My name is Annette Cruz. I am currently enrolled in the Honors College at Florida International University. I am a sophomore majoring in Elementary Education and hope to work with children in the future. I don’t know what’s in store for me, but I know I want to create positive outcomes through what I do. I love food, especially making it. My favorite hobby is baking because I get to experiment with different flavor combinations and different baked goods. I was born and raised in Miami and I am exploring my city through the FIU Honors course “Miami in Miami” with Professor John Bailly.
If you stand on the corner of SW 107th Avenue and SW 8th Street, you will see apartment complexes, houses, and a canal accompanied by the soundtrack of bustling vehicles. It does not seem extraordinary, but I challenge you to look closer. If you cross SW 107th Avenue and SW 8th Street, you might smell the queso frito, hear the reggaeton, taste the cold raspados, see the pride in culture, and feel the pioneering spirit of the American Dream. Miami is the Seminole Indian word for “sweet water.” I invite you to come explore the city that grew into its namesake and became a microcosm of Miami Dade County. Welcome to my academic travel guide of the city of Sweetwater!
Where is Sweetwater located? Because it is nestled among the cities of Doral, Tamiami, Fontainebleau, and University Park, Sweetwater’s boundaries can be challenging to visually define.
Sweetwater’s South boundary runs along SW 8th Street, from Ronald Reagan Turnpike until SW 102nd Avenue (Map of Sweetwater).
The West boundary runs along Ronald Reagan Turnpike, from SW 8th Street until NW 25th Street (Map of Sweetwater).
The North boundary runs along NW 25th Street, from Ronald Reagan Turnpike until NW 107th Avenue (Map of Sweetwater).
The East boundary is complicated. It runs along SW 102nd Avenue, from SW 8th Street until West Flagler Street (Map of Sweetwater). There is a section that is included in this area that is bordered between SW 5th Street, SW 4th Street, and SW 100th Avenue (Map of Sweetwater). The East boundary continues along West Flagler Street, from SW 102nd Avenue until SW 110th Avenue (Map of Sweetwater). It then runs along SW 110th Avenue, from West Flagler Street until the Ronald Reagan Turnpike NW 107th Avenue exit (Map of Sweetwater). It then continues to run along the Ronald Reagan Turnpike NW 107th Avenue exit, from between 111th Place and NW 111th Court until NW 107th Avenue (Map of Sweetwater). The East boundary is then completed running along NW 107th Avenue, from the Ronald Reagan Turnpike NW 107th Avenue exit until NW 25th Street (Map of Sweetwater).
During the 1970s, Sweetwater transformed from a “sleepy little country town” into a bustling urban, dynamic community that led to a rapid change in the cities’ urban geography (City of Sweetwater). With the construction of Florida International University to its south, two major expressways to its north and west, and the influx of Nicaraguan refugees, Sweetwater had to wake up from its sleepy existence and adapt to the changing demographic (City of Sweetwater). To accommodate the needs of the growing population, the city had to develop and establish amenities to facilitate the flow of people and goods. These functional amenities include but are not limited to a trolley for public transport, a full-service police department and city hall complex, an elementary school, a county fire station, residential housing units, shopping centers, and businesses. Additionally, if you look at a map of Sweetwater, the Dolphin Expressway Extension split Sweetwater into two sections. South of the Expressway is the residential area of Sweetwater that includes the strip malls, government businesses, and family owned businesses. North of the Expressway is Dolphin Mall and Ikea, which are no strangers to Miami Dade County residents and tourists.
The price paid for development and the institution of these amenities, however, was the loss of greenery. Sweetwater’s portrait is painted with asphalt and concrete breathing life into its bustling roads, sidewalks, bridges, strip malls, businesses, and residential housing. Its portrait is not complete, however. Barricades and dust indicate the city’s ambition and vision to construct housing for the college students from Florida International University. While construction symbolizes a dynamic city that is adapting to its population, the hidden evil is the loss of greenery, which provides recreational, ecological, and aesthetic value. However, Sweetwater seems to be self-aware of their loss and has made an effort to preserve open spaces to promote activity in its community and ecological value. Its parks help to restore the lost greenery. Additionally, residents provide their own dose of color through their landscaping.
