had been lulled by the offer of “greater opportunities in America” over 40 years prior, my mother was also lulled by the call for employment in Florida.

My mother however, being a certified nurse in Jamaica, responded to a different advertisement, inviting Jamaican nurses to further their studies and work in Florida.

With an acute nursing shortage in America at that time, many hospitals and private agencies resorted to importing nurses, doctors and specialists from countries like Jamaica, Bangladesh and the Phillipines to fill the labor shortfall.

My mom, who was only in her early 20s and married to my dad, Isaac at the time, had three kids and felt very apprehensive about leaving her family in Jamaica to pursue this career opportunity in Florida. Jamaica having gained independence from Britain just 15 years prior, was going through major political turmoil during the 1970s, with threats of communist socialism invading the country, severe food shortages, and road blocks with nightly military and police curfews.

Nonetheless, my father convinced my mom she should apply for a nursing job in the United States. Dad felt it was a golden chance of a lifetime, that could strengthen the family’s base and create greater financial security. It still weighed heavy on my mom’s heart to leave her 3 small kids behind with dad and my grandmother, who was now widowed and lived with our family in Kingston. Nonetheless my mom decided to apply and was eventually approved for employment as a nurse at Mercy Hospital in Miami. Mom left Jamaica with slight trepidation, a prayer and a burning hope to pursue this great nursing opportunity in Miami. She knew nurses made much higher salaries in the US so she would have the opportunity to send money back home to Jamaica to help support her young family.

In the fall of 1978 mom boarded a plane, and travelled from Kingston, Jamaica to Miami, Florida to join the growing pool of immigrant workers in South Florida. This marked a major shift in my family’s trajectory as immigrants pursuing a slice of the American dream. My mom’s trek was vastly different than my grandfather’s journey just 40 years before. There was no cane field assignment, no fighter planes hovering over or overcrowded vessels braving the enemy infested waters of the Atlantic ocean.

This was a new chapter. It was mom’s first hand, real life encounter with the value of a solid education. Because of her preparation she was able to secure a great job in a highly sought after technical field. There’s a popular quote that defines success as “the place where preparation meets opportunity” Mom was able to seize the opportunity because she had prepared herself with solid higher education. She recalled how emphatic her dad was, during her formative years, about his children staying in school and receiving a good education. He died without every seeing the fulfillment of his dream for his kids and grandkids but we know he would have been proud of their accomplishments. My mom was armed and ready to embrace Miami and looked forward to the stream of opportunities that would follow for her children and family in the years to come.

Mom acknowledged that something about Miami felt familiar. The vibe of the city felt like an old familiar friend. Being from the Caribbean, she said Miami bore many similarities to Jamaica: Tall palm trees, tropical weather, spicy foods, fruit markets, white sandy shorelines hugged by the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Seemed like the ideal home away from home. Little did she anticipate or fathom the huge culture shock that awaited her in Miami, Florida.

As an island girl, her first inclination was to find an apartment near Biscayne Bay, with easy access and in close proximity to her workplace. Mom met a friendly front desk clerk at an apartment complex called Keystone Manor who assisted in processing her paperwork. He showed her the unit turned over her keys and made mom a bonafide resident of the quiet coastal City. Several days later she returned to thank the front desk office Clerk for his hospitality but was given the unfortunate news that he had been fired.

Apparently the apartment complex had a practice of not leasing units to blacks. It seems the white clerk thought my mom was an attractive, professional young nurse and in his youthful glee gave her a unit at the complex. Sadly, his act of kindness cost him his job.

Mom eventually discovered she was the first and only black resident living in that apartment complex and one of few minorities living on the eastern side of that highly segregated city during the 1970s. Her white neighbors who passed her by each day were stoic, looked the other way or would utter racial slurs within her hearing to intimidate her. She grew concerned about her safety.

This was such a major cultural shift and a trying time for my mother as a young black professional eager to pursue her calling. Like so many people of color living in America she felt the paradox of living between two totally different worlds. There was a “work Miami” where she held the fort down as a valuable member of the medical team. She saved the lives of hundreds of Miamians by day. Then there was the “other Miami” where she went home to face rejection and scorn by her own neighbors. I suppose you could say there was a third Miami as well. The third space where as a black caribbean immigrant your accent, food choice, music and cultural oddities earned you the label of being called an “alien” from native African Americans who also considered island folks “uppity”.

