“Ineffable Miami Project: Alejandro Ruiz-Paiz

Student Biography

My name is Alejandro Ruiz-Paiz and I am currently a sophomore in Florida International University’s Honors College. I am majoring in Accounting, and minoring in Business Analytics, and hope to soon attain my CPA (Certified Public Accountant) license as I head into the public accounting industry. I am a local “Miami-an”, as one could say, as I was born and raised in the city of Miami, Florida. I truly do have an immense love and sense of pride for the city of Miami and hope to one day be able to raise a family of my own in this beautiful city. Despite my great love for Miami, and the fact that I have lived here for 19 years, it is very possible that a tourist that comes to visit the city for a weekend could potentially explore more parts, and learn more of the history of Miami, than I have in my entire span of living here. For this reason, I am glad that, throughout this past semester, I have had the opportunity to take part in the “Miami in Miami” course at Florida International University, where we have explored the city of Miami as tourists and have learned about its culture, history, artwork, flora, fauna, and everything else that Miami has to offer. Furthermore, I have also had the chance to explore a specific neighborhood of Miami and learn about its individual characteristics in relation to the rest of Miami. The neighborhood I chose to explore for my ineffable Miami project was Little Havana and I have documented everything I learned from this incredible experience down below. I want to thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy!

Geography

Little Havana is a truly incredible and unique neighborhood different from any other place in the world. It is a place that is filled with infinitely many things to do ranging from shopping, visiting landmarks, walking in scenic areas, exploring the night life, and best of all dining. Little Havana is located near downtown Miami and is split up into Little Havana and East Little Havana. The total squared mileage of Little Havana is roughly 5.74 mi2. Little Havana has a very interesting geographical layout as its northeastern borders are defined by the Miami River. This is a very nice aspect of the neighborhood due to the fact that the river brings about nice places to walk, incredible sceneries, and much tourism. Little Havana ranges from NW 37thAvenue on its western border and is defined by the Miami River and the Interstate 95 Highway on its eastern border (Google Maps). To the north Little Havana is bound by NW 20thStreet and is broken up into three different borders to the south, which include SW 16thStreet, SW 8thstreet, and SW 11thstreet (Google Maps). Of the three southern borders, the most famous of these streets is 8thstreet by far, or as it is commonly known as “Calle Ocho,” which simply refers to the term 8thstreet in Spanish. Calle Ocho, in Little Havana, is an incredibly well-known area that has dozens of different tourist and local attractions such as authentic Cuban cuisines, historical monuments, places for shopping, nice sceneries for walking, and an incredible night life.

History

Little Havana is filled with many incredible features and a rich history is definitely one of them. When one first thinks of Little Havana, many people immediately associate it with a strong Cuban culture, older people playing dominos in the park, incredible art throughout the walls of the streets, and rooster statues everywhere; and although all these things are very present today, the neighborhood of Little Havana has come a long way towards becoming the vibrant place it is today. The neighborhood of Little Havana first began its transition towards the community which we know today in the late 1950’s when thousands of political exiles arrived in Miami due to the Communist takeover of Cuba. Before the 1960’s, the area where Little Havana lies today, was actually home to primarily Jewish and black communities before the mass wave of Cuban exiles arrived (Vasilogambros 2016). In fact, the Jewish community had a very prominent presence in South Florida for a very long time, and even played a big role in the incorporation of Miami considering the fact that out of all the residents who signed for Miami’s incorporation, 25 of them were Jewish (Baca 2016). Also, in relation to Little Havana, one of Miami’s initial prominent Jewish communities, Shenandoah, was located near present day’s Little Havana (Baca 2016). Shortly after the wave of Cuban immigrants arrived in Little Havana, many other Latin American immigrants also fled their countries in search of safety due to political turmoil in their home countries. For instance, when the communist Sandinista National Liberation Front forced their way into power in Nicaragua in 1979, mass waves of Nicaraguans came to Little Havana in search of safety. Similarly, other Central American countries dealt with alike situations, and in turn, immigrants from Guatemala and Honduras also arrived in little Havana (Vasilogambros 2016). Ever since, Little Havana has been prospering and growing into the vibrant and exciting neighborhood that it is today.

