Experience Cuba – in Miami
Rise of a former paradise
There was a time when Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood was a paradise. And then came the time when you didn’t slow the car down while driving through it. Today, the streets are safer, there are plenty of charming corners to discover, and optimism has returned to this Cuban neighborhood, which remains refreshingly untrendy, yet full of charm.
At the heart of Little Havana is SW 8th Street, affectionately called Calle Ocho. This thoroughfare is also the Tamiami Trail, stretching from Miami through Alligator Alley in the Everglades all the way to Tampa on Florida’s west coast. Most of Little Havana’s attractions lie between SW 12th and SW 17th Avenues.
Residents from two waves of imigrants
The first wave of Cubans, mainly political refugees, settled into this predominantly Jewish community when Fidel Castro came to power in the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Miami is relatively close to Havana – less than 200 nautical miles away.
The second big wave of immigrants came with the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when in just six months, 125,000 people poured out of the country, anxious to join their relatives in the United States.
The boatlift ended with an agreement between the two countries to stop the exodus, but today, the Hispanic population, including Cubans, accounts for more than 60% of the population in Miami-Dade County, and Spanish is widely spoken. The Cuban community remains a powerful force, with both patriotic ties to America and and some lingering bitterness toward Cuba they no longer know, especially among older Cubans.
The land of opportunity
“I know that things are changing, but I don't have very good memories of Cuba,” says 58-year-old Pedro “Peter” Bello Jr., who arrived in the US as a 12-year-old in the wake of Castro’s rise to power when his family left their tobacco business, in which they had been for decades, and started all over again in the US.
Don Pedro Bello Sr., now 86, founded the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company on Calle Ocho and still comes to work. “The US was opened the door for us,” says Bello Jr., puffing on a cigar. “It was the land of opportunity, and Little Havana was paradise.” But paradise took a turn for the worse in the 1980s, when “people moved out of the neighborhood and moved their businesses out, too.”
All in all, Bello has seen a lot of positive change, which he credits to the city of Miami and the local police. “They have cleaned up the streets,” he says. “There are expensive apartments coming up, and we’re expecting a Starbucks pretty soon. If you see there is a Starbucks, that’s a good neighborhood!”
Storeowner Jackie Llaguna was a teenager when she and her parents left Cuba on the Mariel boatlift. The close-knit family moved to New York for better economic opportunities, but Llaguna eventually returned to Miami. “When I came here for the first time I saw a funeral home and an open casket on the street. There was nothing!” she says. “But there were German tourists getting off a bus and I thought, ‘What can I offer them?’ and I took a chance.” She has been running the Little Havana Visitors Center souvenir shop and information center on Calle Ocho since 1999.
Make a Mojito
6 cl white rum
3 cl fresh lime juice
9 cl soda water
3 mint leaves
2 teaspoons sugar
Pour over ice and garnish
with fresh mint.
Legendary venue revived
Signs of Little Havana’s revival are everywhere, from the art deco Tower Theater, which is now a cultural center and Spanish cinema run by Miami Dade College, to the reopening of the Ball & Chain bar and lounge after decades of abandonment.
Between 1935 and the 1950s, this legendary venue hosted Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. Today, the Ball & Chain, with live music and refreshing Cuban mojitos, has put the mojo back into Calle Ocho’s nightlife. There are even plans to open a boutique hotel.
Daytime activities for the locals center on the tiny, paved Maximo Gomez Park, or Domino Park as it’s known. The main activity here is – you guessed it – dominos, enjoyed mainly by older men, intensely focused on their game. The fierce rules of etiquette are posted in Spanish: No swearing, no shouting, and no spitting.
Nearby is Little Havana’s own Walk of Fame, with nearly 100 stars honoring Latin American artists, athletes, and residents, including perhaps the embodiment of Miami’s Cuban-American success story – singer Gloria Estefan.
A trip back to old-world Cuba
Intellectual Cuban exiles often hang out at Cubaocho Museum and performing arts center. Stepping into its wood-paneled, Tiffany-lamped interior is like entering old-world Cuba. The museum contains more than 2,500 reference books documenting Cuban artists, and the walls are covered with pre-revolutionary art brought over the Florida Straits on boats from Cuba. Tucked away at the back of the museum/bar is La Rumba, painted by Antonio Sanchez Araujo in 1937. “This renowned painting is considered in some art circles to be Cuba’s Mona Lisa,” says Little Havana tour guide Ralph de la Portilla, who refers to himself as an “ABC,” or American-Born Cuban. “Of course, Cuba’s Mona Lisa is going to be smiling and dancing in a rural countryside,” he adds.
Don´t miss out on the pastry
On the street outside are some less prestigious but colorful works of Cuban art – fiberglass roosters. “Roosters have been a Miami pest for decades,” says de la Portilla, mentioning that over the years, the city has called in the Chicken Busters to remove wandering roosters and hens from the neighborhood. In fact, you may have to sidestep one as you line up for a syrupy black coffee Cubano at a ventanita, or take-out window. The Exquisito restaurant serves up a jolt for an old-fashioned 75 cents. Farther west on Calle Ocho, the locals grab a quick coffee and guava pastry or Cuban sandwich at the bustling Versailles restaurant and bakery’s popular take-out window.
Versailles is a meeting spot for Cubans and the place where politicians go to garner votes and the media gathers when the situation in Cuba flares up. It’s a great place to sample hearty Cuban cooking at reasonable prices including empanadas, roast pork with boiled yucca, sweet plantains, or Ropa Vieja (Old Clothes) – shredded beef cooked in a wine and tomato sauce. Dig in and enjoy! Little Havana is back on track and full of life.
By Cari Simmons
Published: September 14, 2016