Where the city lacks natural, organic color, it makes it up in its diverse human geography. Sweetwater’s origin was born of people looking to create a refuge from political tyranny. Its rebirth in the 1970s was stimulated by the same motivation. As you drive through Sweetwater, you will notice Nicaraguan flags on cars, outside houses, and in front of businesses. Therefore, it is not surprising that Sweetwater has been nicknamed “Little Managua” (Medina). It is home to a large concentration of Nicaraguans and Nicaraguan Americans in the United States (Medina). Since 1979, it has been a haven for Nicaraguans fleeing the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Medina). The identity and culture has been preserved with businesses such as Fritangas, where you can buy Nicaraguan food by the pound. As people began to discover this haven, more Hispanic ethnicities and cultures began to call this city home. This is reflected in the businesses and shopping centers that include bakeries and restaurants that serve traditional food from countries such as Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela to name a few. Sweetwater has transformed into a marriage of American values and Hispanic culture. Sweetwater continues to be a dynamic and growing community as witnessed through its dynamic human and urban geography.
Sweetwater’s history dates back to the 1920s. It originates with the Miami-Pittsburgh Land Company purchasing land that came to be known as “Sweetwater Groves” (City of Sweetwater). All expected plans for development were stopped when the infamous 1926 hurricane hit (City of Sweetwater). Years later in 1938, a man named Clyde Andrews acquired Sweetwater Groves and began to market it (City of Sweetwater). During this time, a group called The Royal Russian Midget Troupe, a circus group that performed in places like Japan, Germany, and Russia, found themselves stranded along Tamiami Trail and 107th Avenue when their car overheated (Rodriguez 32). They absolutely fell in love with the land and deemed it the perfect place to retire from a life in the circus (Rodriguez 32). They became one of the first buyers of the markets of land Clyde Andrews was selling (City of Sweetwater). What we know as the city of Sweetwater today was once known as the “midget” community because of The Royal Russian Midget Troupe (City of Sweetwater). In 1941, Sweetwater was successfully elected to be incorporated and the guardian and manager of the Russian little people became the first mayor (City of Sweetwater). In 1959, Sweetwater started to grow, meaning local grocery stores, churches, and a town hall were built, among many other features (City of Sweetwater). In the 1970s, Sweetwater began to change due to the construction of a major public university to the south and two major expressways to the north and west (City of Sweetwater). The city also doubled in population from the discovery of the city by the Hispanic community (City of Sweetwater).
What many do not realize is that the Russian little people who are known to be the founders of the city of Sweetwater are very much alike to the current residents. They traveled in a circus during the Russian revolution (Mormino 9). They left the country to perform to leave their violent homeland (Mormino 9). Looking at the time of when Sweetwater was founded, one can determine that the Russian little people could not return home because of World War II. After years of traveling with a circus, they decided to return home but couldn’t because the life of violence they fled had never ended. In other words, the founders were people who were in search of a new home and a better life. Their story sounds very familiar to the current residents of Sweetwater. The Hispanic community that resides in this neighborhood fled oppressive governments in search of a better life that was not feasible in their home country. From the very beginning, the city of Sweetwater was destined to be a place of refuge and second chances, all thanks to a group called The Royal Russian Midget Troupe.
Despite its unique origin and founding, Sweetwater’s history has been tainted with corruption. Former mayor Manny Maroño admitted in 2013 to pocketing $60,000 (Weaver, Medina, & Sanchez). Through the FBI’s investigation, the former mayor’s confession unraveled a larger operation (Weaver, Medina, & Sanchez). Through a “no-bid, verbal agreement with Southland The Towing Company,” Manny Maroño was found guilty of embezzling money from fines, which were funds that were controlled by one of his allies, the police chief (Weaver, Medina, & Sanchez).
