The Two Joses: Home Runs and Home Cooking
This is not a story about an infamous professional athlete and his three-story fish tank complete with sharks, octopi and scuba-clad squeegee men. But it does start with one.
Without Jose Canseco’s steroid-fueled home runs, expensive marble floors sprawling across his Miami mansion and Hurricane Andrew’s historic destruction, Jose Almeida doesn’t get to serve the best juice on the Pacific coast of Ecuador.
Jose is one of two chefs in the beachy comuna of Cadeate, in the town of Montañita, in the province of Santa Elena—the southwestern region of Ecuador.
He and his wife, Nelcy, hang a sign in front of their restaurant, Pedazito de Colombia. It is the only lit sign for a couple comunas, north or south on the Ruta del Sol.
With a healthy dose of Latin tunes, Jose will sell you an entire plucked chicken, $1.80 per pound. Or serve you up “Typico”—soup, rice, house choice of meat, salad and plantain chips—for $2.50. Or whip you up a lunch to order, $2.
The best-kept secret in town—the juice—is seemingly free of charge, and never ending. The hot sauce, made by his mother’s own hand at the family farm and sold to her loyal son for $5 a jar, is similarly free.
In one way or another, Canseco’s flamboyant personality and his ostentatious, MTV “Cribs” fish tank, paid for the lit-up sign in the string of comunas devoid of a single traffic light.
And in one way or another, Canseco’s love of marble kept me fed for five weeks.
The Early Years
“I was born in Guayaquil.
My father, he went to The States to be able to make some money and have a better living over here. He liked it here, but he figured, ‘I’m gonna make some money.’
That was 1969. And then he came back, actually, with some money he made. At that time, he made, like, $5,000 and brought it back.
Dad loved driving, so he wanted to buy a bus. He actually bought the bus, but he had problems because it had a lean on it and he didn’t know that. So he decided to go back to the States and make a little more money.
The first time, when my father left, it was a year and a half and he came back. The second time, it was like eight months.
But the second time he went, he asked my mom, ‘Why don’t you come? So we can work together and make more money. That way, we’ll go back sooner.’
When Mom went to The States, she realized, ‘This is a little better for the kids. I think we have a better opportunity for the kids. Not just make money and go back.’
Mom decided, ‘We’re going to The States!’ I was 10 years old. I had no say, Mom decided.
She came back to Ecuador after three months and did all the paperwork, packed us up, and 1973, we went to The States.”
The process of immigrating to the United States was much easier in 1973, Jose explains. His father, Luis, was former Ecuadorian military, with a degree in mechanics and experience driving trucks.
“Back then, they encouraged people to go to work over there,” Jose says, smiling. “Now, they just want you to visit and get out.“
Luis worked for Otis Elevator. The company paid for the immigrant to go to school to learn English, and then further study mechanics.
His family, in a scenario that would be unthinkable today, left for the States with green cards—permanent resident status—in hand. Today, most immigrants come with visas and, for lack of a better description, prove their worth. Then, they often have to leave for a month or two before acquiring green card status.
A mere three years after uprooting from Ecuador, the Almeida family became citizens with dual citizenship.
Jose likes to describe his adopted home as “The States.”
He stresses “America” is a term that should be strictly used to describe the landmasses of the entire Western Hemisphere.
“Now, I’m back—this is where I was born, this is my country. I consider The States my country, too, because I lived there for 40 years. But for years, I see other things that The States do … kind of overprotect themselves from their brothers and sisters—which is America.
America is from the North Pole to the South Pole. That’s America—not just the United States. Here, we say ‘Ecuador.’ We don’t say, ‘Ecuador of America.’
The United States took care of me, embraced me, you know? I can’t complain about the United States.
I do complain, sometimes, about The States people that come here …
Some people from The States, I realize, they think they own the place. Or, here, [Ecuadorians] should speak English for them. That’s not the way it is.
When I was in the ’60s, early ’70s, I didn’t know any English. And nobody helped me. I had to learn English quick. ESL did not exist then.