Demographics

In a similar manner to the rest of Miami, the demographics of Little Havana consisted of a melting pot of people from all over the world. As one would assume, the dominant heritage of the population in Little Havana is of Cuban descent, but there was still a great amount of diversity through the streets. Similar to most other parts of Miami, a majority of the demographics consist of people from Latin countries from all over the world including those such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, and a plethora of others as well. Depending on what parts of Little Havana I was near, the demographics would change drastically from place to place. For instance, when I entered the famous Domino Park on Calle Ocho, the main portion of the population consisted of older men of Cuban descent. This is a characteristic which could be highly anticipated because of the fact that the game of dominos is a big part of the Cuban culture. The Domino Park, also known as Máximo Gómez Park, is a very well-known landmark of Calle Ocho that has been around for over 35 years (“Domino Park In Little Havana”). It was originally constructed in 1976, but was later renovated to its current state in 1983 in order to provide the people of Little Havana with nicer amenities for their beloved meeting spot (“Domino Park In Little Havana”). This popular spot has always been a gathering place for local residents to meet up and play games, tell stories, and meet new people. Considering the fact that this is a very popular landmark, the demographics around the park contained a big presence of tourism of people from all around the world admiring the culture and taking pictures with the local murals. Similarly, a big presence of tourism was also seen near many of the clothing and gift shops where people can find nice souvenirs to remember their time in Miami. Lastly, another big demographic that can be found in the streets of Calle Ocho, in Little Havana, is young adults who go for the night life. With popular bars such as “Ball and Chain” and “El Santo”, it is very common to see young men and women roaming the streets who are headed to one of these many popular spots in search of having a fun night out in the town in Miami. In fact, while in Little Havana I interviewed a young man in order to gain knowledge about the demographics and learn about a specific individual’s story and why he was there. The young man I interviewed was named Miguel and he was from Miami, but his family was of Venezuelan descent. Having many friends and family members that are from Venezuela, I was able to spark up very interesting and fun conversations with this complete stranger I just met, and I found this to be a very nice reflection of the people who visit Little Havana as many of the people I met and observed all seemed very friendly and genuinely enjoying their day. I learned that Miguel was heading to the popular bar, “Ball and Chain,” to meet up with some friends and have a good time.

Landmarks

Little Havana is home to dozens of notable landmarks that represent all sorts of concepts ranging from history, entertainment, comedy, and culture. The landmarks that can be found in Little Havana are primarily in the form of monuments, or sculptures, and art. One of the primary monuments in Little Havana is the Bay of Pigs Monument that is located on 8thstreet and 13thavenue. This monument was made in dedication to the lives that were lost at the attempted Bay of Pigs Invasion that took place on April 17, 1961 (“The Bay of Pigs Invasion Begins” 2009). The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an attempt by US-sponsored Cuban refugees to take down Fidel Castro’s communist government, but it was a complete failure. The soldiers were met by unexpected counterattacks from Fidel Castro’s Military, and from that moment were completely overpowered, and as a result “over 100 of the attackers were killed, and more than 1,100 were captured” (“The Bay of Pigs Invasion Begins” 2009). The names of the fallen soldiers are engraved on the monument, and at the top of the monument lies an eternal flame.

