Touched by the lazy lyricism of his Cuban accent, he looked at me directly and chuckled sarcastically, “Mira, mira… ‘El Sueño Americano,’ mi amor.”
Day two of my time at Legal Services of Greater Miami (LSGM) and my supervisor Nejla Calvo, my co-intern and I found ourselves at a community gathering in the what has recently been ranked one of the “worst trailer parks” in Miami-Dade County. Nejla had coordinated this meeting in an effort to collect enough signatures to begin the process of forming a home owner’s association to protect the property of the nearly one hundred residents that call Paradise Park home.
My new friend’s comment reflected an oppression that coincides with the modern-day feudalist nature of these parks and a sentiment that echoes across thousands of other residents that make up over fifty mobile home and trailer parks in Miami-Dade. Many of the residents of these communities are 55+ in age and come from immigrant (largely Cuban and Haitian) backgrounds. They struggle to understand how they have such little control over their homes in the “land of opportunity.”
Through her trailblazing efforts, Nejla has spearheaded a program at LSGM to represent and inform low-income Miami-Dade residents of their right as homeowners. In just four years leading the department, she has saved hundreds from homelessness and won hundreds of thousands of dollars in resettlement money in cases where displacement was ultimately inevitable. She has targeted methods to come over the nuanced and difficult nature of mobile home cases where many residents own the home but not the land they live on. Furthermore, many of the members of these communities are undocumented, making it almost impossible for LSGM to accomplish anything on individual-case bases. She has identified the power of group effort and community organization in granting residents greater rights and the ability to challenge local government and developers who target mobile home parks across Miami as real estate becomes increasingly valuable.
All this, at only twenty-eight years old. If Nejla is not a legend (or a badass, if you may), I don’t know who is.
Standing in this group of over 40 homeowners in Paradise Park, communal cries shifted from desperation and frustration to determination and empowerment as Nejla explained the additional and attainable rights if a home owner’s association was successfully created. My friend ran up to to the front and vocalized his interest in leading the effort to collect the two-thirds signatures needed from the community to begin the process of incorporation.
From what I had gained in our ten-minute conversation, I know none of this came close to falling within the framework of the American Dream he originally imagined for himself. But, in under a half an hour, the tenants’ rights training brought him and his community marginally closer to better ensuring their homes and well-being in a constantly changing Miami and United States.
* * *
I don’t mean to sound overly optimistic, as it is only my first week in what has been known to be an incredibly difficult and often unsuccessful line of work.
However, I think it’s incredibly important to recognize how the well-directed and strategically targeted efforts of a single person who possesses the credentials and a humble passion to affect change can actually make a positive impact for a substantial number of people.
My whole life I have only heard the story of my mother’s journey and experience as a female coming from Cuba to America. Here in Miami, I feel deeply drawn to expand my connections and conversations, to absorb more about the Cuban-American experience, and give more people the time of day to tell their stories to someone who will listen.
Feeling blessed and looking forward to serving and learning from the 305.