Sweetwater’s history also lurks with a legend: the legend of el Chupacabra. Feared by the Spanish community, el Chupacabra is an unnatural creature that is thought to look like something between a dog and a reptile, while standing on two legs (Pazdera B8). With its red fiery eyes, el Chupacabra creeps through the night in search for animals to feed on (Pazdera B8). There was a report in 1996 of killings of dozens of animals, and many of the Sweetwater residents believed was the works of el Chupacabra (Pazdera B8).
Sweetwater has exponentially grown from the days of its founding. Today, Sweetwater’s population is over 21,000 persons (United States Census Bureau). Of this population about 17% is under 18 years and about 17% is over 65 years (United States Census Bureau). This means that the majority of Sweetwater’s population is over 18 years old and under 65 years old. About 53% of the population is female (United States Census Bureau). Compared to other neighborhoods in Miami, Sweetwater is not one of the wealthiest. Sweetwater’s income level is low but has not reached the poverty level. The median household income is roughly over $36,000 and the income level per capita is close to $16,000 (United States Census Bureau). Although Sweetwater is not considered an impoverished neighborhood, 22% of its population lives in poverty (United States Census Bureau). Ultimately, 95% of Sweetwater’s population is Hispanic or Latino (United States Census Bureau).
I got a chance to interview one of the residents of Sweetwater. Her name is Lydia and she is 96 years old. She is Cuban but also identifies as an American citizen and is a practicing Catholic. She has lived in Sweetwater for 20 years and says the best part about living in the neighborhood are the neighbors. She says the neighbors are very friendly and feels like the building she lives in is its own community. It is a place where neighbors look after each other. She also spoke about the increase in construction she has noticed with the development of the new buildings. However, construction comes with an increase in traffic and noise. The construction has altered her outings by changing the times in which she must leave, in order to avoid the Miami traffic. With these new developments, she has noticed an increase in FIU students living in the area. Most people would be worried about college students disrupting their area. Lydia, however, is not worried at all. She is more worried about the cats in the area.
Miami Dade County has many notable historical landmarks, but none are found in the city of Sweetwater. There are no museum or heralded monuments that will distinctively pop up in a google search. This does not mean, however, that city has no landmarks. Sweetwater’s landmarks pay homage to its identity, narrative, and people. They are scattered throughout the city, some being difficult to identify if not familiar with the city and its history. At Ronselli Park, there is a statue of Jose Martí, a poet and martyr of Cuban liberty. While Jose Marti hailed from Cuba, his battle cry for freedom, independence, and democracy reverberated throughout the Caribbean and South America. Therefore, it is not surprising that his statue has no plaque; he is instantaneously recognizable by the community. His statue stands as a beacon for freedom uniting all ethnicities and peoples. At Carlow Park, there is a head bust of Jose C. Montiel, who was a commissioner of Sweetwater. His plaque honors him for his dedication and accomplishments for the community, but I could not find any sources that detailed what he did specifically. Another landmark that was promised but unfortunately has not been able to be completed is the Brothers to the Rescue Memorial Plaza. This memorial was supposed to create an urban, public space for the community, while remembering the four young men that were shot down and killed by the communist Cuban government, while on a humanitarian mission to Cuba (CIAB). This memorial was supposed to accompany the bridge connecting Florida International University to Sweetwater, but because the bridge collapsed, the memorial has not been able to come to fruition. Moreover, there was one important landmark I did not find. The founders of the city of Sweetwater are not honored in any landmark. I was never aware that the city of Sweetwater was founded by a circus group of Russian dwarves, despite living fifteen minutes away and frequently commuting through the city. Just like many today, they retired in Florida and had dreams of turning their land into a safe haven (Rodriguez 32). Their dream, however, in part became a reality because Sweetwater eventually became a city for people seeking political and religious freedom. Although the founders of Sweetwater were Russian and the present population is mainly Hispanic, the similarity in their motivations and narratives demonstrates the universal theme of liberty and freedom. If it were not for these individuals who successfully motioned and voted for the incorporation of Sweetwater in 1941, Sweetwater would not be what it is today. I think there should be a statue or plaque commemorating the founders’ legacy, as a tribute to thank them for building a home and refuge for future generations. The landmarks in Sweetwater are not meant to pop up in a google search, instead, they represent the heart and spirit of the community.
