Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Jorge Cabrera, Islamorada


The Beginning: (The first in a series we will publish over the next few weeks)
Jorge: " In the 50's and early 60's I grew up in the parking lot of what is now today" Islamorada Fish House" then it was "Green Turtle Cannery, with JB and Uncle Sid. Mom and Dad came over from Cuba when I was six months old.
My Dad's family was wealthy in Cuba and they 'sent' my Dad over here as sort of punishment. Back then the Keys were nothing much but swamps and mosquitos. Cubans would be sent over here to build the tile floors and all the fancy things in the millionaire's houses here that were starting to go up like on Millionaire's Row. Mosquitos don't bite my Mom and I to this day. I guess we built up an immunity.
My parents would also deliver new cars from up here to Key West, get on the Ferry and ride free and deliver the cars to Cuba. This was before Castro days. You could take a ferry from Key West to Cuba back in those days.
Dad built a camper in the parking lot and we lived in it. I grew up in the Turtle Corral. Uncle Sid eventually built an apartment upstairs over the Fish House and then he gave us his Airstream Camper and we lived in that.
When you sit in the Green Turtle now if you look over the door you will see a picture of Uncle Sid and JB and the Turtle Corral behind it and the boat behind them is an old Chris Craft that belonged to my Dad. There was a board across the turtle corral and I'd walk across that and fall in all the time.
That was the beginning of the Cabrera's in the Keys. If you get all this then you understand where the hell I came from. I'm a parking lot kid.
We were used to butchering turtle and selling the meat. I also rode the turtles when the tourist came. Turtle was the steak of our time. My mom reminded me the other day that thank God we liked to fish and catch turtles because lots of time we didn't even have money for food. I'd catch little old grunts off the dock and we ate them all the time.
The Island was a free, wild place back in those days. The rich people would come down and my Dad would give them 10-12 lobsters or a bucket of stone crab. We really did think back then that lobster were the roaches of the sea and nobody cared about eating stone crab. Now, of course, some of the most expensive eating you can do. How the hell did that happen?
That was our life, doors unlocked, the Keys Life. Ted Williams used to go to my Mom's grocery store right across from Jerry's Sunset Inn and he'd get a steak sandwich, some Cuban coffee and a Cuban cigar. Mr. Pope and Carl "Mr. Coca Cola" (of Cheeca Lodge) lived right next to Ted. I grew up watching how these rich people lived while my mom cleaned houses, my dad cleaned fish, and we were really poor in my early years. I learned from both the rich and the poor. I got the best of both worlds.
There weren't any fences, not a lot of laws here back then. It was different, it was nice. We could play baseball in the street (Overseas Highway) and not see a car for hours.
We grew up here during the Mariel Boatlift when Cuba emptied the prisons and sent them all here in 1980. It was both a bad and good situation for some. It was just too much at one shot. Too many came at one time, 125,000 landed in the Keys. It ruined us for a while tourist wise. Tourists thought that Cubans were just literally all over the roads, all over everywhere. Nobody came for a long time. Not all those who came were criminals and some live here today.
They Keys have always lived up to a certain reputation. I mean really, why do you think the government built the Flagler Railroad to run all the way down here. Do you think they did that so people could come see Indians and be eat up by mosquitos or alligators? No, it was to run rum, and other alcohol, and cigarettes and cigars and all that stuff during prohibition. The Keys have always been a conduit between Cuba, Columbia, other Islands and the mainland of the United States.
Matecumbe, as it was called then, became a family community under the Russells, Pinders and Parkers, but the railroad changed the character of another Keys community. The large homesteads split into smaller units during the Flagler era from 1905 to 1935. The islands became two halves separated lengthwise by the railroad. The Russells, Pinders and Parkers sold portions of land to newcomers like the Churchs, LaBranchs, Luckenbacks, Howells, Peacocks, Cothrons, Careys, etc.
In 1972 the government said we couldn't eat turtle anymore. Did that stop us? No. We kept on getting them, selling them, and eating them. You were looking at 10 years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Hell, that's like telling a Texas boy, you can't eat beef no more or butcher a cow. Now, people look at your like you're a murderer if you talk about eating turtles.
Hunting and butchering turtles was a lot of our own food and the way we made money. We ate it all the time, it was our life. We didn't have real meat down here then, turtle steaks were a big deal. The government didn't care about us down here back then. And, now they are going to tell us we can't eat turtle?
I was 16 by this time and for the first time I asked myself who this government was. Who says we can't eat turtle that come out of the sea right in front of us? We kept on eating turtle.
Around this time my Dad bought his first dump truck. This was the birth of Cabrera Trucking. Eventually I got a dump truck. We got the contract for the bridges going up to haul all the sand and fill for the bridges.
I got my first dump truck from my grandfather in Cuba. He asked me if I wanted a dump truck or a new cadillac. I took the dump truck. My older brother, the playboy, took the cadillac.
I remember going into TIB bank and wanting to borrow $12,000 to buy another dump truck and they told me we didn't need anymore dump trucks down here. I asked them what I had to do to get a loan for another truck. They told me I had to pay off the $3,000 loan I had there already. So, I handed the money to them, got the loan and bought the truck.
In the beginning we were making about $4-5 thousand a week on the 3 dump trucks. My Dad was paying me $100 a week. I did this for a year because it's a good thing to help your family. I was living at home rent free and all. My mom and dad always said I'd have a roof, food and a some clothes as long as I needed it, everything else I'd have to buy. So, I always worked and always earned money from the time I was little.
After a year I went to my mom and told her this had to stop. I needed more money. So, she argued with my dad for about 3 weeks and I started making real money.
During the same time, all the marijuana coming into the Keys needed to be hauled out and I had the only trucks that could do that and that's how that started. I'm thinking as I sit here talking to you that wow, my life has been so fast. Did I really do all that? That's a story for another day."


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