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Jun 18, 2014

Cup leaves some longing for home

Every four years, Sabores Chilenos restaurant in Miami turns into a sports bar, a place where Chilean fans can watch their national team's World Cup matches.
Every four years, Sabores Chilenos restaurant in Miami turns into a sports bar, a place where Chilean fans can watch their national team's World Cup matches.

MIAMI -- For the Chilean expats packed into Sabores Chilenos today in a suburban Miami strip mall, watching the World Cup brings a joy that is also sadness in disguise. The man standing behind the counter yesterday knows this, because he feels it himself, and because he sees the faces of customers who walk into the store for the first time and find shelves stocked with little pieces of their past.

"Some people come here and open the door and they stand there," says Cristian Baradit, who left Chile for the United States 18 years ago. "They stop here and cry, man. And cry. I'm serious."

Sabores Chilenos is a restaurant, grocery store and, for a month every four years, a sports bar. It sells pennants, soccer jerseys and red and blue face paint. Streamers of Chilean flags run the outside length of the store, and inside, big television screens stay tuned to the World Cup, a scene repeated in restaurants and bodegas all over the United States but especially in Miami, where so many sons and daughters of Latin America move. Many fans get only three games, three chances to cross oceans and years, pulled backward to a time and place before they left home.

"You remember everything," Baradit says. "When Chile is playing, you smell everything: the charcoal, the beef, the wine."

The word "homeland" seems quaint in an interconnected world, a relic of a time when anyone who chose to see other lands likely abandoned something else forever. But homeland is really just a kind of a code for the vital, fragile and nearly invisible structure of identity, built of complex things like family and religion, and of simple things like food and sports. Losing any part of the architecture has repercussions, basic human Newtonian math, and when all of them are taken away, the result is not unlike being shipwrecked alone.

"The first six or eight months," Baradit says, his English unable to keep up with the complexity of his thoughts, "the sensation is I want to cry. Here in Miami, it's flat. You don't have mountains. You don't have snow. All the year is the same. The same season: it's hot, hot, hot, hot. In Chile, my country, the summer is summer, the winter is cold, autumn is the flying leaves."

Baradit often thought about the neighborhood where he grew up, block after block of identical houses. He imagined his old friends living their typical Chilean lives, taking comfort knowing that, if he ever had to, he could return. Slowly, he built a life in the U.S. He married a fellow Chilean immigrant and had two boys, who he is teaching to speak Spanish with a Chilean accent. When he hears expats measuring things in meters, or calculating cost in pesos, he tells them to let go of the past.

"I am living in the United States," he says. "I miss my country, but I am living here. I love this country, too."

Standing behind his counter, his face glows. He looks happy and turns to point at the shelves, and at the displays set up around the long, narrow store, which is attached to the dining room.

"Costa!" he says, pulling down a package of cookies. "This brand is classic."

His gaze moves from desserts to candies, and to the little sugar-covered cakes. Holding a big glass jar of sweets in the air, he taps it with soft hollow thumps, repeating the same phrase over and over, his voice rising on the second word: "It's classic!" In front of him, he points to a package of soup seasoning and tells how people come in and buy it, and then tell him they don't want to make it, they just want it in their kitchen, because it was in their mother's kitchen, too.

"The Old England Toffee!" he says, sounding like a child again. "I remember in my school, I remember that product."

He comes here every day, a second job, and seeing him in his blue apron, arms resting on the glass display case, it's clear he wants the warm nostalgia rush as much as the paycheck.

"When I am working here," he says, "I am in Chile. I am in Chile, you see?"

This is the only Chile that exists for him now, a narrow shotgun shop in the back of a strip mall, not even visible from Flagler Street passing a hundred yards away. Eight or so years ago, he went home for the last time. He booked a monthlong trip to Chile, full of anticipation. After years of feeling like a stranger in America, he would finally belong again.

Then he landed in Santiago.

He went to his old neighborhood and saw all the houses had been changed; they were bigger, unrecognizable. Nothing was as he'd left it. Streets he remembered as small now roared with a dozen lands of honking, belching cars. A new subway was foreign to him, and a transit employee had to pull him off a crowded train when he tried to squeeze in. Embarrassed, he gave up and went back up to the street. The fast-paced Chilean slang now moved too fast for him to understand. He was a stranger.

"I tried to see my friends," he says, "but now I found the son, and the grandson of my friend. 'My friend, where is he?' 'He's living in New York. He's living in Orlando. He's living in Spain.'"

The place he remembered had died, which meant part of him had died, too. He knew he'd never come back. His homeland had been lost.

After five days, he left Chile and flew back home to Miami.

Now he works in a Chilean store, attached to a Chilean restaurant, selling Chilean products to former Chileans like himself. He smiles when he hands over a box of empanadas, or packs a brown paper bag with the sugar-covered bread. In a few hours, he will watch the Chilean national team, and the hair will stand up on his arms for reasons he can't really explain. He will smell his mother's kitchen and hear the noises of his old neighborhood. For two hours, he will magically visit a world that disappeared the moment he left it behind.