Vicky Bakery on East 49th street in Hialeah is one of the best places in Miami to grab a box of guayava y queso and Cuban coffee. I embarrass myself every time I order up food there in Spanish. My Spanish is bad, horribly bad. But I always feel the need to show the workers there some basic respect and at least attempt to not be the average gringo.
The shop is a hole in the wall and in a part of town you’ll never see on a postcard. But the workers at Vicky’s, like most immigrants from the islands or South America, carry a certain pride. One of the greatest things I’ve learned living in a town of immigrants that escaped tyranny is to never allow myself to be defined by my surroundings. They taught me that one can be poor, and live in a shabby part of town, but that’s no excuse for not having pride and valuing the little you do have. Respect is earned the old-fashioned way in South Florida.
John F. Kennedy learned this the hard way. His last speech in South Florida, days before his assassination, was met with bomb threats while 250 local police officers had to be added to his presidential detail. The exile community here felt betrayed and lost all respect for the man that years prior enjoyed stogies while wearing Ray Bans at football games in the Orange Bowl. They felt cheated by the establishment and weren’t going to take that betrayal lying down. The Orange Bowl is gone now, and times have changed, but the people have stayed the same.
One doesn’t have to be perfect to be loved by the people of South Florida. In fact, a couple of repaired floor tiles here and there actually add the kind of uniqueness this town falls in love with.
Alex Rodriguez is the perfect example of this. A-Rod is South Florida royalty: a New York transplant that made it big and got busted cheating. Between collecting cars, advising the Yankees, running a few businesses, being a father, and dating J-Lo he wears turnover chain replicas at University of Miami football games. He’s also on the board of trustees of the University and has the baseball field named after him.
A-Rod never attended the University of Miami, a private institution with a very small student population sitting in one of the most exclusive communities in America. Like many of the patrons of Vicky’s Bakery, A-Rod is a huge supporter of a university he never attended.
Many of the university’s supporters from the South Florida community came to love the university because of the football team. In it they found a symbol of their lives: a group of people coming together to forcefully take the respect they were due from by dominating anyone that stood in their way.
Every Saturday the Miami Hurricanes run through the smoke is a mini revolution in South Florida. It’s a day to send a powerful message to the media, college football elite, the NCAA and every fan of every massive public institution spending tens of millions of dollars on water slides and hot tubs. And inevitably every great Miami Hurricanes team eventually morphs into and adapts an Us vs. The World persona.
Star Middle Linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, only in his second year on the team, gave voice to the Us vs. the World mentality after last Saturday’s dominating stomping of Virginia Tech. “Every week it doesn’t matter who we play, we’re always picked to lose, it’s just evident,” he said. “Nobody wants Miami to do good, that’s just the way that we feel. It’s really us against the world.”
Thirty years ago Jimmy Johnson coached the Hurricanes 1987 team to a National Championship, fueled by the same mentality. “Coach Johnson used every ounce of that underdog, us against the world mentality that was instilled in us.” That was defensive lineman Greg Mark recounting what it was like heading into their showdown with powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners for the National Championship.
Thirty years ago the South Florida community was facing some of the same challenges it’s facing today. Racial strife, government tyranny in their homeland homeland countries, terrifying uncertainty here in the U.S., poverty and the ever present feeling disaster is just around the corner.
The us against the world mentality is a way of life for South Florida. It’s instilled in the children that eventually wear the orange and green on Saturday. It’s the foundation for the bond between the football team, community, and University. The bond is real and it’s special.
Bennie Blades, a Hurricanes great and South Florida resident, said it best about the 1987 Championship game: “The combination of that whole season and that particular night we won, you saw guys crying uncontrollable because to have a perfect season and win it in front of our fans was special. We wanted that special moment for the fans of Miami as much as we wanted it for ourselves.”
This Saturday it’s Notre Dame week for the underdog Canes — the so-called Convicts vs. Catholics game. The South Florida community and the team are salivating for this opportunity to take the respect they’re due.
For Notre Dame, this is a game they need to win to stay in the hunt for the National Championship. They’re expected to win and will come into South Florida to teach the Hurricanes and their fans that Notre Dame football is the best.
They’re facing a Hurricanes team that isn’t too interested in rankings or style points. This Hurricanes team, like all the great ones in the past, will be fueled by a carnal desire to beat the respect of the entire nation out of this Notre Dame team.
Every snap, every tackle, every block will carry the frustrations of the South Florida community they represent. And the community will be there in to witness the respect of a nation for South Florida for at least one night.