A Day in Little Havana

Simon Lee takes a stroll in Miami's Latin Quarter

  • Shrine to Nicaragua's patron saint. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • A worker puts the final touches  to a cigar at El Credito cigar factory. Photograph by Simon Lee

If Los Angeles is the city of angels then Miami is the city of refuge and dreams, a haven for those fleeing South America or the Caribbean, looking for a foothold in the land of the free. By far the largest and most influential immigrant community comes from Cuba, only 80 miles and a whole world away across the straits of Florida.

Since the 1930s, and then in increasing numbers after Castro’s 1959 revolution, Cubans have been making the one-way trip to permanent exile. Now 700,000 Cuban Americans call Greater Miami home, and three former Cuban presidents are buried there. Gloria Estefan and larger-than-life jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval are only two of Miami’s high profile cubanos.

Even in super-cool South Beach you can sample down-home Cuban dishes like black beans and rice and roast pork, or get an instant rush with a high-octane sweet dark Cuban coffee. But to check out Miami Cuban lifestyle you have to head over the Venetian Causeway, past the high-rises on Brickell Avenue, and then take it on foot up Calle Ocho into the heart of Pequeña Habana, Little Havana. These 30 blocks are home to the majority of the exile community, and also to the Calle Ocho festival in March, America’s biggest street party.

Already familiar with the battered charm of Havana, I set out eagerly one June morning to meet the Cubanos of Little Havana. A few blocks down Calle Ocho I notice the Spanish signs (Comidadas Especiales, Joyeria) and smell the aroma of cigars. I stop at a small bakery, its window filled with Daliesque decorated cakes. Plastic prehistoric monsters snarl at each other over indigo icing.

A few more blocks takes me to El Credito cigar factory, where the tabaqueros sit at low wooden desks deftly sorting, selecting and hand-wrapping leaves. Few of them speak English and none are fazed by my curiosity. The only difference between this small-scale factory and those I’ve seen in Cuba is that the tobacco is from the Dominican Republic.

A tall elaborately-painted Native American Indian accosts me outside the botanica he’s guarding, tomahawk at the ready. Whatever ideology they may have left behind on the island, many Miami cubanos have brought the belief in their Santeria saints and Orishas with them. The spirits of their island-born African-derived religion gave them comfort in their new unfamiliar environment and obviously continue to support them in their pursuit of the American dream.

The botanicas sell most of the accessories Santeria worshippers require. Inside this one are shelves crowded with statuettes of the saints and hung with coloured beads for the Orishas: red and white for Chango, white for Obatala, silver and blue for Yemaya, yellow for Ochun, green and black for Ogun. For only $20 I can get a multi-coloured bead bracelet offering me the protection of seven Orishas, or maybe I’d like a consultation? A sign offers the services of El Aguila Vidente who apparently is well known for his ability to “resuelve sus problemas”. But the all-seeing eagle is busy in the back conferring with another customer. Perhaps I should try some shark cartilage which is also advertised, but my Spanish isn’t up to asking what to do with it.

I’m on safer ground in Casino Records where the sign “Todo en música Latina” is no idle boast. In seconds I’ve found a Gonzalo Rubalcaba CD I couldn’t get in Havana, but I’m overwhelmed with offerings from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the DR, Puerto Rico, Mexico and whole sections dedicated to salsa and bolero.

At the junction of SW 13th Avenue and Calle Ocho stands the memorial to “los martires de la brigada de asalto”. The eternal flame sadly recalls the exiles of 2056 Brigade who died in the ill-conceived and poorly-executed Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco of April 1961. I scan the names: José Borras Gutiérrez, Alfred Cervantes Lago, Clemente Cruz de la Torre, Jorge Kim Yum, all long gone in the dream of a Cuba free of Fidel.

Further up the road is a far more cheerful reminder of the past. Domino Park, dedicated to the memory of the Dominican-born General Máximo Gómez, who led the Cuban liberation army in the wars of independence against the Spanish, is a popular meeting place for those old cubanos who’ve never abandoned their island obsession with dominoes or the more sophisticated allure of chess. Here they sit under the ever-watchful eyes peering from a mural of the leaders who attended the 1994 hemispheric summit of the Americas.

I leave the slap of dominoes and the buzz of chess commentary for a fresh fruit juice at a nearby coffee shop where the sweet guitar melodies and melancholy lyrics of Dominican bachata, soothe the patrons. Besides guarapo, freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, I can choose from pineapple, melon, tamarind, mango, orange or carrot.