Even the Spanish kids—Gonzales, Rodriguez—I would try to speak to them in Spanish and they were like, ‘Shhhh.’ The thing is, they knew Spanish, but it was something you couldn’t say. I wouldn’t say racism, but it was, you know, you have to speak English. Sometimes even the teachers would be very harsh. The beginning was very hard.
But now I think it’s much easier, in that sense, it’s easier for the kids—especially in areas like California, Florida, New York, big cities. I think it’s too easy, so it’s like, they don’t learn as fast.
I think if you’re in the States, you have to learn English.
I understand you go there and you don’t know the language in the beginning. The goal is to learn the language, not just say, ‘I live in a neighborhood where we all speak Spanish, I don’t need to learn English.’
I think people who born in the States, even raised in the States, they’re within their rights to say, ‘Yes, everybody speaks English. You’re in the U.S. where the official language is English …’”
Jose pauses, as if he anticipates the coming response: the United States does not have an official language.
“You’re right, there’s no official language. But that’s the language you speak most. I dunno, maybe in 50 years, Spanish will be spoken more than English. Then that will probably be the official language.”
Jose laughs at the thought, smiles and nods.
As a kid, he lived in Astoria, Queens, where the family stayed for about 13 years. After high school, Jose went to a trade school to learn air conditioning and refrigeration repair.
“I used to travel to Florida and I loved the big wide open space, the houses,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I want to go live in Florida when I get older.’”
Ever the pragmatist, Jose saw air conditioners, in sweltering Florida, as his ticket to the American (cough) Dream.
In perhaps the most meta description of the Ecuadorian coast overheard while in country, Jose marvels at the simplicity of his AC dream—a dream that could only be achieved in The States.
“Even though it’s hot, people like all the natural wind here on the beach. But sometimes, there’s no wind at all,” he finishes through a grin.
After two years of driving a New York City checker cab, Jose put his trade school skills to use, working with a family member in a new, large building complex.
“Built on 96th, between 2nd and 3rd. It was five 35-story buildings. We started doing maintenance in them. I did that for five years. Brother-in-law became a superintendent. My thing [still] was Florida. So I went to Miami in 1991. For 20 years.”
Jose quickly learned that the $14 per hour he could make in New York fixing AC units was $6 max in Florida. He wasn’t the first with the dream, it seemed.
“So I started working for this company, marble and stone restoration—floors, showers, walls. They pay me like, $7 per hour. I said, ‘Okay, I’ve gotta start somewhere.’
He was a fella from Greece. His English wasn’t that well and he was in a Spanish area. He had just started less than a year. And I told him, ‘Listen, why don’t we go into business together.’
He wasn’t too interested in making a partnership.
I said, ‘I’ve gotta do something. You don’t mind if I go out and grow.’ And he says, ‘No, go ahead.’ So within two weeks, I had a lot of his customers.”
And without warning, Jose reveals the most unlikely of heroic figures.
“Jose Canseco, he was a customer. He had a house in Cocoplum, very exclusive place in Coral Gables. He lived in a house near the bay and Hurricane Andrew came, August 24, 1992.
You saw miles and miles of houses destroyed. It was surprising not that many people died. It was terrible…”
Jose’s tone changes.
“It was terrible, but at the same time, in The States, it’s a rich country. They can fix it pretty fast—not like Haiti. And people have insurances and people take advantage of the insurances …”
Jose’s new marble business was inundated with requests, he reports, from people who needed to spend X-amount of insurance money on upgrades to their house, or lose the insurance payout altogether.
“Jose Canseco called me because, I’ll tell you the story. I was doing some maintenance across the street from him.
Canseco had a three-story fish tank the size of his house. He had sharks, octopus, all that stuff. He had people come in to maintain things. They had to go in full-on scuba in the tank.
So when Hurricane Andrew came, it cracked the tank. All those fishes died. The floor was seawater. Totally damaged.
He called me to see if I could do something with it. We cleaned it up, we polished it. It came out pretty good. But he wasn’t happy with it, so he decided to take the whole floor out.
We redid the whole floor and put newer marble in there,” he finishes, another smile creeping across his face.
For Love and Country
Jose has two sons from his first wife. They live in New York and Florida.
