Santería offerings are scattered at the base of a ceiba tree near the main strip. Unsuspecting chickens peck at scraps, not knowing they might be the next sacrifice. The corner fruit market sells fresh-made guarapo, juice from crushed sugar cane. Nearby, a couple is dancing salsa on the sidewalk. And everyone speaks Spanish.
This is Miami’s Little Havana. And for more than 50 years, this was the closest that most Americans could get to experiencing Cuba. But with the Obama administration’s push to restore diplomacy with the island nation, Cuba seems poised to become as accessible as Cancun.
Even so, there will always be plenty of reasons to visit Little Havana. One is that it’s the Cuban exile community’s Plymouth Rock — the historical landing site of a resilient people, who fled here to rebuild their lives after Fidel Castro led rebels to victory in the 1959 revolution.
Little Havana also has its own cultural identity, one that has maintained its vibrant allure even as new souvenir shops pop up and more tour buses pull in.
“Little Havana and La Habana are vastly different experiences,” says Cuban-born Guillermo J. Grenier, co-author of “A History of Little Havana” and a professor of sociology at Florida International University, referring to the Spanish spelling of Cuba’s capital city. “It’s like visiting Little Italy in New York versus Italy. They [both] will always have their own unique appeal.”
An influx of non-Cuban immigrants, mostly from Central and South America, has reduced the Cuban population to about a third of Little Havana’s residents, Grenier says. But everyone there recognizes the value of preserving the neighborhood’s identity from a historical perspective — and a financial one. Keeping Little Havana Cuban is good for business.
Growing up in Miami in an Ecuadoran family, I mostly took the ubiquitous Cuban culture for granted. It took joining the Navy and moving hundreds of miles away for me to appreciate its richness. So on my recent visit, I set out to experience the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that I had unwittingly ignored.
I eased in slowly: Shortly after landing in Miami, I stopped for a quasi-authentic Cuban experience at a chain restaurant called Havana 1957, at a location about
30 miles north of Little Havana. Think Hard Rock Cafe but with congas, not electric guitars. The joint lacked grime, and personality, but the house band, Trio Aguiares, nailed “Lágrimas Negras” (“Black Tears”), a slow-building “bolero-son,” a precursor to salsa music.
Foreshadowing a strict adherence to pre-revolutionary culture that was evident throughout my trip, the trio stuck to vintage standards punctuated by the chik-chika-chik of the güiro, a traditional percussion instrument.
“Every time we excavate down to the depths of our childhood, we find these musical treasures,” said singer Amarylis Rodríguez, who studied violin and piano growing up in Cuba.
But Rodríguez also acknowledged a certain irony: The band’s repertoire is somewhat limited by the hard-liners within the same exile community who came to the United States in search of, among other things, freedom of expression. Until only a few years ago, the most vocal exiles successfully blocked any Cuban music or musician considered to be too sympathetic toward the Castro regime, or simply not anti-Castro enough. Even the globally popular Buena Vista Social Club was not welcome.
“It doesn’t surprise me that many Cubans, who came a long time ago, don’t want to hear music that reminds them of the misfortune of abandoning their country, their family, their life,” Rodríguez said. “Good music should not have political frontiers. I witnessed a similar thing when I lived in Cuba: I had to listen to Gloria Estefan in hiding.”
The trio’s music paired well with my sugar-cane-garnished mojito and papa rellena, a deep-fried ball of mashed potato with a slightly crunchy crust and a center of finely chopped ground beef. Add in my waiter, decked out in a guayabera shirt and fedora, and I could easily imagine I was in a Cuba long gone.
I spent most of the next two days walking the heart of Little Havana, the area around Calle Ocho (Southwest Eighth Street) between 13th and 17th avenues.
Cuban Memorial Boulevard Park is a narrow park that runs a mile along 13th, perpendicular to Calle Ocho. It features busts of Cuban heroes as well as memorials commemorating those lost in the revolution and the Bay of Pigs invasion, the failed U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow Castro in 1961.
Tourists and chickens loitered around the park’s centerpiece, the stout ceiba tree that is a makeshift site for practicing the Afro-Caribbean Santería religion. The faithful drop off fruit here as a gift to their saints and sometimes make eyebale, or blood sacrifices — mostly chickens, roosters and pigeons. Although I didn’t witness any rituals, I did spot rotting fruit and dried bones nestled at the tree’s roots.
Idols and other Santería paraphernalia were on view across the street at La Negra Francisca Botánica, one of many small stores in the area selling herbal folk medicines, religious candles, incense and the like.
Los Pinareños Frutería, also near the park, is where you can grab a guarapo or coco frio — a fresh, chilled coconut with a small machete-chopped opening and straw — for your walk. Or you can head out back and enjoy a fruit batido, or shake, at a picnic table while you check out the pet pig.
At the corner of 15th Street, the allegiance to the past continues at the Cuba Ocho Art and Research Center, which calls itself an “extensive library and important collection of artworks that were created between 1850 and 1958.”
It also houses an art gallery bar boasting the “world’s largest rum collection,” an extensive selection of cigars, and an ample dance floor. One of the nights I visited, a salsa band nearly rattled the paint off the canvas.
