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Unformatted text preview: Best of Friends, Worlds Apart Joel Ruiz Is Black. Achmed Valds Is White. In America They Discovered It Matters. New York Times , June 5, 2000 By MIRTA OJITO MIAMI -- Havana, sometime before 1994: As dusk descends on the quaint seaside village of Guanabo, two young men kick a soccer ball back and forth and back and forth across the sand. The tall one, Joel Ruiz, is black. The short, wiry one, Achmed Valds, is white. They are the best of friends. Miami, January 2000: Mr. Valds is playing soccer, as he does every Saturday, with a group of light- skinned Latinos in a park near his apartment. Mr. Ruiz surprises him with a visit, and Mr. Valds, flushed and sweating, runs to greet him. They shake hands warmly. But when Mr. Valds darts back to the game, Mr. Ruiz stands off to the side, arms crossed, looking on as his childhood friend plays the game that was once their shared joy. Mr. Ruiz no longer plays soccer. He prefers basketball with black Latinos and African-Americans from his neighborhood. The two men live only four miles apart, not even 15 minutes by car. Yet they are separated by a far greater distance, one they say they never envisioned back in Cuba. In ways that are obvious to the black man but far less so to the white one, they have grown apart in the United States because of race. For the first time, they inhabit a place where the color of their skin defines the outlines of their lives -- where they live, the friends they make, how they speak, what they wear, even what they eat. "It's like I am here and he is over there," Mr. Ruiz said. "And we can't cross over to the other's world." It is not that, growing up in Cuba's mix of black and white, they were unaware of their difference in color. Fidel Castro may have decreed an end to racism in Cuba, but that does not mean racism has simply gone away. Still, color was not what defined them. Nationality, they had been taught, meant far more than race. They felt, above all, Cuban. Here in America, Mr. Ruiz still feels Cuban. But above all he feels black. His world is a black world, and to live there is to be constantly conscious of race. He works in a black-owned bar, dates black women, goes to an African-American barber. White barbers, he says, "don't understand black hair." He generally avoids white neighborhoods, and when his world and the white world intersect, he feels always watched, and he is always watchful. Mr. Valds, who is 29, a year younger than his childhood friend, is simply, comfortably Cuban, an upwardly mobile citizen of the Miami mainstream. He lives in an all-white neighborhood, hangs out with white Cuban friends and goes to black neighborhoods only when his job, as a deliveryman for Restonic mattresses, forces him to. When he thinks about race, which is not very often, it is in terms learned from other white Cubans: American blacks, he now believes, are to be avoided because they are delinquent and dangerous and resentful of whites. The only blacks he trusts, he says, are those he knows from Cuba. whites....
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