A mass presence of artistic expression is seen all throughout Little Havana and is truly a big factor that contributes to the vibrant and unique culture that Little Havana encompasses. Some of the other landmarks that Little Havana has to offer come in many forms. For instance, a very well known trademark of Little Havana is the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame. In similar fashion to the much more famous walk of fame that can be found in Los Angeles, California, this walk of fame consists of stars that are engraved in the sidewalks, and these stars include names of influential figures that have relation to South Florida or the Hispanic culture in general. Some famous names that can be found on the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame include Thalia, Celia Cruz, and Gloria Estefan. Another famous landmark of Little Havana, and this is truly my personal favorite, is the roosters of Calle Ocho. All along Calle Ocho, in Little Havana, one can find many rooster sculptures that are located outside of different establishments and restaurants. These sculptures have truly become a notable trademark of Little Havana as they genuinely create a fun culture and environment throughout the streets. All of the roosters are painted and decorated in different manners to represent different things. For instance, most of the roosters are located in front of individual establishments, and are therefore decorated to promote or represent these businesses, such as the rooster located in fron of The Havana Shirt Store is decorated with the traditional Cuban Guayabera style shirt. Most of the roosters don’t depict the artist’s names sadly, but I was able to find one that was located outside of an antiques shop that included the name of the artist on the platform of the sculpture. The artist who created that specific rooster is named Jackie Sarracino, and the name of that art piece was “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” and it was created in 2013. Also, a personal experience that I found to be quite funny was that while exploring Little Havana, I ran into real roosters in the streets and believed that it would be a shame if I didn’t document it and share it here as well. Lastly, other trademarks of Little Havana come in the form of art in many different ways. If walking through the streets of Little Havana, one would see endless amounts of murals and paintings all through the walls of different buildings. These paintings represent all sorts of things ranging from politics to simple comedy. One painting that has become very popular over the years is a painting of the famous singer Pitbull, who is truly an icon in the neighborhood of Little Havana because that is where he grew up. Pitbull, popularly known as Mr. 305 because of the area code of Miami, is a true inspiration for the people of Little Havana as he is an individual that was able to make it big in the industry and never forgot his roots and where he came from. Other paintings throughout the streets have a big presence of sexuality, and I found this to be quite normal due to the fact that sexuality is always considered to be a big part of the stereotype of what Miami is like. All in all, art has an incredible impact on the culture of Little Havana and it plays a big part in making Little Havana what it truly is today.

Green

Green spaces within Little Havana are relatively limited as much of the neighborhood is packed with construction of both residential and commercial buildings. Along the streets of Calle Ocho, in Little Havana, greenery is very rare and is primarily seen through trees that are planted all along the sidewalks, but it is not common to see large plots of open grass. The only park located in this area is the Domino Park, or Máximo Gómez Park, but it doesn’t contain any real greenspace apart from tiny plots of grass and several trees. Throughout the rest of Little Havana there are several parks, but they are mostly located in the region of East Little Havana near the Miami River, such as Riverside Park, Jose Marti Park, and Sewell Park. I believe that this is something that Little Havana should possibly attempt to work towards by providing more parks and greenspaces near the residential areas. Parks are important factors of neighborhoods that allow kids to roam around, make friends, and exercise freely, and they also allow adults to get fresh air and enjoy nature when possibly needing to take their minds away from their busy lives.

Transportation

The notorious Miami traffic rings true in little Havana as it does in most other parts of Miami as well. Transportation within Little Havana primarily consists of automobiles in the streets as there is very limited options for public transportation. Options for public transportation within Little Havana include the public bus system and a relatively limited trolley system. The Miami Trolley runs a route within Little Havana, but it only covers a small portion of the neighborhood. The trolley covers the entire span of Little Havana from the East to West aspect, but it only ranges between Calle Ocho and West Flagler street in the North to South aspect (“Public Transportation Web Tracker”). These limited options for public transportation make it difficult for people to rely on them, and due to this, the simplest mode of transportation is simply driving oneself or using transportation methods such as Uber or Lyft. 