There are four parks in Sweetwater: Ronselli Park, James M. Beasley Linear Park, Carlow Park, and Jose “Lolo” Villalobos Dominoes Park. When I think of a park, my mind is directed to think of Tropical Park, a big, green area filled with trees, gazebos, benches, exercise spots, running areas, and maybe a small lake. These parks are dwarfed when compared to Tropical Park. While exploring these parks, however, I realized that living in Miami misconstrues and molds our perceptions. Therefore, whenever we see something that does not match our perception, we think of it as unusual or unconventional. This is what I experienced when visiting Sweetwater’s parks and my perceptions were remodeled. Parks, of any shape and size, are meant to be recreational spaces where individuals can go spend time outdoors. The Sweetwater parks, although small, are exactly what a park is supposed to be and more. They are geared to cater to the needs of the community. Therefore, not many people who live outside of Sweetwater visit these four parks.
Ronselli Park is the largest of the four parks. It is located at SW 114th Avenue and SW 2nd Street. It is equipped with a youth center, baseball field, basketball court, and a playground. It also harbors the Jorge Mas Canosa Youth Center, which runs a summer program and hosts special activities throughout the year such as a Christmas Show, Jose Marti Parade, and a 4th of July celebration (City of Sweetwater). The building is also available for party rentals. I believe this is the most versatile of the four parks because of the variety of utilities it offers. Because the park focuses on providing these utilities and resources, there is not a lot of empty grass areas.
Carlow Park is located at SW 106th Avenue and SW 4th Street, located right across the street from Sweetwater Elementary. This park is home to the Claude and Mildred Pepper Senior Activities Center, tennis courts, and basketball courts. It offers gazeboes for birthday party rentals (City of Sweetwater). The park does offer green space with a playground located in the center. This is a great park to visit when winding down and looking for fresh air and greenery. However, the peacefulness of this park is disrupted by the neighboring construction and business of 107th Avenue. Identity Miami, which is an apartment complex, looms over the park casting the shadowing of urbanization and the threat of losing green space in exchange for development. The contrast between the park and Identity Miami is ironic because it shows a neighborhood upholding its own identity while modern society tries to infiltrate.
Jose “Lolo” Villalobos Dominoes Park is located on SW 106th Avenue and SW 7th Terrace. This park is small, equipped with a gazebo where there are a few domino tables, a facility shelter where there are bathrooms and a water fountain, and a couple of benches (City of Sweetwater). I found this park to be a logical decision for Sweetwater because of the large Hispanic population. One of the favorite pass times of Hispanics is playing dominoes. This is a great place where the residents of Sweetwater can come together and bond over a shared love of dominoes. Although this is a great idea, the execution of this park may be flawed because of the size of the park. The park being too small can make it easy for one group of people to easily dominate the park, making other visitors feel uncomfortable to use the public space.
James M. Beasley Linear Park is located between SW 107th Avenue and SW 117th Avenue. It is called “Linear” park because it is a straight line that runs parallel to SW 8th Street. However, I hesitate to call it a park. It is a sidewalk with some benches along the path, some exercise equipment scattered along, and a gazebo at one of the ends of the line. Individuals are limited to walking and some pull-ups, if they are on the corresponding side of the park. Individuals cannot run around or toss a ball because of the limited space. I found this park to be very restrictive to what a park is supposed to offer. I pass by this park often and do not see people using it. This may be due to people feeling uncomfortable utilizing this area. First, the park runs parallel to a canal with clearly defined signs warning of alligators. Second, people may feel too exposed because this park also runs parallel to SW 8th Street and a row of houses.