Little Havana itself is a gallery, with colorful street art perpetually on display. Chipped and aging murals depict Cuban icons, such as legendary percussionist Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría or 19th-century literary hero José Martí. What you won’t find are any favorable depictions of Castro, or that famous poster of Che Guevara, Castro’s right-hand man.
Just outside Cuba Ocho a wall is decorated with a contemporary mosaic, “Kikinki,” by New York-born Cuban American Xavier Cortada — a modest sign that perhaps the implied fixation on pre-revolution ideals is easing. And out front, a parked black utility van had its back doors open to reveal a kitschy figure of Saint Lazarus, nearly life-size and bathed in purple light.
“Little Havana is like an archeological site,” Grenier says. “If you dig deep enough, you’ll find art tracing back to the ’60s from the first wave of exiles, but there are new, exciting layers brought by more recent immigrants.”
I met up with Jorge González Graupera, a friend and selfproclaimed “Marielito” — the sometimes-offensive moniker given to the approximately 125,000 Cuban refugees, some of whom were released from prison by Castro, who were allowed to emigrate to the United States in 1980 on what was called the Mariel Boatlift.
Jorge and I walked over to La Esquina de la Fama (the Corner of Fame) — a traditional street-corner ventanita (literally, “little window”) where locals buy pastries and beverages and just pass the time. If you roll solo, you might order a café Cubano (also called cafecito) — a sweetened black espresso served in a small porcelain cup — or the similar cortadito with a splash of warm milk. But if you have company, you might go with a colada, basically a lot of espresso in a foam cup accompanied by a stack of tiny plastic cups for sharing.
We went with beer, and Jorge shared his story of leaving Cuba when he was 8.
“The night before we left, someone threw a rock through our window,” he said. “We were seen as traitors for simply leaving. And like most private businesses, my dad’s machine shop was taken away by the regime, so when we arrived in Miami, we literally had to start from scratch.”
Does Jorge hold a grudge?
“Not at all,” he said. “The circumstances sucked, but I’m happy here. I’m happily married. I have my job. But I understand why others might still be pissed. Some were imprisoned. Others lost relatives or witnessed something horrific.”
You can almost draw a correlation between the levels of hostility toward the Castro regime to when the person came over. The hard-liners seem to be those who left at the onset and perhaps lost the most. And you don’t need to know someone to hear their stories, although a little Spanish doesn’t hurt. People are eager to talk — especially at Maximo Gomez Park, where mostly retired men gather to reminisce, relax and rant against the regime.
But Rene Aguilera, who came only a few years ago, suggested the Cuban Revolution had its silver lining. He invited me to sit next to him while he played dominoes. “There’s a price we had to pay to have what we have in Cuba today,” he said. “Crime is essentially nonexistent. You could probably leave your camera on the table and no one would steal it.”
Not far from the park is El Exquisito Restaurant, serving simple, delicious and cheap Cuban food since 1974. For $5.75, I had the media noche sandwich: succulently greasy roasted pork, ham and cheese, with pickles and mustard, in a slightly sweet bun, flat-toasted. Exquisito, indeed.
Although I don’t have a sweet tooth, sometimes you have to try things for the cultural experience, and Azucar Ice Cream Company was certainly that. Recommended by several friends, it offers bold flavors, including avocado, cafe con leche and sweet plantain.
Azucar means sugar but it was also the famous onstage cry of Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, and an image of her face is inside the parlor. I ordered the popular Abuela Maria sundae: vanilla with a guava and cream cheese swirl, crushed galletas Maria cookies for texture and a topping of dulce de guayaba (a sweet guava syrup). It hit all the right notes.
My sugar high took me a few hundred feet away to Cuba Tobacco Cigar. Outside, I spotted what appeared to be a life-size mannequin of a guajiro — a farmer — seated with a cigar protruding from under its thick, white mustache. A bit cliche, I thought. People were gathered around, snapping photos.
But as I neared and saw smoke billowing around its felt cowboy hat, I realized it was a person.
Having achieved almost relic status, patriarch Pedro Bello sits outside the family cigar business, as he’s done for years, giving the occasional nod. The Bellos started in Cuba in 1896 but moved their operation to Miami when their fields and business were confiscated during the revolution.
Although I’m not a cigar smoker, I appreciated the aroma of fresh tobacco, wooden humidors and the history inside the shop. The man hand-rolling cigars in plain view gave the place further authenticity. I asked Angelo Bello, Pedro Bello’s grandson and fifth-generation tobacconist, how they get around selling Cuban cigars with the embargo. He explained that Cuban seeds are planted in other Latin American countries, where the plant is actually grown.
As the sun set, I drove a few blocks west on Calle Ocho to 22nd Avenue to hit a live music spot called Hoy Como Ayer (Today Like Yesterday). There I nursed a Cuba libre — rum, Coke, lime twist — as Cuban-born singer Idania Alvarez performed traditional songs.
Owner Fabio Díaz Vilela, who came over from Cuba in 1993, said, “I only support Cuban music and art, in particular those that have had nothing to do with that totalitarian system.” When I asked whether he would consider inviting a performance by the Buena Vista Social Club (a hypothetical question, as most founding members have passed away), he said, “Today, if I invited them, I’m 100 percent sure the exile community would not protest.”