The public transportation system in Miami as a whole is a wicked problem due to the fact that not enough locals actually use the public transportation system enough for them to be economically beneficial. The city is not able to continuously work to improve the public transportation system if they will not be sufficiently used. I personally understand the difficulties as well because of the fact that I rarely ever find myself using public transportation within Miami, and that is sadly the case for a majority of the people that I know that live in Miami as well. There are many benefits that could arise from higher usage rates of public transportation systems such as lowering our carbon footprint and traffic alleviation, so I definitely do hope that our city can one day find a solution towards making Miami a more public transportation-friendly city. The image above was a picture I captured that perfectly depicted the Miami traffic in a nutshell. I truly enjoy this picture because it was a very funny site to see at the time when I took this picture of how one guy was able to cause about three blocks worth of traffic hold-up. This picture depicts a very large bus that was attempting to cross lanes, but got stuck for some reason, and wound up blocking the three entire lanes of traffic. Thankfully, the driver was able to quickly get out of the situation and allow the flow of traffic to keep moving, but it truly showed how it takes something so menial to cause so much traffic in the streets of Miami.

Food

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Food is one of the most important topics of conversation when talking about Little Havana, and Miami as a whole. Cuban cuisine is a massive staple of the Miami culture and is definitely something that is very present amongst all restaurants and businesses that you see all throughout the city. Assessing the food of Little Havana was definitely one of the parts I was looking forward to the most during this assignment and it definitely lived up to expectations. While exploring Little Havana, I ate at a small family-owned business called Mercado Havana Daily Café. This restaurant was truly one of the most unique restaurants I had ever seen because of the fact that it was not simply a restaurant, but in fact was a restaurant, a grocery store, a bakery, and a bar all at once. Prior to walking in, I did not know that it was going to be anything more than a restaurant, but it was truly a very cool surprise. The market in the back of the restaurant contained many grocery store items, but the interesting part was that these goods were items that are commonly found in Hispanic countries, but are rare to find here in America. The shelves contained all sorts of untraditional brands that are not well known here, but are beloved my many people in other countries. The Mercado Havana Daily Café truly does an incredible service by doing this because many times people can’t get a hold of specific goods that are common in their home countries unless they take a trip and bring them back to their homes here in Miami. For instance, my mom was born in Nicaragua and one of her favorite perfumes growing up is one that she has never been able to find here in the states, so every time a family member visits Nicaragua, she always asks that they bring back some perfume for her. At the restaurant, I ordered a breakfast plate which included eggs, fries, ham, a tostada (buttered bread), and a café con leche (coffee with milk) and I truly enjoyed every part of the meal and it was an incredibly cheap price as well. 

A major staple of the Cuban culture is the Cuban coffee and it can be found in almost every authentic Cuban restaurant. A very popular trademark that many restaurants and cafes have throughout Little Havana, is that they have small windows, or “ventanitas,” outside of the restaurant where customers simply walk up and order their food without having to go into the restaurant. This idea is similar to that of drive-throughs, but it is unique because one still has to get down instead of driving through. The most common items that are ordered at these windows are usually Cuban coffees or small bakery pastries such as empanadas and croquetas. The most popular forms of Cuban coffee are the cortadito, colada, and café con leche and these are all types of espressos. One of the restaurants in Little Havana that had this small window was called La Esquina de La Fama. La Esquina de La Fama has become a minor landmark in Little Havana due to its unique exterior design that is filled with artifacts that display the traditional Cuban culture and also due to its eye-catching colors of the building which are red and green. Furthermore, they also have live bands playing traditional Cuban music in the restaurant which truly gives the restaurant a unique experience. I truly love the video that I was able to capture of the environment at La Esquina de La Fama because I feel like it truly encapsulates the stereotype of what Miami is like, which is eating Cuban food, partying, and dancing all at the same time. Lastly, another food establishment that has become very popular over the years due to its eccentric and eye-catching design on the outside of its building is the Azucar Ice Cream Company. Azucar does a great job at reeling you into the ice cream parlor with the extravagant ice cream sculpture that is on the front of the building, but they also do a great job at making sure you come back by providing incredible ice creams and sorbets in traditional Cuban tropical flavors such as mamey, mango, and avocado. 