She had a difficult time at first navigating new friendships and establishing a new village. Her safe place where she didn’t feel rejected, scorned or misunderstood. In time she would find her cluster of other immigrant “alien friends” who shared commonalities in the healthcare circle, and were not judgmental or hateful. Like mom, they made Miami their new home away from home. At the end of her assignment, a few years later, my mom and dad agreed she would return home to be with the family in Jamaica. Like my grandfather mom was enlightened and grew to appreciate Jamaica on a deeper more personal level after living as an immigrant in America.

I asked my mom how she stayed positive amidst that kind of intense discrimination and racial prejudice. She admitted it was dishearting at times and she often felt like quitting. However she kept her eyes on the prize and stayed devoted to daily prayers and kept her thoughts fixed on the higher goal. Mom admits now that her tenacious drive to succeed outweighed the reality of rejection and blatant predudice. She pledged an oath as a nurse to do no harm and felt compelled to share love with the patients and families in her care.

So as I began my probe to unpack the details of my Miami story, my mom shared a postcard with me that left me stunned. It was an old postcard from 1979. She had sent the postcard to my dad in Jamaica as they exchanged letters overtime. Now the card sat in an old shoe box for 40 years amidst other long forgotten collectibles. It included a picture of the Keystone Manor Apartment. The address was on NE 123 Street.

The particular City is what stunned me. Unknown to me until last year, the apartment complex was located in the City of North Miami. The same city where I have worked and toiled since 2006 overseeing land use, public policy and development approvals.

How ironic it is that the same city where my mother made history as the first black resident on the east side of town, would become the City where her daughter would make her mark as a senior level executive managing development across the entire city. 40 years separated my mothers travel to Florida after my grandfathers stint and 40 years marked my entry to Miami after my mother’s stint.  The odds of that happening was more than share luck or serendipity. Romans 8:28 reminds us that “all things work together for good to them that love God” My grandfather standing in the sugarcane fields of central Florida could not have fathomed how much further along the grace of God and his labor of love would have taken his family.

My Miami story, with its rich mixture of sugar cane, World War II tales and generations of immigrant travelers, is yet another revelation that the journey of each immigrant group is very complex and each family’s encounter while chasing the American dream may vary from one generation to another. Amidst the disappointments, tragedies and at times scorn, we are propelled by the desire to succeed, achieve our dreams and enjoy a better quality of life with added financial stability for our families.

Miami then and now continues to be an evolving City with many contradictions, complexities and paradoxes. However, Miami then and now stands out as a vibrant cosmopolitan hub with a plethora of opportunities. With the right preparation these opportunities can ignite new beginnings. It’s no wonder Miami was recently described in the Kauffman Index as the most entrepreneurial city in the U.S., with the country’s highest startup success rate. Miami’s coveted position as the place for start ups outshines other cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle to name a few. I believe Miami continues to thrive and grow in stature because of its central location as a gateway to the Americas, but most importantly due to its complex mix of highly innovative, hardworking, tenacious immigrants.

So you may be wondering: what does the future hold for Tanya, the Mango Lady? What experience will continue to challenge the next generation to follow? Only time will tell. As we reflect on the sacrificial investments of previous generations, and recognize we are the legacy of hopes and efforts passed, let us be profoundly thankful and believe wholeheartedly that the best is yet to come! What’s your Miami Story?

If you enjoyed this post please like, share and subscribe. As always, have a mango-licious day!

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1 thought on “My Miami Story: Sugar Cane And World War II (Part 2 of 2)

  1. It’s such a delight to be able to journey with you through byways and highways of history. Isn’t it interesting how we view that word “history” as virtually at least a century long time capsule when infact once time has passed is in fact history! This blog is indeed a tantalizing getaway for me and many others I’m sure. Keep on pressing on my lovely sister. You’re indeed a treasure and I’m thankful to be able to journey with you down memory lane. Keep on inspiring others with your salty nature and beautiful light. I love you.


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