In Miami, Cuban Culture, No Passport Required
Just when I thought I’d had enough for one evening, an Afro-Cuban-American gentleman pulled me off the bustling Calle Ocho and into a room jammed with dancers bouncing up and down to the beat of congas. No, this wasn’t a ’90s-style rave; this was the normally unassuming lounge at Top Cigars, a cigar shop in Miami’s Little Havana. I recognized the owner, Cristobal Mena, from an exchange we’d had that morning at a Cuban restaurant across the street about what constitutes a classic Cuban dish. Now, I was hopping in a sea of his patrons on the famous boulevard that is the social and commercial hub of Little Havana.
The occasion was Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays), the last Friday of each month when the storied neighborhood hosts what feels like a block party on Calle Ocho (actually Southwest Eighth Street) between 13th and 17th Avenues. The monthly festival serves as a showcase of what this Cuban-American enclave has to offer. Painters and artisans mingle with the crowds. Music from Latin bands intermixes, and double-decker buses unpack tourists while the smells of arroz con pollo, fried plantains and cafe Cubano drift from restaurants and cafecito windows. As soon as you step onto the street, lined with wide sidewalks and colorful facades, the music fairly insists that either your shoulders or your hips move, not necessarily together.
Here in this adaptation of Havana, where the thrum of the old country persists, proposed zoning changes have led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to place a portion of Little Havana on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2015.
News of that development was reason enough to send me back to the city where I grew up. For years, I had wanted to see if I could find something of what my father had so often recounted of the time he’d taught dance on cruise ships from New York that docked in Havana during Cuba’s reign in the ’40s and ’50s as “America’s Caribbean Playground.” I wanted to catch a glimpse of what he called “a better time” before time ran out, and thought I might find it here, on American soil, before gentrification had a chance to dilute this neighborhood’s distinctive character. I had visited Calle Ocho only a few times as a teenager, back when mom-and-pop restaurants, bodegas and bakeries dotted the shady boulevard. But those were calmer days — before Calle Ocho earned its way into the Guinness Book of World Records with the “world’s longest conga line” in 1988.
“The phenomenon of Little Havana today is of relatively recent vintage,” said Paul George, professor of history at Miami Dade College and historian at HistoryMiami, a nonprofit that works to preserve Miami’s cultural past. “It’s been in the last decade that things have really surged in terms of night life and this quest to know the Cuban experience. Nowhere else in this country has a generation of immigrants been so successful so fast. Maybe 10 or 12 years ago, 300,000 or so people came to Little Havana in the course of a year. Now it’s between three million and three and a half million.”
The focus of my visit last fall was Calle Ocho, the artery that fuels the heart of Little Havana, a roughly three-square-mile area that is home to some 55,000 residents. Over the years, much of Cuba’s deeply rooted culture remained intact here as it rode in on succeeding waves of the Cuban diaspora. One of those waves occurred between Castro’s 1959 coup and 1973; another brought in over 120,000 Cuban immigrants in 1980. The latter influx, known as the Mariel boatlift, was a controversial mass flotilla to Florida shores that also included individuals freed from Cuban jails and mental institutions. The majority of immigrants, however, simply wanted a new start in the United States.
More recently, concerns that the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act — a pathway to American citizenship for Cubans — could be rolled back as part of the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, have generated another wave of new arrivals. Conversely, some Cubans are going back to their homeland now that Cuba has loosened its grip on returning immigrants.
In the meantime, Little Havana — and Calle Ocho — have, inevitably, evolved. These days it is home not only to Cuban-Americans but also to immigrants from Central and South American countries. Hence, visitors will find dishes like vigorón, — a yucca, cabbage and chicharrones Nicaraguan dish — served alongside Cuban fare. Punta, a traditional Central American dance, is often performed at birthdays and weddings.
Still, the pervading culture remains Cuban.
And that culture is bountiful. Cuba brought us the cha-cha, the Cuban son and the mambo (all three musical forms as well as dance styles), literary figures like José Lezama Lima, Dulce María Loynaz and, more recently, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Leonardo Padura Fuentes, as well as boundary-pushing artists like Michel Mirabal and Kadir López. Cuba gave us the mojito, Cuban coffee and the Cuban sandwich, and, arguably, the world’s finest cigars and rums. Factor in the sheer gravitas of Celia Cruz, one of the most influential Latin singers of the 20th century, and there’s small reason to wonder why Cubans are so proud of being Cuban. This from an island about the size of Ohio.