Not everyone is doing well in Little Havana, judging from Padrino’s Pawnshop, which is equipped with enough instruments for several bands. The sign says Cash for diamonds and antiques, but every available inch is crammed with gleaming saxophones, accordions, congas, timbales, guitars and guiros. For that unforeseen emergency there’s even a pair of crutches.

Surprised at myself for coming this far cigarless, I step into the La Luna de Habana factory. The boss is a Frenchman, Gael de Courtivron, a graphic designer and cigar aficionado who bought the small factory in 1997 and joined Little Havana’s rapidly expanding cigar industry. Gael thrives on the ambience: “a wonderful milieu full of old stories about cigars.” His workforce of Cubans, Dominicans, Hondurans, Ecuadorians and Nicaraguans produce eight different high quality cigars from Caribbean and central American tobacco for export to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. When I leave La Luna I’m puffing happily on a nine-inch special.

Although Little Havana is predominantly Cuban, in recent years it has acquired another name — The Latin Quarter — reflecting the arrival of immigrants from all over Latin America. On the eight residential blocks north from Calle Ocho to Flagler Avenue, the Latin mix is well represented.

Arriving on Calle José Martí I’m greeted with the brightly-painted Nicaraguan restaurant, Yambo, complete with a gold bust of Rubén Darío, the great poet of South American independence, and a shrine to Nicaragua’s patron saint, the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. A sign declares the Yambo “la mejor Fritanga” in Miami, and there’s a constant flow of pick-ups passing through the forecourt collecting take-aways, while families and couples sit at al fresco tables for a more laid-back evening meal.

By the time I’ve retraced my steps most of the 30 blocks back to Brickell Avenue, night has fallen. I’m just about ready to hail a taxi and head back to swanky Miami Beach when an infectious accordion melody drags my weary feet into a long strip of a bar still hung with Cinco de Mayo bunting. The bar owner is a Dominican, the waitress who serves me my Cuban Tropicale beer is Honduran. I sip slowly, savouring the happy Colombian vallenato music.

 

HAPPENING MIAMI MARCH-APRIL

MARCH

Carnaval Miami (3-12)

Miami’s Latin flavour takes centre stage for this major annual celebration which includes Carnaval Night in the Orange Bowl featuring the biggest names in Latin entertainment, Carnaval South Beach, Carnaval International and Calle Ocho (12) Little Havana, attracting more than one million people. Various locations.

The 55th annual Miami International Orchid Show (3-5)

Coconut Grove Convention Center, 2700 S. Bayshore Dr., Coconut Grove.

Asian Arts Festival (month of March)

A celebration of more than 20 Asian cultures and heritages. Includes foods, handicrafts, music and dance, jewellery, martial arts, sports tournaments, dancing, cooking demonstrations, native costumes and more. Fruit and Spice Park, 24801 SW 187 Ave., Homestead.

Grand Prix of Miami (month of March)

Features the PPG CART World Series season opener. Includes world-renowned racers such as Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal. Homestead Motorsports Complex, Turnpike south to Campbell Dr. exit, follow signs.

Subtropics New Music Festival (March-April)

Miami’s showcase of the best in new music and innovative sound art. Various locations.

The Florida Derby (11)

Gulfstream Park, 901 S. Federal Hwy., Hallandale.

Italian Renaissance Festival (16-19)

Colourful pageantry, costumes, music, jugglers and jesters, strolling minstrels, madrigal singers and the Living Chess Game combine with the majesty of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens to create a magical journey back in time to the romance of the Italian Renaissance. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 3251 S. Miami Ave., Coconut Grove.

Dade County Fair and Exposition (16-April 2)

Tamiami Park, Coral Way and S.W. 112th Ave.

The Ericsson Open (23-April 2)

The fifth largest international tennis tournament in the world at The Tennis Center, 7300 Crandon Park Blvd., Key Biscayne.

APRIL

Annual African American Heritage Festival

This festival in Homestead celebrates the rich diversity of the African American culture.

Yamaha Contender Miami Billfish Tournament (6-9)

A blue-water fishing contest with a sailfish release division and a gamefish (tuna, dolphin fish, wahoo, kingfish) division. Miami Beach Marina, 300 Alton Rd., Miami Beach.

South Beach Film Festival (April)

Showcases films and videos by film-makers from across the United States with a forum for small, independent works. The Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach.

The Biltmore International Wine Festival (April)

The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.

Little Acorns 5th Annual International Kite Festival (14-16)

Along the beach on Ocean Drive, between 5th and 15th Streets.

Taste Of The Beach (21-23)

A culinary and music festival showcasing local restaurants and featuring jazz artists. South Pointe Park, 300 Biscayne St., Miami Beach.