Andres Vazquez was rushing home from work to pick up his seven kids on a recent Tuesday when a tire on his old Dodge Caravan blew out. After coaxing the hobbled vehicle to his Miami Beach home, he turned the engine off. When he tried to restart it a few minutes later, there was only silence.
In near panic, the single father and full-time hotel cook who cares for his children only with the help of some family members, managed to borrow a car. An hour later, Vazquez and his brood poured out of the smaller Buick and were all smiles at Miami’s Jungle Island.
It was a rare trip to a fun spot for the large family, thanks to the kindness of a stranger who supplied the passes.
“I stay positive because if the kids see me stressed out,” Vazquez said, his sentence trailing off. “But I feel blessed. They’re good kids. They all have their fair share of responsibility.”
Vazquez said he doesn’t have many needs. He supplements his $14-an-hour job at the Clevelander Hotel with food stamps. The kids, between the ages of 1 and 14, wear hand-me-downs. He has turned his two-bedroom apartment in North Beach into a three-bedroom pad, and everyone has their own mattress. He works during the day and picks his kids up from school every afternoon. He has created a unique filing system to remember each child’s birth date: His arms are covered with tattoos, one with each child’s name and their date of birth. He calls it his memo pad.
When pushed, Vazquez said his one Christmas wish would be reliable transportation — perhaps a van with less than 170,000 miles on it that the kids can fit into and that doesn’t break down all the time.
“They’ve got to have a better childhood than I had. I grew up too fast,” Vazquez said.
Obvious question: So how did it come to be that a 32-year-old male with a modest income, a Miami Beach Senior High student who attended the Boys & Girls Club and whose dad has been in prison for more than two decades, is the main caretaker of seven children?
Vazquez started having kids early. He had five — Christine, 5, Alvin, 6, Cymayra, 8, Christopher, 9, and Andres, 14 — with his teenage sweetheart. But the Miami Beach nightlife got to her, he said. After they split up, she would leave the home and return at odd hours. He would come by to visit and notice the kids weren’t cared for properly. He took pictures. The Department of Children and Families got involved, and after drawn-out court fights he finally got the rights to his five children.
Then he had two more with another woman. They didn’t live together, either. In April, the courts awarded Vazquez 1-year-old Dorian and 2-year-old Adrian. Some family members help with the kids. So does the mother of the babies. Local church workers help out, and so does the nonprofit Center for Family and Child Enrichment, which helps with child adoption and fostering services.
“I’m still going to family court to work out visitation rights. I’m going to parenting class. Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do,” he said.
The kids are sharp. They pay attention. They know their places in the family hierarchy. During their visit to Jungle Island, except for the babies in the double stroller, each older child took care of the one immediately younger.
Christopher wanted “alligator time.” He got it when a Jungle Island employee gave him a small two-footer to hold, with its mouth taped. Cymayra was awed by four large cats — three white tigers and a lion — sleeping lazily in a glass-enclosed pen. “Look daddy, the Lion King,” she said. Then she peeked around another corner and noticed a pair of turtles — doing who knows what.
“Daddy,” she said. “Look at the turtles. They’re on top of each other.”
When 14-year-old Andres spotted a pair of disturbingly ugly warthogs eating old eggs and bathing in chocolate brown water they were urinating in, he pulled out his iPhone and started looking up the ugliest animals in the world. The proboscis monkey, and its unusually shaped nose, had the warthogs by a long shot, he said.
Then it was off to the petting zoo, where a goat tried to eat Christine’s shirt. Later, most of the children piled into the small colored train that circles a field in the center of the Watson Island park. Then, back into the Buick, one by one, like the stereotypical clown car that tickles kids with laughter every year at the circus.
Vazquez said the mother of the two babies is still a big help. She loaned him the Buick Wednesday to get the kids to Jungle Island and sits in when he has to leave.
“She does stuff like the girls’ hair,” Vazquez said. “She watches them sometimes when I’m at work. She gave me two — and she got five for free.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444.
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com.
▪ Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.
Read more at Miami Herald.com/wishbook.