Although the parks in Sweetwater are small, they are built with a purpose and to bring the residents together. Through the multiple centers that are offered, residents of any age can find their daily or weekly gathering that encourages them to unite with others.
The typical modes of transportation you will find in Sweetwater are cars and bicycles. Cars are a common mode of transportation anywhere you go. In Sweetwater, you will see locals driving their cars and outsiders who commute through Sweetwater to arrive at their destination. Bicycles are used more by the locals who travel short distances within the neighborhood. There is also the Sweetwater Trolley. It is a form of public transportation that is free to the public. I found this feature to be important because the income levels are not the highest in Sweetwater. The route is very considerate with its over eighty stops. Almost all of the stops are in Sweetwater but includes a couple of stops just outside the city’s limits that are popular to the public, such as International Mall. Overall, the trolley provides an affordable transportation option for its residents. However, although there is a form of public transportation that costs no money, the amount of traffic is not reduced because of everyone who lives outside of Sweetwater who passes through or visits. Additionally, it provides a great alternative for transportation to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions to help the environment.
I tried riding the Sweetwater Trolley. My experience was like trying to find Bigfoot. It was very difficult for me to simply locate where the trolley would stop. On the City of Sweetwater website, there is a “transit schedule”. This is a list of all the stops the trolley makes. The website includes from what times the trolley runs on weekdays and weekends. However, there was no indication about what times the trolley would be stopping at each stop. For locals who ride the trolley frequently and are familiar with estimates of what times the trolley arrives, this is a great option for transportation. For someone new who does not ride public transportation often, I would not suggest riding the Sweetwater trolley. Given my schedule, I was not available to be waiting at a stop for an unknown amount time waiting for the trolley to arrive. Therefore, I had to estimate about what time the trolley would be at different stops to attempt to find it, which did not go well for me. To the City of Sweetwater, I would make the suggestion to either make the trolley transit schedule more detailed to help passengers arrange their schedules or create an app that tracks the Sweetwater trolley to provide estimates of how long it will take the trolley to arrive at a stop. By making the trolley more easily accessible, there is a chance to reduce the amount of traffic in the area and reduce the pollution that is released from vehicles.
Hidden among the hustle and bustle of daily life, there are many eateries that capture Sweetwater’s identity through food.
109 Burger Joint is a gourmet burger restaurant located on 646 SW 109th Avenue. This restaurant is across the street from FIU, crossing SW 8th Street, and diagonally across the street from 109 Tower. I had seen this place via Uber Eats and always wanted to try it. This place has some of the best burgers I have eaten. I found it interesting that this restaurant has burgers inspired by the surrounding environment. There is the “Panther” burger, probably most recognized by the FIU panthers across the street, and there is “Nica” burger, probably most recognized by the Nicaraguan community present in Sweetwater. However, Sweetwater is a neighborhood that is primarily Hispanic and is being overrun by the construction of off-campus housing for FIU. This restaurant integrates the college community into Sweetwater. It almost acts like a bridge between the college presence that is brought by the finished construction and the neighborhood it has adopted.
Rosy Bakery is a Latin American bakery located on 11400 West Flagler Street. It is right next door to La Bodega Supermarket (mentioned in businesses). While ordering some baked goods, a lady told us that this bakery opened in 1986 by a Cuban family of 3, the parents and daughter. Today, it is run by the father and daughter. This place has one of the best pastelitos de queso and a great tequeño. This bakery shows that although there is a large Nicaraguan presence in Sweetwater, other Hispanic countries, such as Cuba, are represented as well. It proves that Sweetwater is a place opened to all.
Nica Fritanga y Raspaderia is an authentic Nicaraguan inspired eatery located on 11030 West Flagler Street. To me, this was the Nicaraguan version of the Cuban Palacio de Los Jugos, but smaller. It is evident that this eatery is popular in the area because it feels cramped when it’s the busiest. It is designed more for take and go service because of the very limited seating. You can order food, but you can also buy a block of cheese or some specialty, homemade sauces. It functions as an eatery but also as a mini market, which is beneficial for the community. Locals can come in to order a meal or buy some essential food items, such as bread. You can buy gallo pinto, which is a type of rice, shredded meat, and manuelitas, which is a dessert that is like a rolled-up pancake with cinnamon and cheese inside.
