A Cuban adventure in Miami’s ‘Little Havana’

A sprawling neighborhood lying immediately west of downtown Miami – the cultural and political capital of Cuban Americans and the center of their exile community.

RESIDENTS OF Little Havana pass the time playing dominoes. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
RESIDENTS OF Little Havana pass the time playing dominoes.
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
It’s not Havana, Cuba. But it’s close.
Maybe that’s why, they call it “Little Havana.”
Only 90 miles, a 48 minute flight separate the two Havanas. One is located on the island of Cuba, the other is situated in Miami, Florida, The latter city contains about 5.5 million in its metro area, two thirds of whom are of Hispanic origin, and of that, a third, are Cuban.
The urban scenery may be different, but the atmosphere, the language, the culture, and above all, the people are very similar - actually they’re much closer than the physical divide of distance. Despite the US blockade of the island that separates the locals in the Cuban capital and the émigrés who fled the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the latter still retain much of their cultural heritage in their new home.
So it’s called Little Havana, a sprawling neighborhood lying immediately west of downtown Miami – the cultural and political capital of Cuban Americans and the center of their exile community.
Undoubtedly, too, it stands as one of the most “sensory sights” in all of Florida and “a very special culture that lives in their own community,” noted Bunny Hameroff of Boynton Beach, FL, who recently visited the city as part of a day-tour.
Anyone who journeys to this neighborhood will drink Cuban coffee, as I did, taste and eat Cuban food, learn about Cuban history, stand in awe of Cuban art – from pre-Castro to the colorful wall murals of new immigrants – learn how to roll Cuban cigars and gaze at memorials to Cuban and Cuban-American heroes.
Little Havana is bounded by 9th St. on the south; Dolphin Expressway (SR Rt 836) on the north; S.W. 4th Ave., on the east; and S.W. 27th St. on the west.
I sauntered down Little Havana’s main avenue and pulsating hub, Calle Ocho (aka S.W.8th St.), which is full of restaurants, mom-and-pop convenience shops and phone-card kiosks. The area to be covered is usually between 14th and 27th avenues.
My first stop was at Maximo Gomez Park, also known as Domino Park. There was a new sound for me, the clack clack of dominoes slapped down on the table by these Cuban seniors – most of them emigres – as they while away the hot Florida fall day, still 80 degrees F even in November. Obviously, the men enjoy the game; the banter is measured; the concentration, heavy. Wafting through the air is the strong smell of cigars.
At the park you will find a large mural of portraits of the leaders of every North and South American country who attended the 1994 Miami Summit of the Americas.
Some tourists snap a shot of former president Bill Clinton’s image.
I admire the local barbershop on Calle Ocho. What’s unusual about a barbershop? Well, the covers draped over clients in the barber’s chairs has the Cuban flag.
Anyone who walks down this avenue must stop and chat with Peter Hernandez of the fruit market known as Los Pinarenos Fruteria.
He is so proud that his store was included in a book called The Mom and Pop Store, which devoted a whole chapter to his establishment that he offers exuberant greetings when meeting tourists from all over the world. Here you’ll find papaya, apple bananas and Cuban sweet potato A few blocks down the avenue, I visit El Titan de Bronze, cigar manufacturers who proudly proclaim that “all our cigars are hand-crafted in the US by Level 9 rollers,” all of whom have worked for world-renowned cigar factories.
Gazing at these skilled men and women are travelers, many of whom recalled the factories in Old Havana, Cuba, where cigar aficionados observed their stogies being rolled away and came away with a souvenir box. Many visitors do the same here.
Naturally, this community makes an historical and political statement in the memorials and monuments that line the main street. Since Castro took over Cuba in 1959, both the island and the US have been obsessed with hostile foreign policies toward each other, and there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries.
One is constantly reminded of that struggle in Little Havana, in the monument to the Brigade 2506 Memorial in a park off Calle Ocho dedicated to those who lost their lives in the ill-fated US backed invasion of Cuba in 1961, known as The Bay of Pigs. The memorial flame in the monument is surrounded by half a dozen missiles pointing upward. I am reminded of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that two-week confrontation in October, 1962 between the USSR and the US over Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba. It was the closest the world came to having a full-scale nuclear war. The Soviets dismantled the missiles and returned them to the USSR as part of an agreement. The US declared it would never invade Cuba “without direct provocation.”
In the area, too, are memorials to Jose Marti, the Cuban National Hero who fought for Cuban independence from the Spanish, and monuments to those who died in that Cuban War of Independence and the anti-Castro conflicts. Also, the Plaza de la Cubanidad, a tribute both to the Cuban provinces and to the people who were drowned in 1994 while trying to leave Cuba on a ship, “13 de Marzo,” which was sunk by Castro forces just off the coast.
Still walking along Calle Ocho, my excellent guide, Corinna Moebius, (littlehavanatours.com) a cultural anthropologist, historian and co-author of A History of Little Havana, points to the sidewalk which where we are strolling.
It contains pink marble stars marking the “Calle Ocho Walk of Fame.” This Little Havana version of a Hollywood attraction recognizes Cuban celebrities. Cuba’s most famous singer, Celia Cruz, who died in 2003, was the first to be immortalized in 1987. Since then, singers and soap stars from throughout Latin America have been honored. Corinna Moebius conducts private individual and group tours.
On the last Friday night of every month, an outdoor festival takes place and is known as “Viernes Culturales.” The event is held in Calle Ocho, between 13th and 17th avenues.
Observing the colorful art masterpieces in various studios and galleries, one is impressed with the displays. I stopped at Cubaocho Art and Research Center, located at 1465 SW 8th St. Suite 106-107.
A long wall and library in a café nearly hypnotized this writer with the warm colors of life. The center contains an extensive library and important collection of artworks created between 1850 and 1958 by various Cuban art masters.
The Tower Theater at 1508 Calle Ocho is not to be missed. This Art Deco style building is worth minutes of observation.
Like many urban areas in the US now occupied by diverse groups, Little Havana was once lower middle- class and Southern, and it was a thriving Jewish neighborhood in the 1930s. One active synagogue with a religious school nearby is Beth David Congregation, at 2625 SW Third Ave. The synagogue sits just south of Little Havana in a community called the Roads which some people group as part of “greater” Little Havana.
Like all immigrant groups, The Cuban population here has experienced a substantial decrease as the younger generation moves out of the neighborhood. Since the 1990s, Hispanics from other nations in Central America, such as Nicaragua, Honduras have moved into the area.
Restaurants and eateries abound.
No trouble finding Cuban cooking in this neighborhood. Most popular is Versailles, 3555 S.W. 8th St.
Some say that’s where you’ll find the power brokers and politicians, usually discussing Cuban politics.
But no matter where you stop off for the food of Cuba and the Caribbean, you’ll enjoy this slice of Cuba in exile. To Floridians residing outside Miami and for tourists from throughout the world, Edward Slater of Boynton Beach, FL. says “the diversity, the chance to see a different culture than we are all used to,” makes a trip to Little Havana, a worthwhile visit.
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published ‘Klara’s Journey, A Novel,’ [Marion Street Press] and ‘The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond,’ (Globe Pequot Press). Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, twitter @bengfrank