Before the dancing at Top Cigars that Friday, I joined a crowded walking tour led by Dr. George at one of Miami’s oldest cultural landmarks, theTower Theater on the corner of Calle Ocho and Southwest 15th Avenue. The Art Deco theater opened in 1926 as a state-of-the-art movie venue in Miami. But for families arriving from Cuba decades later, mass-culture blockbusters like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” would serve as a way to understand American culture and the language with the help of Spanish subtitles. The building was renovated in 2002 and now operates under the auspices of Miami Dade College.
We wandered past restaurants and markets. Everywhere, people were chatting on sidewalks, at storefronts and cafecito counters. The tour squired us through Cuba’s past: the Eternal Torch of Brigade 2506 monument, a memorial to those who died during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961; a bust of the Cuban poet and journalist José Martí; and a monument to the great Cuban war general Antonio Maceo Grajales (El Titan de Bronce, or Bronze Titan), among others.
It also included the Latin Walk of Fame, which honors those who’ve influenced the Latin community, including the Cuban-American salsa singer Willy Chirino, the bandleader and percussionist of Puerto Rican heritage Tito Puente, and the Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán.
As night approached so did the lure of Little Havana’s night life. Ball & Chain, I discovered, is a gorgeous, lush modern stab at a classic Cuban nightclub with napkin-over-forearm service. The mojitos here are a near-perfect blend of rum, lime, club soda, fresh mint and sugar, and the tapas are flavorful and Cuban inspired. During the 1950s, the club brought in headliners like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Chet Baker. It closed in 1957, and reopened in 2014 to rave reviews. That night, the bar was packed with millennials, the back of the club having transformed into a tropically decorated open-air patio, and the Pineapple Stage animated with Latin jazz.
If Ball & Chain claims modernity, Hoy Como Ayer (Today Like Yesterday) celebrates a connection to tradition. The lounge offers an authentic musical experience (and one that my father would have loved) in a small space that never manages to dampen the enthusiasm of dancers. Black-and-white portraits of Cuban musical icons such as La Lupe, Olga Guillot (known as the Queen of Bolero) and the fluid tenor Benny Moré cover the walls. The glittery décor and the slightly kitschy vibe, including a disco ball, are part of the charm.
“They get more than they expect when they come here,” said Fabio Diaz Vilela, the club’s energetic owner. “We bring some of the artists in from Cuba and some of them are local. The ones from Cuba are not related to the government.”
Mr. Vilela’s statement is still important to some Cubans in Little Havana. Association with Cuba’s government is often frowned on even though the fierce rhetoric has grown less intense over time, until the din has been nearly drowned out generationally. Native Cuban-Americans seem more accepting of détente than their Cuban-born parents or grandparents, but that conversation (or debate) can still be overheard in restaurants and on the streets.
The morning after Cultural Friday’s festivities, I headed to a cafecito window on Calle Ocho. Unlike so many concoctions in American cafes, Cuban coffee has no identity crisis; it is sweet and freighted with espresso intensity. Because the young girl at the counter spoke little English, I ordered a colada in what must have seemed like a cross between sign language and Spanglish, and unwittingly downed the entire cup — fast. A colada contains three to six shots of Cuban espresso and is made to be shared, or at the very least paced. It would be hours before I could rein in my accelerated speech and flurrying hands.
Fog erased, I headed to El Pub for an early lunch. El Pub offers hearty country-style Cuban favorites such as ropa vieja (stewed beef with vegetables) and bistec empanizado (breaded steak) and the Cubano sandwich, which I was intent on ordering. I took note of the colorful memorabilia on the walls and claimed a booth with a view to the busy street, and shortly the great panini-style sandwich arrived at my table. There is a reason this sandwich is showing up in non-Latin restaurants. If you combine Cuban bread, ham, slow-roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard and then grill it, you have a perfectly layered sandwich with a little crunch.
I continued my mini-culinary tour at El Nuevo Siglo Supermarket, four blocks to the east. Both a beautiful and well-stocked Latin market and restaurant, El Nuevo Siglo is a bright luncheonette that is a favorite of locals. Make sure you have a translation app on your phone ready as some of the servers here don’t speak any English. El Nuevo also sells excellent fortifying snacks from around Latin America, and I left with an Argentine empanada de carne in hand for later sustenance.