Madroño is an authentic Nicaraguan inspired restaurant located at 10780 West Flagler Street. It is a family owned restaurant that is celebrating 20 years of being open. Each member of the family takes on a role in the restaurant. For example, the mom is the head chef and the daughter makes the desserts. It is a sit-down restaurant decorated elegantly, but with an affordable menu. This restaurant has attentive and fast service with the best Nicaraguan food you can have. This restaurant proves that appearance does not have to be replicated into the price. Individuals in Miami will agree that many good-looking restaurants are too expensive. Madroño is a good-looking restaurant with prices that don’t break the bank. This is important to realize because Sweetwater does not have a high-income level. This restaurant is tailored for the community it is built in. Some foods you can get in this restaurant is queso frito, which is fried cheese, bandeja de antojitos, which is an appetizer that includes a variety of traditional Nicaraguan foods, Indio Viejo, which is shredded beef cooked with Nicaraguan spices, and Pio Quinto, which is cinnamon and rum soaked cake topped with vanilla custard.
While dining in this restaurant, the waitress told my family and I about a Nicaraguan Christmas tradition called “La Griteria”. She explained that on December 7 of every year, Nicaraguans will put up a statue of the Virgin Mary and decorate it. On December 7, Nicaraguans will come out and sing praises to the Virgin Mary. Whoever is hosting a group of people during “La Griteria” offers food and drinks to everyone. It was humbling to hear that a community publicly displays their religious traditions. Many religious traditions are done inside of a church or at home. This public display is a testament to the unity of a community can have through a shared religion.
La Bodega Bestway Supermarket is located on 11400 West Flagler Street. It is a neighborhood supermarket that has fresh Hispanic fruits and common Hispanic brand grocery items. In the back of the store, they have a food counter where you can purchase traditional Hispanic foods. This is also where they sell some of the best chicharrones because each bite is as crispy as the previous. The workers were very sweet and the man who sold us the chicharrons sent us off with a blessing. This was yet another portrayal of how prevalent religion is in Sweetwater. Religion is what keeps many of the residents grounded in the day to day activities.
Pauline Books and Media, known as Las Paulinas to Spanish speakers, is a Catholic bookstore located on 145 SW 107th Avenue. This is the store many Catholics go to when looking for anything religious. There are books, rosaries, medallions, and decorations all about the Christian faith. Sweetwater is predominantly Catholic because of the large Hispanic community. However, this store is the only Catholic place I found in Sweetwater, meaning that nearby Catholic churches are found just outside the city limits of Sweetwater. The churches I found in Sweetwater belonged to a different denomination of Christianity. For a neighborhood that is grounded through its religious roots, there isn’t a place within Sweetwater where they can go practice their faith.
There are multiple government businesses located in Sweetwater. There are the Social Security Administration, Passport Office, and Police department. Sweetwater harbors many immigrant families, those who came from a different country and those who are here from a previous generation. These businesses facilitate their presence in this country by making it accessible in a city like Sweetwater. For example, individuals who need visas can go to the Passport Office for legal travel to and from the United States.
The city of Sweetwater has come to be known as a place for second chances by many. It is a city that serves its people. The food, businesses, and parks are geared towards the interests of the residents. Parks are made easily available to locals. Food offers a piece of home to those who have had to find a new one. Public transportation for the locals is a great advantage to get around the neighborhood. Public transportation for the visitors of Sweetwater is not highly recommended. Construction has introduced societal intervention to a neighborhood that has built its identity. Although its history is a rollercoaster of events, from a life-changing discovery to a dishonest leader, Sweetwater is working its way to recover the trust it lost with its residents. It is welcoming to the individuals who left their homeland. In other words, Sweetwater is a redemption neighborhood, for the city and the residents.
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