The name Miami evokes palm trees, sunny beaches and a long row of pastel resort hotels, at least for many travelers. And the image is accurate, of course, for Miami Beach. When winter gets too long and bitter up north, pale visitors still show up here with swimsuits and suntan lotion, seeking warm Caribbean rays as they have since early in the century.
The Beach is actually a long island, however, lying just offshore in Biscayne Bay. On the mainland, where most of Miami lies, the sun is the same, but the rest has been changing in recent years at a remarkable pace. Miami has grown prodigiously, and much of the swelling has to do with immigration. Perhaps nowhere is the impact of new immigration on the United States more obvious to visitors -- because nowhere is it more concentrated -- than in the streets of Miami.
Immigration here means mostly Cubans, who have streamed into the United States since Fidel Castro took over their homeland in 1959. So many have found a home in the Caribbean atmosphere of Miami that over half the city's 350,000 residents are Hispanics. Dade County, which envelops Miami, calculates more than 40 percent of its 1.8 million people are Hispanic, overwhelmingly Cuban.
The result is a distinctly Latin flavor in city life. That flavor is evident in the board rooms of towering banks, where most of the deals are with Latin America; in the lobbies of downtown hotels, where most of the clients are Hispanic business travelers; and in the city-center shops, where most of the customers are Hispanics on shopping sprees. But nowhere is it more evident than along Calle Ocho, which used to be 8th Street, or the Tamiami Trail leading to the Everglades, until it evolved during the 1960s into the central artery of Little Havana.
The growth of Miami's Cuban population has spread Latin accents throughout the city by now. But the district called Little Havana is where the phenomenon first became evident 20 years ago. Like San Francisco's Chinatown, Little Havana is where the foreign dimension of Miami is most concentrated and most enjoyably visible. A walk along Calle Ocho cutting through Little Havana can be a walk into another country, where the signs are in Spanish, the restaurants and coffee shops are transplanted from Cuba and the merchants and shoppers have the Latin instinct for friendliness and hospitality.
A business traveler with time on his hands or a winter sun-seeker grown tired of the beach can spend a pleasant half-day walking up and down Calle Ocho. Depending on the time of the year -- summer is hot, winter delightful -- and on how energetic you are after lunch -- Cuban food is delicious but Jane Fonda would not approve -- I would recommend covering from about 7th Avenue into the high 20s or low 30s. Admittedly, the district is not as quaint or compact as European neighborhoods, but it is authentic and the hike is worth it.
One interesting place to start is the El Credito cigar factory, just up from 10th Avenue. Ernesto Perez Carrillo and his 15 employes roll premium smokes there in the same manner Ernesto's father used back in the Havana suburbs, using Caribbean tobacco grown by other exiled Cubans. Ernesto, 34, took over the Miami shop from his late father four years ago and willingly shows visitors around. He himself has been in the trade since he was 19, so he knows what he is talking about. The quality of his cigars, marketed nationwide under several brand names, seems like a foregone conclusion once you have smelled the factory. For anyone with doubts, Ernesto recommends the Crown Imperial, an imposing nine-inch cigar that retails for $2.25 and makes a Churchill look stubby.
If the sight of people working creates hunger and lunchtime is on your mind, doubling back four blocks from El Credito to the Malaga restaurant at No. 740 is the next move. Cora Mendez, known as Dona Cora by her waiters, runs a pleasant Spanish establishment with a clear Cuban accent. You can sit in the Salon Don Pacheco, named after the doctor who worked with Muhammad Ali in his prime, or in the Salon Dona Cora, named after the 65-year-old owner and spirit of the place. When the weather is cool enough, diners also sit in the courtyard next to a drooping fig tree. Dona Cora brags first about her Spanish paella. But local Cubans give highest marks for their island's own arroz con pollo, a chicken and rice casserole.
For those who can wait to eat, however, Calle Ocho offers numerous little cafe's where hearty Cuban sandwiches and everyday Cuban cuisine are served at bargain prices. In sandwiches, the most popular are Sandwich Cubano and medianoche, both versions of toasted hoagies. In cooked foods, look for masitas de cerdo, fried pork chunks, or cerdo asado, roast pork. Nearly everything will be accompanied by rice or black beans or fried plantains, or all three. Mixing the white rice and the dark beans makes what Cubans call "Christians and Moors."