Maybe both sides of the Cuban divide are easing up on art that goes against their political narratives: Pablo Milanés, a contemporary Cuban singer-songwriter who considered to be somewhat of a torchbearer for the revolution, performed in Miami amid some protest in 2011. About the same time, the Cuban government lifted its ban on certain expat artists, allowing Gloria Estefan and Celia Cruz to be heard on Cuban radio.
My last stop was at Versailles, a perfectly gaudy restaurant with more mirrors than a funhouse and probably more chandeliers per square foot than the French palace. Customers have included heads of state, the Dalai Lama, and Beyoncé, said Nicole Valls, vice president of operations. Her grandfather Felipe Valls Sr., a Cuban entrepreneur who fled to Miami in 1960, founded the restaurant in 1971.
No one gives ground beef a better taste-lift than Versailles does with its picadillo; and its tangy lengua guisada can convert the most squeamish eaters to enjoying beef tongue.
On this visit, though, I came in for breakfast, which included toasted Cuban bread. Many places claim to make the best Cuban bread — a long, thin, baguettelike loaf — it’s a matter of pride, I’m told. Versailles is definitely a contender. With its thin, flaky crust and fluffy, generously buttered inside, my toasted Cuban bread was almost the star of my plate.
There’s a strange paradox in Little Havana: The intensity of its street life makes you feel like you’re experiencing something genuine, sort of like seeing the Berlin Wall standing — even if it’s part of a bus tour — instead of a chunk of it on display at the Newseum. At the same time, it’s all about evoking and celebrating a culture that simply ceased to exist in Cuba following the revolution.
Grenier points out that despite their vast differences, the rival Cuban communities have one interesting thing in common.
“Ironically, they’re both sort of stuck in the ’60s,” he said, “but for very different reasons: In La Habana, because of the revolution, you see mostly cars from the ’60s. And in Little Havana, most Cubans simply want to remember how it was before the revolution.”
It seems likely that as diplomatic relations normalize, new Cuban immigrants will come to Miami, exiles will return to the island, and more cross-cultural pollination will occur, changing both La Habana and Little Havana dramatically. That’s all the more reason to visit both, and soon.
Oña is a travel writer and photojournalist, communications consultant and host of the blog Vaya Con Music (vayaconmusic.blogspot.com)
Azucar Ice Cream Co.
1503 SW Eighth St.
A Cuban American’s answer to Ben and Jerry’s. Check out the flavors cafe con leche, mulatica (cinnamon oatmeal cookie) and their specialty: the Abuela Maria sundae.
El Exquisito Restaurant
1510 SW Eighth St.
Don’t let its dirt-cheap prices make you think twice. This award-winning dive serves outstanding Cuban dishes and sandwiches, including my two favorites: the media noche (roasted pork) and the pan con bistec (steak) for about $5.75 and $6.75, respectively.
14571 SW Fifth St.
Four-restaurant franchise serving traditional Cuban fare. The Cuban Combo appetizer for two is $19.95, most entrees are about $12-$15 and specialty drinks, including the mojito, are about $10.95
La Esquina de la Fama
1388 SW 8th St.
One of many street-corner “ventanitas” or small-window cafes, serving a variety of on-the-go Cuban sandwiches, but most folks like to stop off after a hearty meal to drink one of several variations of the Cuban espresso: café Cubano, colada or cortadito.
Los Pinareños Frutería
1334 SW Eighth St.
You can pick up your standard Cuban fast food, such as croquettas and a variety of pulled-pork sandwiches, but the specialty of this small open-air market are its fruit drinks for your stroll through Calle Ocho.
3555 SW Eighth St.
A Cuban American cuisine institution with affordable prices where heads of state and celebrities get their grub on. One of their most distinguished dishes, the roast beef tongue, is $10.95.
Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co.
1528 SW Eighth St.
One of several cigar stores in Little Havana, this one stood out because it almost doubles as a small museum, with the family tobacconist patriarch sitting outside, while inside, an employee hand rolls cigars.
Cuba Ocho Art and
1465 SW Eighth St., Suite 106-107
In the day, swing by to look at some of the mostly Cuban artwork for free. (At night, if it is hosting a band, it may charge a cover.)
Hoy Como Ayer
2212 SW Eighth St.
The small candle-lit tables in this live music venue, featuring mostly Cuban musicians, provides an intimate experience that feels like a throwback to speakeasies during Prohibition. Prices vary, approximately $20-$40.
Botánica Negra Francisca
1323 SW 8th St.
This small “botanical” store specializes in selling religious idols, candles, incense and other items for Santería rituals. These type of stores are a cultural experience of sorts.
Maximo Gomez Domino Park
801 SW 15th Ave.
A must-see park with several tables where folks gather to play dominoes daily from when the park opens at 9 a.m. until it closes.
1508 SW 8th St.
Run by Miami Dade College, the theater shows mostly independent and foreign films ($10 general admission), and its classic art deco architecture and neon lighting makes it a must-photograph location, especially at sunset.