The Prince of los Cocuyos

When we moved to Miami, Abuela became a bookie for La bolita, an illegal numbers racket run by Cuban mafiosos. She took bets all day long, recording them on a yellow legal …

When we moved to Miami, Abuela became a bookie for La bolita, an illegal numbers racket run by Cuban mafiosos. She took bets all day long, recording them on a yellow legal pad and calling them in every night to Joaquin, the big boss. She also sold Puerto Rican lotto tickets, which she marked up twenty cents. Every month Graciela, her contact in San Juan, would send a stack of tickets; in exchange, Abuela split the profits with her: 25 percent for Graciela, 75 percent for herself. On Saturday nights, I’d help Abuela with her bookkeeping for the week. We’d set up at the kitchen table, her disproportionately large bust jutting out and over the tabletop and her short legs that didn’t reach the floor swinging back and forth underneath the chair. “Make sure all the pesos are facing up—and all the same way,” she instructed every time we’d begin sorting the various denominations into neat stacks.

As we handled the bills I tried teaching her about the father of our country, the Gettysburg Address, the Civil War, and the other bits of American history I was learning in school. Who’s this? What did he do? I’d quiz her, pointing at the portrait of Jackson, his wavy hairdo and bushy eyebrows, on a twenty; or at Lincoln’s narrow nose and deep-set eyes on a five. But it was useless: “Ay, mi’jo, they’re all americanos feos. I don’t care who they are, only what they can buy,” she’d quip, thumbing through the bills, her fingernails always self-manicured but never painted. Without losing count, she’d quiz me on la charada―a traditional system of numbers paired with symbols used for divination and placing bets. She’d call out a number at random, and I’d answer with the corresponding symbol she had me memorize: número 36―bodega; número 8―tigre; número 46―chino (which I always forgot); número 17―luna (my favorite one); número 93―revolución, the reason why I was born in número 44―España instead of in número 92―Cuba. Everything in the world seemed to have a number, even me: número 13―niño.

In a composition book with penciled-in rows and columns, she’d tally her profits, down to the nickels and dimes I helped her wrap into paper rolls. Sometimes―if I begged long enough―she let me keep the leftover coins that weren’t enough to complete a new roll. It seemed like a fortune to me at age nine, enough to buy all the Bazooka bubble gum I wanted from the ice cream man once a week; even enough to buy TV time from my older brother, Caco, so I could watch old TV shows like The Brady Bunch instead of football.

Once Abuela and I were done with our accounting, I followed her through the house as she stashed the money in her guaquita, her code name for the hiding places she shared with only me. Ones, fives, and tens went into a manila envelope taped behind the toilet tank; twenties and fifties underneath a corner of the wall-to-wall carpeting in her bedroom. The coin rolls we hid in the pantry, buried in empty canisters of sugar and coffee. “In Cuba I had to hide my pesos from la milicia―those hijos de puta! That’s when I started making guaquita. I even had to hide my underwear from them,” she’d claim. The pennies she tossed into an empty margarine tub she kept at the foot of her blessed San Lazaro statuette in her bedroom. Every Sunday morning she emptied the tub into a paper bag and dropped the pennies into the poor box at St. Brendan’s before mass. “You have to give a little to get a little, that’s how it works, mi’jo,” she’d profess, making the sign of the cross.

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