Locals tend to spread their business around. They might have a picadillo, or spicy ground meat over rice, in one cafe', then move to another to order a guava or mango batido, the fruity Cuban version of a milkshake, then walk on to a third cafe' to buy a cafecito from the sidewalk through a vending window. Like many other Hispanics, Cubans cannot resist making something sound more attractive and less imposing by adding "-ito," the Spanish-language diminutive. So cafe', thick, rich and sweet, becomes cafecito. In this case, the habit contributes to accuracy as well. Miami's Cubans generally drink their thick brew in thimble-sized paper cups containing about three sips of coffee.
One of my favorite stops is Casablanca, on the corner of 23rd Avenue. Not only are the food and coffee good and the service friendly: The site also is distinguished by a large mural depicting life-size Calle Ocho characters, with open-necked guayaberas and gold medals, alongside cartoon characters such as Superman. Peanuts characters, for example, can be seen looking up and asking, "Que pasa, Calle Ocho?"
Another place worth visiting lies just below 20th Avenue. It has no name that I ever saw, but it haphazardly combines a laundry and dry cleaning establishment, a cafe' where elders gather to match anti-Castro tirades and a used bookstore.
On some corners, local entrepreneurs sell shish kebab or chicken, roasted on sidewalk barbeques. Others offer fresh mangoes or whatever other fruits are in season. The sidewalk business picks up markedly during Carnaval de Miami, when the city celebrates its Latin American personality. This year's observances are scheduled for March 1-9, with Calle Ocho turning into an extended block party March 9. The vendors and their customers also multiply on Jan. 6, when Little Havana celebrates the Epiphany with a parade down Calle Ocho in honor of the Three Kings.
Another kind of honor is on view at Cuban Memorial Plaza at 13th Avenue. This little square contains a monument to Cuban exiles killed at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. The date, when the CIA helped an exile force unsuccessfully attack Cuba, may not be a big one in most history books. But around here it is. Many of the survivors are still community leaders in Miami and Little Havana. Visitors who get into discussions along Calle Ocho -- you would have to try hard not to -- are likely to hear about it.
But if you notice a crowd gathered in a vest-pocket park at 15th Avenue, it probably is not the staging point for another try against Castro. Instead, Maceo Park, although named for a 19th-century Cuban independence fighter, is Calle Ocho's domino headquarters. For most of the day and into the evening, Cubans gather over little tables to play, shout and taunt the losers. You'll notice the park is a male preserve. Machismo, after all, is a Spanish word and a Latin tradition -- just like dominos.
The sexes are equal again on the other side of the street at the Casa de Los Trucos, or gag store. The difference here is established according to age, with children entitled to priority over their parents. A sign on the door warns in Spanish and English: "You come to this store at your own risk. We demonstrate water, splashing, jumping and exploding items." What the sign does not say is that visitors sometimes are not consulted before the demonstration.
Up and down the street are a number of other stores. They usually have unimposing fronts. Sometimes they are labeled "botanica," sometimes not. Inside are the objects and potions of santeria, a folk religion popular in Cuba mixing elements of Roman Catholicism with African rites brought to the New World by slaves. The shops are recognizable by statues in the windows representing the various saints that figure in santeria devotions. An image of a leprosy-scarred St. Lazarus, usually flanked by two dogs, seems to show up in stores and cafe's all along Calle Ocho, attesting to what must be brisk business in the shops.
While santeria is interesting, it also is religion. The inhabitants and shop owners of Calle Ocho probably will be willing to explain it, but they are unlikely to join in mocking it.
Santeria and most other subjects can be taken up in conversations along the street. And they should. Much of the enjoyment of Calle Ocho lies in the people who populate it. Sassy, quick and eager to convince or impress, they will probably respond readily to overtures from a curious visitor. Women may become the object of piropos, unsolicited comments on their beautiful features. At their best, piropos are fine poetry. Although they are not always at their best, they are almost always meant in fun and should not offend. Except for the older generation, most Calle Ocho personalities speak at least enough English to maintain a conversation. Many are perfectly fluent. A few may even be patient enough for your high school Spanish.
In any case, talking with the Cubanazos -- "-azo" is the reverse of "-ito" -- can lead a visitor to some interesting discoveries. If you ask Ramon Blanco what that black thing is in his hardware store window between 11th and 12th avenues, for instance, he will explain that it started as a bed frame.
By the time he finished welding all those things to it, from car pistons to pullies to a discarded hand drill, it had become a work of art. That was 15 years ago, and it has been there ever since.