Sun, 11 Jun 2000

Hector and an orange picker

By Sori Siregar

I got acquainted with Hector through a small mistake I made. I didn't understand the meaning of prohibido fumar on display on the wall of a travel bureau, where I went to confirm my ticket. Hector then spoke to me in English with a strong Spanish accent.

"Sorry, it means 'no smoking'," he told me pointing to the sign hung on the wall.

Smilingly I quickly put out my cigarette. Hector, who came to the travel bureau for the same purpose, also smiled.

"Yes, they should write 'no smoking' to also remind people in English. But the people here forget that tourists do not come only from Latin American countries but also from other parts of the world.

Hector tried to understand why I smoked and tried to impress me that the local people were not fully prepared to welcome tourists. Hector might, or might not, be right about that. Before coming to this travel bureau I wanted to confirm my ticket in the one located in front of my hotel. The lights inside the office ware on and staff moved about inside. But when I came nearer to its front door I saw a "Cerrado" notice was hung there.

I couldn't get in because the meaning of the word was 'closed'. They would open at nine. I knew the meaning of cerrado from someone who happened to pass by. Fortunately, -- not as Hector said-- in other places the Spanish words were accompanied by their English translation.

In front of a photo studio anyone could read the notice Servicio en 4 horas a no extra costo. Without reading its English translation I quickly could guess its meaning: photo printing in four hours without extra cost. An accompanying translation might not be needed for this sign.

Hector seemed eager to know me better. After receiving his confirmed ticket, he approached me. He introduced himself formally by shaking my hand. Hector came from Argentina and was taking a week vacation in Miami Beach. As a noted lawyer in his country he seemed to be a well-to-do guy. I therefore was not surprised when he said he would continue his vacation in Europe after visiting several cities in America.

A conversation with a person like Hector offered me no other choice but to be a good listener. His style of talking and his peculiar accent made me feel that I need not talk much. Besides, I got an impression that he was a talker rather than a listener.

"I am sure you must be from Asia," he said convincingly. "Filipino, Burmese, Thai?"


"Indonesian, ya,ya, I have a friend from Indonesia," then he suddenly halted. "He is actually not my friend, but a close friend of a friend of mine. Ya, ya, he is here now, working as an orange picker. Are you really from Indonesia?" he asked me the question as if he didn't believe I was an Indonesian.

"Yes, I am."

After he was convinced, he whispered something to me. I accepted his invitation for a drink with pleasure because I thought he had something to tell me. I asked him to wait till my ticket was confirmed.

"If the authorities know this, he can be deported," I said.

"You are right! Even illegal immigrants are deported, much less a communist like him."

"How come your friend is willing to protect him while he knows the consequence. Intelligence police here must have a thousand- eyes".

"Friendship, brother, friendship. My friend lived for a long time in Cuba. It was in a social gathering there he met your compatriot. It was weird, my friend is a businessman and not of a big reputation. Ya, only a small businessman. Your fellow- countryman was an embassy staff, he might be a diplomat or only a local staff. But obviously he was a communist. My friend is not a politician and was completely uninterested in politics. Up to the day before yesterday when I spent the night in his large house in Bal Harbour, he was still not interested in politics let alone to talk about communist or nationalist positions."

My eyes settled on Collins Avenue which was busy on the weekend. Christine Lee's Restaurant in which we were chatting was full.

Four days in this town had been pleasurable and refreshing. The fascinating Miami Beach implanted sweet memories; something I rarely found as long as I worked in Washington DC. But the story told by Hector deprived me of such precious memories.

"He must have been a local staff," I said. "If not, why should he be an orange picker. He could go to a communist country if he felt insecure in Cuba."

"Maybe. He might not be a communist. My friend might be wrong. With his minimum knowledge of politics my friend might have made a wrong guess. It is understandable, he is a layman."

When he saw I remained silent and seemed to be thinking of something, Hector looked to realize something and wanted to make it right.

"Brother, I want to correct what I have just said."

I looked Hector in the eyes.

"He must be a communist. If he is not a hardcore he may be a fanatic follower. That's why he was not included on the list of important members to be sent to other communist countries. Therefore, since the situation in Cuba was no longer favorable because of the abortive coup in your country and your embassy in Cuba was closed he put himself into exile here, on the southern tip of America. After risking his life he moved here illegally with other Cuban immigrants because this is the nearest place to live. What a pity if someone is only a petty follower," Hector concluded his words with a smile.