It was now time to meet the cultural anthropologist and Little Havana tour guide Corinna Moebius to take in the Cubaocho Museum and Performing Arts Center. Ms. Moebius, along with the sociologist Guillermo Grenier, is the author of “A History of Little Havana,” a thoughtful look at the neighborhood’s history and culture.
“This is not a tourist trap,” Ms. Moebius said as we entered the museum. “On any day, you’ll find Cuban artists working on their art in the center’s beautiful courtyard. Famous musicians jam here; this is where the locals go, and this is where Cuban intellectuals, artists and cigar and rum aficionados hang out.”
“Roberto’s philosophy is that art and music and poetry and dance and a good mojito all need to coexist,” she added, referring to Roberto Ramos, the man behind Cubaocho.
Cubaocho is also home to one of the largest privately owned Cuban art collections in the world and is the linchpin of the arts renaissance now flourishing in Little Havana. The enormous, and famous, pre-revolutionary 1937 work “La Rumba” by Antonio Sánchez Araujo is on display here. The spacious gallery, brimming with art from ceiling to floor, is nearly as epic as its back story. In 1992, Mr. Ramos and his brother Carlos Ramos set sail from Cuba to America on a small wooden boat. Hidden away on the vessel was Carlos Sobrino’s 1953 painting “El Saxofonista” (“The Saxophone Player”), which now hangs in Mr. Ramos’s home. Back in Cuba, when Mr. Ramos was 17, he’d helped an elderly man move, and in return the man gave him the Sobrino painting though neither knew who the painter was. Mr. Ramos later discovered that Sobrino had left Cuba in exile just as he had won Cuba’s National Prize for Painting in 1959.
Once Mr. Ramos established himself in Miami, he embarked on a journey that would take him back to Havana — a risky endeavor — and around the world to collect works depicting Cuba between 1800 and 1958 that are the core of the collection.
After the tour, I walked through the quiet neighborhood surrounding the museum. Modest but charming two-story Mission and Mediterranean-style apartment buildings were ubiquitous. The occasional red bougainvillea bush hid chain-link fences, and ornate wrought iron was everywhere. Little Havana has more bungalow houses than almost anywhere in Miami, with deep verandas that are ideal for keeping cool in the Florida heat. It was odd to think that a mere few blocks away were Latin bands, bars, souvenir stores selling Cuban fedoras, flags and T-shirts, and people lounging in cigar stores.
I made my way to the corner of Calle Ocho and Southwest 15th Avenue to tiny Domino Park, formally known as Máximo Gómez Park, after Cuba’s military commander in the country’s War of Independence. Here, men of a certain age, some wearing classic Cuban white guayabera shirts and Panama hats, play spirited games of dominoes, a national pastime in Cuba. The clacking of tiles is interspersed with the players’ occasional shouts of triumph or despair — all day.
If you keep your eyes open, you can find guayabera shirts and other traditional Cuban apparel in mom-and-pop clothing stores along Calle Ocho. What you won’t miss are the ubiquitous cigar shops. La Tradicion Cubana, for instance, is small, with family photos on the walls. The owner, Luis Sanchez — known in the industry as the “Mad Scientist” for his tobacco blending skills — relies on Cuban tobacco seeds that are planted in fields in the Dominican Republic and several other Latin American countries.
“It had been a family business from 1928 to 1959,” Mr. Sanchez told me. “Then Castro said, ‘Give me the keys and get out.’ Everything we sell we make. We lost most of our family to the Castro regime, and lost all of our businesses. To be able to try to recreate that image and the business is just a great feeling.”
Other cigar emporiums in Little Havana have elaborate lounges with British-era Bombay furniture and gold-appointed cases. Many shops employ skilled tabaqueros (cigar rollers) on-site so tourists and aficionados can watch the process. El Titan de Bronze, a space that blends beauty with pragmatism, employs 10 Level 9 (the highest skill level) tabaqueros, all with extensive experience working in cigar factories in Cuba.
Cristobal Mena’s shop, Top Cigars, has found a unique niche: reputable cigar store plus something like a rumpus room on Cultural Fridays when the drinks are free. Mr. Mena, who came to the United States 20 years ago, is a huge fan of fun, noticeable when you meet him.
“This is as close to home at it gets; actually it’s a little better,” said Mr. Mena.
