One month ago, in November, Matt Haley — owner and executive chef at SoDel Concepts, president of La Esperanza and founder of Global Delaware — received the highest honor the Delaware Restaurant Association can bestow: the Cornerstone Award. It was a night of distinction, replete with tuxedos, fine fare and his lovely significant other, Kaitlee Martell.
Three weeks later, Haley, dressed in an orange Miami-Dade County Jail jumpsuit, was ordered out of a corner of a cell filled with approximately 40 Hispanic and African-American prisoners by four burly guys.
“That’s our corner,” one said, menacingly. Haley decided this was no time to declare his right of place and sat farther along the wall, on the stone floor. The man sitting next to him had just defecated in his pants.
“I thought, how ironic it was that I had just had a conversation with friends about how life can turn on a dime,” said Haley. “And I thought, too, this is going to be one hell of a story!”
In between these two occasions, Haley had traveled to Nepal, returned home for an overnight visit and visited Cuba. The Nepal trip was to see his adopted family and to continue his efforts to fight human trafficking and the sex-trade business in Nepal and India. It was a routine trip for a seasoned traveler.
The Cuba trip was Haley’s first to the island.
“I was invited by Jeff Schaller, an artist friend whose work I really like, as well as David Haines, a sculptor friend and his business agent,” said Haley. “We obtained cultural visas, and our goal was to meet up with Alain Fernandez Ferreira, an amazing Cuban artist. We are planning a joint project relating art, food and creativity.”
Haley has loved the Latino culture since he was a young boy and a neighbor, Mrs. DiMaria from Costa Rica, took him under her family’s wing. The first dish he learned to cook was enchiladas, and the first dances he learned were the meringue and salsa.
“I think of her, and I think of love, thoughtfulness and awesomeness,” said Haley.
Perhaps the first indication that this trip would not be routine was when Schaller was pulled out of the immigration line in Havana.
“He was your caricature typical communist official,” said Haley of the Cuban official, “dark sunglasses, a black satin jacket, slicked-back hair. He wanted us to be clear as to where we were and who ruled.”
Haley’s group had come to Cuba with open minds, not to be tourists, nor political critics, but to experience life behind the glitzy hotels. Using all their senses, they tasted food Cubans cooked for themselves, listened to stories, observed the combination of beauty and color in the midst of deprivation and censorship, and were awed by Ferreira’s cutting-edge, non-conventional artistic style.
“It’s complicated,” wrote Schaller on his blog as being his response when friends ask how he found Cuba. He compared it to camping. Either one thinks the discomforts are worth the scenery or they do not.
“It is exotic and morbidly nostalgic at the same time,” he blogged. “Propaganda overlays the walls of a once-prosperous epoch. It comes alive, and you feel like you’re in another era when the cars zoom by. They pass by, looking pristine and perfectly restored. Art eco facades work as a background and capture the romance… I now realize I have no idea what is going on here.”
Haley purchased several of Ferreira’s paintings. The canvases were rolled up together, with the official stamp clearly showing and the paintings themselves obscured. One of the pieces is of a beautiful woman laughing as she looks at a newspaper with a column on a page purposefully torn out. It subtly signifies censorship and is not the kind of image Cuban officialdom looks upon kindly. Haley was relieved when his luggage wasn’t searched as he boarded the plane headed for American freedom.
Standing in the immigration line at Miami International Airport, Haley was thinking only of catching his next flight home and sleeping in his own comfortable bed when the officer looked at his passport, checked the computer screen and politely asked him to step aside. He was then surrounded by four uniformed men, handcuffed, and taken to a holding room, where approximately 80 to 100 Latino men, women and children had all been detained from different flights on their way to a better life. His shoes, socks, belt, jewelry, keys, wallet and passport were taken.
“I knew I had done nothing wrong, and I knew I had to stay cool,” said Haley. “At first I wondered if my travels to and from Maoist Nepal and communist Cuba had caused a red flag. Then I wondered if it was more sinister and frightening and related to my work with human trafficking…”
A couple of hours later, Haley was shackled, as well as handcuffed, and put on a golf cart and driven through the airport.
“I saw a little kid tug her mom’s arm, point at me and say, ‘Look!’ I tried to stay expressionless. Then, as I stood up to be laid down in the back of a police car, my pants started to fall down… but I stayed cool.”
It was then, on his way to the Warrant Office, Haley learned what was going on. Some 33 years previously, as a fun-loving 19-year-old on spring break in Fort Lauderdale, Haley was arrested for urinating on the beach. He spent a night in jail while his friends produced the cash for his $20 fine. But, apparently, the paperwork wasn’t completed or maybe there was a computer glitch, and for 33 years, a warrant for his arrest with a bond for $50 remained open.
“This sucks,” said the warrant officer, “but you’re going to be here for a few weeks, probably through Christmas.”
Still cool, Haley took advantage of his phone call.
“‘I won’t be home tonight. I’ve been arrested,’ I told Kaitlee. She was so calm and collected and wrote down all the names of people I needed her to contact, especially my lawyer, Jay Becker,” said Haley.
Then, Haley was processed, given his prison garb and put in the holding cage, where he was denied his corner spot. Eventually, he was moved to his cell with four other inmates, under the eye of a trustee. He was shown his bunk and handed a mop.
“It wasn’t mopping the floor I minded,” said Haley, “it was the young guys calling me ‘Pop’! But I stayed cool.”
And then, without warning, 36 hours after arriving in Miami, his name was called, his clothes returned, $100 given and the door unlocked. He hailed a cab, went to the airport, told the USAir representative he had missed his flight, boarded 20 minutes later, found his car in Philadelphia, drove home and went to bed. Back to normalcy!
“It was a good experience, an important reminder of my priorities. I could handle it and I have resources,” Haley said. “Another guy in my same situation would probably still be locked away. For many incarcerated people, their humanity is reduced to guilt, shame, humiliation and punishment. And that includes the mentally ill and drug and alcohol abusers. I see the lack of freedom in Nepal and Cuba, and I am aware of our challenges with human rights here in America.”
Typical of Haley, he made friends with the “bad-ass” lawyer that Becker obtained for him in Miami.
“He charged me $7,500 but told me to donate $2,500 of it to Global Delaware. He wants to become involved in what we are doing,” said Haley.
Haley’s new restaurant in Fenwick Island, Papa Grandés, which Haley describes as a coastal taqueria, will open in the spring. A percentage of the profits will go to a scholarship fund for young Latinos to go to cooking school. And on the walls will be displayed some of Alain Fernandez Ferreira’s paintings.
And those painting will also be exhibited in several locations as part of the joint project with Schaller, Haines and Haley, called “Cubanism.”
“They won’t be fancy shows,” said Haley. “We want busloads of children and teachers to come. It will all be about community and experiences that touch the heart and mind.”
One thing for sure — it will be a cool show, for Matt Haley is one cool dude.