Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens returned to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1921 and said, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” He was wrong. Journalists today see Miami’s ethnic and racial divides as the future of America, and some say it won’t work. Are they wrong? This week I’m reporting on different aspects of an electric city with a remarkable diversity and a relentless pursuit of economic well-being.
MIAMI—After three days of open-air markets, fast cars, and loud Spanish strip malls, gliding off the exit into the city of Doral was jarring. A median of palm trees separated calm lanes of traffic. Recycle bins sat perched outside businesses and bus stations. Local shops with Spanish names interspersed American drug stores and fast food joints.
At a stoplight, I watched a fountain fling water droplets into the air at the edge of a golf course. A bus plastered with photos of grinning senior citizens breezed through a stoplight advertising safe and loving care at a local senior center.
Locals from Doral boast that their ten-year-old city is the future of Miami. With its polished streets, manicured golf courses, and plethora of public parks, is that a good thing?
The mayor’s wife greeted me on the third floor of City Hall in a bright green pencil skirt, black peplum suit jacket and three-inch heels. She will be the first to warn you that all that glitters—even her own city—isn’t gold.
She’s been married to her husband, Mayor Luigi Boria, for 30 years. They came from Venezuela in 1989 as business owners. Luigi pursued both politics and ministry. He’s the pastor of Alpha and Omega Church, served as city councilman for two years, then ran for mayor in 2012. He won, becoming the city’s first non-Cuban to hold the position. Grant you, the city, in its young 10 years, has only had two mayors, but Graciela said that his victory re-wrote the narrative for Doral’s immigrant community: “If he could do it, they could do it,” she beamed.
Life in Doral attracts business-savvy immigrants who have capital to invest and access to the proper visa paperwork to thrive. But Graciela said it doesn’t always work out that way for many immigrants. Many come to America hoping to pursue economic success, but fail because of poor business understanding. “They think it’s all buy, sell, buy sell,” she said.
She knows from first-hand experience, recalling when she opened delinquency warnings in the mail because she wasn’t filing the correct paperwork. She taught herself business administration, but many would-be immigrant entrepreneurs aren’t that lucky. They fail to catch problems early, paperwork catches up to them, and they file bankruptcy. In some cases, they lose their legal status in the process.
Economic cultural shock shows in other ways. Graciela shook her head about Doral, explaining that in many ways, its apparent wealth is an illusion. Often, she’s seen America’s freedom and access to resources shock new immigrants into getting credit cards and making expensive purchases they can’t afford. The debt forces them to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. In her spare time, Graciela runs a business-training program based on biblical principles to help train entrepreneurs in money management. She’s currently working with a group of 22, but has seen almost 70 complete it successfully.
Graciela wants to see commercialization grow in Doral, but she also loves family. “We want houses, houses, more houses,” she exclaimed, holding her arms high and waving them in the air. Family is a core of Latino culture. In a local Venezuelan café, I see what seem to be grandparents sitting with a married couple and their children, a multi-generational pattern I’ve observed throughout the entire city.
But challenges to that vision prevail. Alicia Villatoro, an immigration-aid worker helps abused women in the city. She told me over lunch that many of them are afraid to call the police or get help because they have no leverage as recent immigrants. Villatoro also handles human trafficking cases where employers insult, abuse, and underpay their workers. She voiced concerns about teens turning to drugs as a way to handle culture shock and family tension.
I leave lunch wondering how Mayor Boria will help solve those problems. I also wonder how he’ll keep commercial interests from trumping family values. But in the end, I see in Doral a pattern that I hope influences Miami’s future and maybe even the country’s: A culture that interweaves big, loud, family dinners with savvy business practices and closely guarded human rights—the best traits of two different worlds.