I wrapped up my four-day-stay at Versailles Restaurant at the far western end of Little Havana. Versailles bills itself as the “Most Famous Cuban Restaurant in the World” and that wouldn’t be a stretch; Versailles may suggest the French court of Louis XIV, but it “means” Cuban to anyone in Miami. Still, the restaurant, which can serve up to 370 patrons, is all French Baroque, with chandeliers, mirrors and etched glass.
Versailles opened when emotions in Little Havana were raw, in 1971, and quickly became the gathering place for Cuban exiles. It also is the place local news media often use as a backdrop for political events. Versailles is where reporters, photographers, politicians and Cuban-Americans automatically descended after President Obama announced the policy shift between the United States and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, resulting in a frenzy outside the restaurant.
At Versailles, I met the teacher and community activist Marta Zayas who has been relentless in her quest to help Little Havana retain its unique flavor and approachable appeal. Over cafe con leche, we discussed the situation Little Havana is currently facing.
She, and others, are worried that the working class that makes up much of the local character will be ousted when property values inevitably rise and residents can no longer afford to live here.
“Little Havana is dear to so many immigrants here,” Ms. Zayas said. “It has a special type of support system. It has friendly faces and connections to the past, but the feel in Little Havana is one of hope, so there is an inherent aspiration to the future. All of that seems to come together here.”
The National Trust finds that there are two main threats to Little Havana, “upzoning,” a proposed change in zoning that would allow taller buildings, and the lack of protection for scattered historic buildings. Ms. Zayas said the possible loss of intimacy could have grim results.
“Neighbors still interact with each other on street level,” she said. “The abuelas [grandmothers] know their neighbors’ children and can call out their names from the windows, but that could all change.” Ideally, she said, Little Havana should remain “a place where dreams begin.”
Indeed. I had come in search of the dazzling zeitgeist of old Havana, and between the extraordinary food and music, as well as the warmth of the people here, I know I at least approximated what my father had experienced in Cuba itself.
Little Havana will probably remain Little Havana for a while, but how long in its current, largely non-homogenized version remains unknown. For now, it has a lot to offer travelers looking to experience Cuban culture without having to step foot off the lower 48, no passport required.
IF YOU GO
Ball & Chain (1513 Southwest Eighth Street; ballandchainmiami.com) is a Cuban nightclub that emphasizes Latin music and offers dance lessons on certain days. Drinks and tapas run about $20.
HistoryMiami (101 West Flagler Street; email@example.com) offers a variety of tours with the historian Dr. Paul George. Members: $20. Nonmembers; $30.
Tower Theater (1508 Southwest Eighth Street; towertheatermiami.com) screens independent and foreign films and other specialized cultural programs aimed at the Latin community.
Hoy Como Ayer (2212 Southwest Eighth Street; hoycomoayer.us) is a traditional Cuban nightclub that offers live Latin music. Cover: $15 to $50. Dinner with drinks runs about $35.
Top Cigars (1551 Southwest Eighth Street; 305-643-1150) is a cigar shop and emporium that sells cigars and paraphernalia. Drinks on Cultural Fridays are free.
El Pub Restaurant (1548 Southwest Eighth Street;elpubcubancuisine.com) is a family-style restaurant on Calle Ocho that serves country Cuban cuisine. Dinner is around $10.
El Nuevo Siglo (1305 Southwest Eighth Street; 305-854-1916) is a supermarket and luncheonette on Calle Ocho that serves Cuban and Latin food and sells baked goods from around Latin America. Lunch is about $7.
Corinna Moebius is a cultural anthropologist and tour guide (littlehavanaguide.com) who offers tours of Little Havana. Tours are $45 per person and up.
Cubaocho Museum & Performing Arts Center (1465 Southwest Eighth Street; cubaocho.com) is a free art gallery and gathering space for local artists and residents. Drinks with tapas is about $27.
La Tradicion Cubana (1336 Southwest Eighth Street; tradicion.com) is a family-owned cigar shop, cigar manufacturer and emporium that sells cigars and cigar paraphernalia.
El Titan de Bronze (1071 Southwest Eighth Street; eltitancigars.com) is another family-owned cigar manufacturer and cigar shop that employs tabaqueros (cigar rollers) on-site.
Versailles Restaurant (3555 Southwest Eighth Street;versaillesrestaurant.com) is a landmark Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho that serves a variety of Cuban and Latin dishes and baked goods. Dinner and drinks run around $25.