Eternal Bond

Key Rats had a humble beginning on Key Biscayne in the 1950s — but it goes deeper than a cute moniker. It describes a way of life, a cherished community, and a kinship that transcends generations and the passage of time.
Words // Bianca Sproul | February 24, 2024 | Lifestyle

Key Biscayne offers the world a different life right outside of bustling, dazzling Miami — a barrier island where time slows and the ocean laps at your doorstep. It’s a home where I and many others grew up, a community held together by generations of friendship, family and a fellowship of Key Rats. In fact, Key Rathood starts early, a rite of passage that varies by Key Biscayner generation but is defined by unprecedented freedom and adventurous traditions in our island paradise. 

“Key Biscayne is an emerald set in an asphalt urban cityscape,” says Key Rat Andrew Otazo, an avid environmentalist and Award-Winning Author of The Miami Creation Myth. Otazo, who grew up on Key Biscayne diving with dolphins, tarpon and manatees, reflected many aspects of my own childhood. I snorkeled for hours with my father in front of the Key Biscayne Beach Club, delighted by daily discoveries of eagle rays gliding over seabeds or manatees sunbathing on fields of seagrass. I would bike down sunny streets to my friends’ houses scattered throughout cul-de-sacs and to the Key Biscayne Rec Center. From hidden forts in the mangroves to jumping off rope swings in Pines Canal, Key Rats have scurried around the isle throughout the decades.

Richard Vernon, whose family moved to Key Biscayne in 1951 to open Vernon’s Drugstore, has lived on The Key for over 65 years and is grateful he raised his sons in the same world where he played sports, fished with friends, and explored the mangroves as a child. “It was a place where everyone knew everybody,” he says. “It had a true community feel, and I can’t think of a better place to grow up.” Vernon has kept in touch with many of the people he grew up with, special friendships marked by hours meeting at the water tower and being out until sunset. 

Manny Rionda, known for his dog Chico at his many paddleboarding clean-up adventures, has been in love with Key Biscayne since the late ‘70s and ‘80s. “Living at the cross-section of paradise and freedom, there’s always been a fine balance of mischief and trouble to explore right outside your door,” he says. “Anyone who’s spent time living here may agree that there’s a different vibe when you cross the bridge, one that’s difficult to define with words.”

Melissa White is part of a multi-generational legacy of Key Biscayners. The longtime Executive Director of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation grew up on the island after arriving in 1978 with her mother, Joan McCaughan, who joined her parents who were already living here. Today, Melissa is raising her own children on The Key. “We are so fortunate to live on a beautiful barrier island less than 15 minutes from an international metropolitan city right across the bridge,” she says. “We have the bounty of two parks, the bay, the beach, the ocean — it’s really idyllic for families and children, and many people outside of the island don’t realize how much of a small town it is!”

Vivian Galego-Mendez, who manages BHHS EWM Realty’s Key Biscayne office, visited The Key on weekends as a child before permanently relocating a quarter of a century ago. She witnessed her sons who grew up on the island make lifelong friendships with people from all over the world. “I love being able to live and work on the island,” she says. “This is such a wonderful and caring community where we all know and help each other.”

Key Biscayne didn’t used to be a place people sought out to raise their families, and being a Key Rat wasn’t always an honorary badge. According to Mike O’Brien, a self-described “Old Rat” who moved here in 1956, Key Biscayne had humble beginnings as a neighborhood full of starter homes for military families. Since no schools existed back then on Key Biscayne, kids were bussed to Coral Gables Senior High School. Basketball Coach Ralph Rice told O’Brien that he remembers standing next to administrators as the bus full of Key kids came in — and they would say: “Here come the Rats from Key Biscayne!”

To track Key Rat traditions and connotations over the years, I sat down with five Key Rats from different generations and an “Honorary Key Rat” at the Cleat, overlooking Biscayne Bay at Bill Baggs. Leni Weber, who grew up on The Key during the ‘70s and ‘80s, recounted stories of “Fort Secluded” at Calusa Park and perfecting tricks at the ski hole. She confessed that the partying of some Key kids from her generation may have contributed to a reputation of Key Rats being troublesome. 

Christine Ortega recalled breaking Cuban bread with family at Oasis and meeting peers on remote beaches in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Monica Pernas described bonfires by the Beach Club in the ‘90s and how people linked their boats by sandbars. Kathy Polo, ‘61 Key Rat, regaled me with a story of sneaking into the backyard of her neighbor President Richard Nixon (whose home on the island was referred to as the Winter White House) and running into Secret Service. To this day, she holds her memories of Key Biscayne close. I’ve arrived home.” 

Reina Gonzalez, Owner of Lighthouse Café, Boater’s Grill, and The Cleat, shooed Pernas, Weber, Ortega and Polo when they all chimed in to call her an “Honorary Key Rat” despite not having grown up on the island. After a playful wave of her hand, Gonzalez, who raised her children on the island, explained that the special character and community of Key Biscayne kept her family on the island for so many years. “The Key will always be The Key,” she says. “No matter what the changes we may experience, we will continue to be proud Key Biscayners.”

Key Biscayne Mayor Joe Rasco, who has been living on the island for 45 years and is a founding member of the Village’s incorporation in 1991, and his wife, Ana, also saw their kids grow up on the island. “It’s a badge of honor to be a Key Rat,” he says. “It means you love this community and you want to preserve it for generations to come.” 

Key Rat power couple Moncy Blanco-Herrera & Sarah McKenzie Blanco-Herrera agree. They met off-island through mutual friends. “Somehow we had spent our entire lives in Key Biscayne and never crossed paths!” They describe the beauty of reliving their childhood through their children. “Even though the island has changed a lot over the years, the foundation and culture remains strong,” they say. “We can’t imagine a better place to call home — then, now and forever.”