True South Florida Story: Drama

Jun 1, 2011

Lip Service co-producer Esther Martinez read her story Drama at a live event she helped produce with Under the Sun at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. The sold-out event featured true stories about life in South Florida. The full show will air on WLRN June 4-5.

By Esther Martinez

On West 17th Court in Hialeah, a house is on fire. Jenni yells, “Ay Dios Mio! Corre, Papa!” She’s running down the block in five-inch heels.

Within seconds, a crowd gathers.

My mother, sister, brother and half of the neighborhood watch from across the street. For two days they’ve been enjoying the filming of a telenovela on their block. Their homes are a backdrop for the working-class melodramas they love to watch on Telemundo. This one’s called Perro Amor—Dogged Love.

The director yells “Cut!” The film crew extinguishes the flames and readjusts the brick façade. “Jenni” adjusts her hair. She’s a Sophia Vergara type, all lips and hips. As she heads back up the block for another take, her double-D breasts barely bounce.

I don’t watch telenovelas. I hate drama. That’s why I live in Doral. (In Doral, the most dramatic thing that happens is golf.) But. When my mother calls to tell me about the filming, I say, “Esto no me lo pierdo! I’m coming!”

I drive past botanicas, bodegas, 99-cent stores; past used car dealers where NO CREDITO is NO PROBLEMA. At the traffic light, an old man sells peanuts, churros, and pineapple soda.

My sixteen-year-old sister, Crystal, is waiting for me on the sidewalk. She tells me the director’s recruiting extras from the neighborhood, paying 50 dollars a day. Our brother Eddie’s been trying to land a role.

Crystal asks one of the producers, “Why this street?”

The producer says, “We needed a poor neighborhood.”

Crystal says, “Hellooo. I live here.”

“Jerk,” I whisper. But I get it. As celebrity cities go, if Miami is Eva Mendes, then Hialeah is Ugly Betty.

Some neighbors have improvised a viewing party. They bring out folding chairs and coolers and pass around bottles of Presidente beer.

I see my mother, all done-up. She looks like someone playing the role of my mother.

“I wanna see Carlos Ponce,” she says.

He’s the heartthrob protagonist of Dogged Love. I wouldn’t mind seeing him either, with his penetrating green eyes that linger into commercial breaks.

Instead, I’m watching take after take of a sailor getting out of a cab and knocking on Jenni’s door. The “extras” are doing things they never do in real life. Two of my mother’s neighbors stroll arm-in-arm under an umbrella. They wear thrift-store clothing. The actors wear designer clothes made to look cheap.

“I hate telenovelas,” I say out loud. “Poverty is not romantic.”

Truth is, I’m bored. I missed the good stuff— the fire scene. And the cat fight.

I walk back to my mother’s townhouse. On the coffee table I see some pamphlets left by Mormon missionaries. And, another eviction letter. My brother Eddie bursts in behind me.

“Come quick! Hurry!”

“What?!” I ask. “What’d I miss?”

“Mikey’s dad tried to drown him!”

We take off down the block. Mikey is standing in the shadow of spotlights and reflector-screens. He’s wet and shivering. Mikey’s sixteen. He lives in the townhouse next to where they’re filming.

Mikey says his father grabbed him by the collar and pushed him into the lake behind their house. He can’t stop repeating it. “My dad said he’d kill me.”

There’re no secrets in Hialeah, where homes are built to the lot line, pressed together like gossiping neighbors. While we wait for the police to arrive, everyone shares what they know. My mother says Mikey’s mom left two weeks ago after her husband beat her up. Mikey’s friends, two wiry skateboarders, tell us about the double-barrel shotgun hidden in the house. Everyone knows Mikey’s dad’s an alcoholic, that he’s violent.

Next door, on the set, Jenni’s father yells about the sailor: “He’s going to get you pregnant again!”

Jenni yells back, “You’re ruining my life!”

Then cops arrive at the scene.

It seems natural that cops should be here, part of the telenovela. But these cops are real. We approach them—me, mom, neighbors, Crystal, Eddie, Mikey’s friends—all talking at once. The officer in charge is all swagger and slick black hair. He takes Mikey inside the house where his father is holed up. The other three cops join the audience and watch the show.

The sun is like a spotlight. I’m sweating through my clothes. Jenni’s still fighting with her father, the cops are lost in the crowd, and in the middle of the street, right in front of us, two stray dogs mount. And hump.

Then, two Mormon missionaries in black pants and pressed white shirts pedal by on their bicycles. They look around smiling. One of them asks, “What’s going on here?” I don’t say anything. Where do I start?

My mother says, “perro amor.”

The cops do nothing. It’s Mikey’s word against his dad’s. When we complain the cop says, “Corporal punishment is legal.”

I end up watching Dogged Love.

I want to see the scenes I missed. Specifically, I want to see the neighborhood, the neighbors, the “extras.” And there they are: they’ve become part of the cast.

I know the camera only sees what it wants. But I keep trying to look outside the frame, to catch sight of the crowd watching from across the street. I want to see myself, living outside the drama.

But I can’t.