He has a daughter from his second wife. She, too, lives in Florida.
Neither romantic relationship lasted.
Living alone in Miami, at the behest of a cousin back in Ecuador, Jose joined the Latin American version of OKCupid.
“I saw a picture of Nelcy and I said, ‘Wow, she’s nice. But she’s from Colombia. Too far, I’m not going to Colombia, that’s just too far. I need somebody who’s local.’
I sent her a message anyway. And she answered back. We started talking, texting and messaging. Then Facebook. We started talking on the phone…
If you like somebody, there’s no barriers. You find a way.
Three months later, I tell her, ‘I have to see you, I have to meet you. We’re going 1,000 miles an hour up into the sky. We’re gonna crash. Let’s meet.’
I admitted to her that I wasn’t that tall. I’m a little short. She kept asking me, ‘How tall are you?’ I’d answer, ‘Just don’t wear high heels.’
In fact, I said, ‘I want you to wear a long red dress. I love red dresses. And don’t wear heels.’
Flew from Fort Lauderdale to Bogota. Then I took a little prop plane to Nava. I said, ‘This must be worth it, because I’m doing it.’ She met me at the airport in Nava. She took a three-hour bus to meet me there.
And she wore heels.
I went there for three weeks and it was really hard to leave. That was in August 2012. In the beginning of November, I went back again.
When I went back to Colombia, I had planned to bring her to The States. The plan was for me to take her there.”
Nelcy, Jose’s tall goddess seemingly immune to heat, enters on cue from working in the sweltering kitchen.
“We’re talking about you,” he tells her in Spanish, smiling, despite despite his story paused on the precipice of an awkward tension.
“Her visa didn’t go through. The States said ‘no.’
She said to me, ‘Let’s not worry so much. Let’s go to Ecuador. Your mom’s there.’ She had met my mom already because the second trip I came in November, I decided to bring her over.
One thing, to me, my mom is important, very important. So when mom saw her, they clicked. They respect each other, they love each other so much.
I’m like, I’m in heaven. My mom and the woman that I love, all love.
I proposed that second trip.
Anyway, we decided, let’s not worry about States. July 27, 2013, I went to Colombia, picked her up and we took the bus 12 hours to Ecuadorian border.”
Coming to America—South
“In the beginning, they look at you strange like you’re not from here. I mean, I look Ecuadorian. But yeah, they keep to themselves. I tell them, ‘I’m from Guayaquil.’ But Guayaquil is like a foreign place, too.
I’m a local now, though. I fit in here. I like it here. I think there are good opportunities here.
At the same time, there are a lot of things I don’t like. The way the government runs the Department of Transit and the Police Departments. Everything’s bribed.
Sometime bribes can be convenient—but a country cannot grow like that, because they’re pocketing everything.
When I meet people—like you guys—who speak English, I kind of miss it, too. I speak English and Spanish fine, but sometimes I get tongue-tied with the Spanish. It’s easier for me to speak English.
It’s easier for me to look at things in English. Nelcy gets a little annoyed—like, my computer’s in English. I even dream in English.”
Jose then begins to describe why his English tendencies can be a problem in Cadeate.
“A lot of people, they look at The States as a bully. I can see it now from here, but I still think it may not be all justified. I think U.S. has gotta protect their own interests and sometimes, while they protect their own interests, they protect other people, too.
The United States is a very rich country. It’s the most powerful country in the world. And I would say as part of The States, we have the privilege to go anywhere in the world. We have no problem.
It’s rare that you get stopped and hear, ‘You can’t come to this country.’ Yet, very hard to get to The States.
And people complain about people working there and sending money to another country. If they’re legal, is it not their money?
And Donald Trump, he says the stupidest things I’ve ever heard a smart person say. The U.S. is made of immigrants from the beginning, you know?”
He recoils, as if stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“I’m not into politics too much. You gotta enjoy life.
I think now I like to be neutral. I like to see both sides. I like to know why that person’s upset. I’ve gotta see why he’s upset. Maybe he has a point, you know? Find out why.
A lot of time, the world is bad because we don’t find the time to understand the other person.”