Businesses

Unique businesses and family owned shops can be found in every direction you look within Little Havana. This was an aspect that I truly appreciated about this neighborhood because of the fact that family businesses are relatively rare in Miami, as almost everything is run by massive chain businesses and high-end stores. One of the unique businesses which I found really interesting was the Little Havana Cigar Factory. Cigars have a big presence in the Cuban culture, so it definitely was not a big surprise to find a cigar shop in Little Havana. This cigar shop was particularly cool because they not only had hundreds of cigars of all types of models and brands, but they also produced their own cigars right there in the shop. There was a man who was sitting at a table in the store making cigars from scratch and that was truly an incredible sight to see. I never had truly put thought to the process of making cigars, before seeing it being done in front of, and after that I gained a great respect for the art of cigar making. Cuban Cigars are amongst the most popular cigars around the world, so it was definitely a cool site to see authentic cigars being made right in front of me. Another unique business which I was very intrigued by was The Havana Shirt Store. In this store, they specialized in selling authentic Cuban clothing and specifically guayaberas, which were a main item in the store. Guayaberas are traditional Cuban shirts for men that are usually made out of linen or cotton, generally are short sleeve button downs, and almost always have front pockets. Apart from guayaberas, The Havana Shirt Store also had lots of traditional Cuban clothing for women as well. Considering the fact that both of these items, cigars and guayaberas, are staples in the Cuban culture, there are several other shops similar to these located all around Little Havana, such as D Asis Guayaberas, The Havana Collection, Sentir Cubano, Havana Classic Cigar, and Art District Cigars (Google Maps).

Summary

Overall, Little Havana truly is like no other neighborhood in the world as it is filled with endless amounts of culture, art, history, life, and so much more. Prior to this project, I had been to Little Havana hundreds of times, but I had truly never experienced Little Havana like I did this time around. Interacting with the locals, analyzing things like the history and geography, and trying new places for food that I normally wouldn’t try all truly added up to an incomparable experience that one cannot attain by simply driving by the neighborhood. I was able to see Little Havana in a new light and I have genuinely gained a deeper love and understanding for this incredible neighborhood. Many aspects of Little Havana work very well for the neighborhood, while there are also several things that can definitely be improved on. I believe that there are endless amounts of things that work incredibly for the neighborhood and play a big role in making Little Havana what it is today, such as the entrepreneurship of small businesses and non-chain restaurants, the incredible landmarks, the mass presence of art, and above all, the incredible people that live in and visit this great neighborhood. On the other hand, there are serval aspects of the neighborhood that could potentially be improved on in some ways, such as bettering the public transportation systems and creating more greenspaces and parks throughout the neighborhood. All in all, I have truly gained a great love for the neighborhood of Little Havana and am thankful that I chose this location for my project. Little Havana is just one neighborhood out of the dozens that exist within Miami, and thinking about the fact that so many other neighborhoods offer just as much culture and history as Little Havana does, has finally brought me to the realization that Miami cannot be described in words that would truly do it justice, and therefore is genuinely ineffable.

Sources

Baca, Mandy. “Shtetl by the Sea.” The New Tropic, 1 Sept. 2016, https://thenewtropic.com/miami-jewish-history/.

“Domino Park In Little Havana.” Miami Culinary Tours, https://www.miamiculinarytours.com/domino-park-in-little-havana/.

FoodEstablishment. “Miami Flavors.” Azucar Ice Cream Company – Cuban Ice Cream – Miami, FL,  https://www.azucaricecream.com/menu/miami-flavors/.

Google Maps, Google, https://www.google.com/maps/place/Little+Havana,+Miami,+FL/@25.7818547,-80.2143721,13.95z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x88d9b71705159fe7:0x35255f234772db89!8m2!3d25.7776438!4d-80.2377078

Public Transportation Web Tracker, https://publictransportation.tsomobile.com/webtracker/webtracker.htm?labels=false&tkn=81E39EC9-D773-447E-BE29-D7F30AB177BC&lan=en.

“The Bay of Pigs Invasion Begins.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 13 Nov. 2009,  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-bay-of-pigs-invasion-begins.

Vasilogambros, Matt. “Cuba, the Brand.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Apr. 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/little-havana-miami/477204/.

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