White barbers, he says, ''don't understand black hair. Valdes, who is 29, a year younger than his childhood friend, is simply, comfortably Cuban, an upwardly mobile citizen of the Miami mainstream. He lives in an all-white neighborhood, hangs out with white Cuban friends and goes to black neighborhoods only when his job, as a deliveryman for Restonic mattresses, forces him to.
When he thinks about race, which is not very often, it is in terms learned from other white Cubans: American blacks, he now believes, are to be avoided because they are delinquent and dangerous and resentful of whites.
The only blacks he trusts, he says, are those he knows from Cuba. Since leaving Havana on separate rafts in , the two friends have seen each other just a handful of times in Miami -- at a funeral, a baby shower, a birthday party and that soccer game, a meeting arranged for a newspaper photographer. They have visited each other's homes only once. They say they remain as good friends as ever, yet they both know there is little that binds them anymore but their memories.
Had they not become best friends in another country, in another time, they would not be friends at all today. They met on a bus, No. Achmed got on in Guanabo, and they sat together talking, as boys do, about everything and nothing. Both grew up in orderly homes, with hard-working parents who supported the Castro government. Their fathers worked for the state oil company. Their mothers -- Joel's was a nurse, Achmed's an administrator in stores for tourists -- knew each other and sometimes met for coffee.
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The boys' friendship was cemented through school and sport. They stood up for each other against troublemakers. Ruiz recalls. When his girlfriend got pregnant in high school, Achmed was the first person he told. They played soccer and baseball and ran track. Joel often stayed for dinner at Achmed's, where there was a color television and an antenna powerful enough to pick up American channels.
Because of her job, Achmed's mother had access to some of Havana's best restaurants. Every year she would take him out for a birthday dinner, and every year he would invite his best friend, Joel. Valdes recalled. But as they grew older, each became restless with the limitations of life in Cuba. Achmed was in sixth grade when an aunt who had fled to Venezuela gave him a pair of white sneakers.
He loved them so, he immediately wore them to school. Almost as immediately, the principal visited him at home to warn him about the troubling political implications of those foreign sneakers.
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At the university, too, his professors wondered why he wore foreign clothes and rode a nice bicycle. He wondered right back why he could not wear and ride whatever he wanted. When he was expelled for failing two classes, he saw it as punishment for being politically incorrect. When the government allowed thousands of Cubans to leave in small boats and rafts in , he was ready. His friend Joel was ready, too, though it had taken him far longer to make up his mind. Indeed, given Cuba's racial history, it is hardly surprising that black Cubans have generally been far less eager than whites to flee to America.
After all, in pre-revolutionary Cuba, blacks and whites had lived largely segregated, separated by huge disparities in economic and social standing. But two months after he seized power in , Fidel Castro ordered whites to look upon blacks as equals and began leveling the economic and educational playing fields.
When Joel was very small, his family lived crammed into one room of an old carved-up mansion. Soon, the government gave them a three-bedroom apartment in a development that Joel's father had helped build. Before the revolution, Joel's mother had made a living cleaning white people's homes. It was Fidel, she told him over and over, who had given her the chance to become a nurse.
And so Joel came to believe that it was no big deal, being black in Cuba. As for America, he had seen the images on government television: guards beating black prisoners, the police loosing dogs or training hoses on civil-rights marchers. But as Cuba's economy fell apart in the 's, he began to see things differently. He left military school for a cooking program, hoping for a well-paying job at a tourist hotel. Once he graduated, the only job available was washing windows.
Look around, co-workers told him, look who's getting the good jobs.
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The answer was whites. He noticed, too, when he watched the American channels at Achmed's house, that some blacks seemed to live well in America.
He saw black lawyers, politicians, wealthy athletes. It made him think: ''It's not so bad over there. Blacks are all right. On Aug. Like his friend before him, he was intercepted by the United States Coast Guard and sent to the American base at Guantanamo.
The next year, they were freed -- first Mr. Valdes, then Mr. Ruiz -- and headed straight to Miami. In Miami, Joel Ruiz discovered a world that neither American television nor Communist propaganda had prepared him for. Dogs did not growl at him and police officers did not hose him. But he felt the stares of security guards when he entered a store in a white neighborhood and the subtle recoiling of white women when he walked by.
Miami is deeply segregated, and when Mr. Ruiz arrived, he settled into one of the black urban sections, Liberty City. He had family there. His uncle Jorge Aranguren had arrived in and married an African-American. Ruiz took a job at his uncle's liquor store and started learning English.
The first thing Mr. Ruiz noticed about his new world was the absence of whites. He had seen barrios in Havana with more blacks than others, but he had never lived in a place where everybody was black. Far from feeling comfortable, he yearned for the mixing he had known in Cuba. In Cuba, he says, he had been taught to see skin color -- in his case, the color of chocolate milk -- as not much more important than, say, the color of his eyes.
But this was not Cuba. This was Miami, and in Miami, as the roughly 7 percent of the area's Cubans who are black quickly learn, skin color easily trumps nationality. Ruiz began to understand that in earnest on Valentine's Day , three months after his arrival in Miami.
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He had gone to dinner with his uncle Ramon Suarez at Versailles, a popular restaurant in Little Havana, a bastion of white Cuban-Americans. They took three light-skinned girlfriends along. Ruiz wore one of his nicest outfits -- black jeans and a red-and-green checked shirt. He was new to the country and unsure how to behave, but he felt comfortable at Versailles. After all, he remembers thinking, he was among Cubans. He knew the food, he could read the menu, and he could talk to the waiters. The five sat in the back. Mr Ruiz concentrated on the conversation and on his meal. More than four years later, he remembers what he ate: a breaded steak with rice and beans and fried plantains.
Shortly before midnight, the five left in a new red Nissan. One of the women drove. Suarez sat next to her, taking pictures of his nephew and the other women laughing in back.
Twenty blocks from the restaurant, four police cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing, stopped them. The woman who was driving saw them first and yelled for Mr. Suarez to drop the camera. The officers, with weapons drawn, ordered them out of the car.
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Terrified, Mr. Ruiz did as he was told, spreading his legs and leaning face down on the car as the officers frisked him. It seemed like a very long time before they were allowed to go. That was when one officer, a white Cuban-American, said something in Spanish that forever changed Mr. Ruiz's perspective on race.