By immigrating here he has no way to go out. What exit will he break through if he wants to go out of the country. He must be deported to Cuba if he is arrested. He must no longer have the Indonesian passport. Maybe, he wants to live here forever. You must know very well that last year a new regulation was passed. If I am not mistaken, millions of illegal immigrants, including those from Cuba, will be legalized as legal immigrants. Thus, exact data can be collected about the illegal immigrants. The best friend of your friend will surely be included in and he will be saved."

Hector understandably nodded. The cool breeze from the beach caressed my body and the bodies of those preoccupied with their own business at Christine Lee's. All of a sudden I wanted to ask him something.

"Hector, it is only for this you asked me for a drink here?"

"Yes," he said smiling."Yes, perhaps only to describe the attitude of a communist country towards the supporter of its ideology, if the supporter is considered a failure or categorized as mediocre. Just by chance the present victim is someone from your country. Can you imagine, as an embassy staff who was used to attending prestigious social gatherings and activities, your fellow countryman is willing to work as a laborer to pick oranges in a country which is so strange for him. Tragic, is it not?"

"Damn it," I shouted inside. Hundreds of horrible stories about communist followers, about communist countries and communist practices had been stored in my mind. What was worse, I had experienced part of the stories and I could feel it right now. Then Hector told me the cheap stories. Was it so necessary to induce my sympathy to a communist follower who fled from Cuba? No, my sympathy was not that easy to provoke. For me a communist is a communist wherever he is. Place and time would never change him. It was true that there were some renegades from the ideology but their number was small.

"You look disappointed," Hector said.

I nodded.

"Did you ever see the countenance of the orange picker that you told me?"

"No, I only heard the story from my best friend".

"I am sure, Hector, his face is not sad, doesn't show any grief. He came here consciously to earn a living. However small the pay for illegal immigrant workers here in Florida, the pay is surely higher than what he had got in Cuba. He knows that. For that reason he had to fabricate a story about the treatment he received in Cuba as a pretext to immigrate here."

"You are so cynical".

"Yes, I am. I can even be more cynical. Now in my country they live everywhere and they enter every sector of life after they had been released from prison. Adaptation is an easy thing for them without leaving their ideology. For them, ideology can be kept for the time being till the time comes for them to show who they are."

Hector nodded. He might understand or pretend to understand what I meant. A respected lawyer from Argentina who had been hired by several companies in his country, in a number of Latin American countries and in Europe, was in fact that naive. I became hesitate that he was not a lawyer. He might be just a tourist. He might by accident came across an Indonesian tourist who was throwing away money in Miami Beach, then they shot the breeze, talked about politics and at the end referred to the abortive coup in l965.

Then he might accidentally have encountered an orange picker in one place in Florida, who told him that he came from Indonesia. The story developed in such a way because the orange picker showed himself as a political victim and had to flee Cuba because he felt himself deserted. What nonsense, even for a young boy.

Then what use was it for Hector, the self-avowed-lawyer, to tell all this to me? What for he wasted his time and money with me in this costly restaurant?

I really didn't understand. However, slowly I had another feeling. Hector told me a true story. The orange picker does actually exist and came as an illegal immigrant from Cuba. He might be really an embassy local staff. Because he had a hard life in the communist country and learned that those who fled Cuba and lived in Florida had a much better living, he intended to change his fate by illegally immigrating to this capitalist country.

After he did it he looked for his friend, the Argentinean businessman, who had lived for a long time in Cuba. It was this Argentinean businessman who opened the access for him that he got the job as an orange picker in a plantation. To get that job was easy. Whoever prepared to receive compensation under the standard minimum wage stipulated by the US government could be accepted as a worker. That was the reason why many illegal immigrants were employed there.

But, why had Hector told me this story? Only to know how much hatred kept by the people in my country toward communist which had left the orange picker without the guts to return to his country? Or he wanted to ask my favor in case I was a sympathizer? Or, well, this was what I feared most.

It was not impossible that he was a drug dealer, because Miami was its headquarters. Perhaps, he wanted to send something to the family of the orange picker in the fatherland, if I showed my sympathy to the fate of the orange picker. That's why he tried to induce me. If he did it successfully then he would move another step. I was terribly haunted by this speculation. Miami could offer peace of mind but at the same time it could do otherwise.

"Hector," I said. "Maybe my humanism is not too high according to your criteria. I have no sympathy for the friend of your close friend and I wouldn't do anything for him. I am sorry, from the very beginning my stance towards them is clear enough. I hope you understand it.

Then I shook Hector's hand, left Christine Lee's Restaurant and walked along Collins Avenue. Suddenly it dawned on me that one of "them" in my hometown was prepared to be a slave of a number of people who had given him protection and work. I sighed.