My name is Laurent, my major is psychology with a minor in chemistry, but I am also pre-med. I am 21 years old and currently a full-time student. I love to travel, but my passion is medicine. I am trying to explore and discover as much as possible before immersing myself in the arduous process of medical school. I was born and raised for half of my childhood in Matanzas, Cuba, but came to Miami at nine years old. My favorite part about Miami is its diversity and its ability to withhold distinct cultures while simultaneously creating an intricate, interconnected network between all of them.
The neighborhood of Little Havana or as known to many of its people, Pequeña Habana, is located in the city of Miami. More specifically, it is positioned to the immediate west of downtown Miami, while the Miami River marks its northeastern border. Little Havana is peculiar in that it is as vibrant and full of culture as it was decades ago. Unlike a lot of Miami’s neighborhoods, its buildings, businesses, and houses have not gone through extreme modernist changes. Perhaps because of the economic situation of its residents or maybe because of its cultural representation but Pequeña Habana has not followed its neighbor’s footsteps. Although some construction is visible when visiting the neighborhood, it is diminutive in comparison to the majority of the area. For the most part, buildings are relatively small and a little run down, with more classical designs and tones. Nonetheless, there are usually clusters of businesses next to each other, often filled with people, making it a bustling area regardless of its appearance. Despite all of the businesses, especially around its main street, Calle Ocho (8th street), they are mostly small family-owned stores or restaurants. Big chain companies do make some appearances throughout, but local markets overpower them. One of the reasons behind the success of local businesses is that they represent the specific cultures of the residents, allowing them to interact with their community and feel closer to their heritage.
When most people think about Little Havana, the first thing that comes to mind is the immigrant population and culture present in the area. How can they not, when even the name honors one of those immigrant groups. Cubans arrived in waves, starting in 1959, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the name Little Havana emerged in honor of the capital of Cuba, Havana. However, what do we know about the area before they started to arrive in 1959, and how exactly did Little Havana evolve into what it is today?
Before it obtained its name as we know it, Little Havana was divided into two neighborhoods called Riverside and Shenandoah. Orange Glades Road, or as we know it now, Calle Ocho, separated the two areas. The residents of Riverside were primarily Jewish, and they established some of the first’s churches, schools, and businesses in Miami (Aag Staff.)
When Cubans began settling in Little Havana, a lot of the synagogues became Catholic churches and schools started teaching some classes in Spanish (Alberts.) However, the reason behind this cultural shift was the overthrow of Cuban President Batista by Fidel Castro in 1959.
Castro was perceived as a serious threat due to his alliance with the Soviet Union and the close position of the island to the US. For this reason, in 1961, a plan was set in motion by John F. Kennedy, the CIA, and Cuban exiles to invade the island through the southern shore known as the Bay of Pigs. However, due to Kennedy’s inability to send the American Army, the plan was unsuccessful, and the exiles had to surrender. A total of 114 individuals died, and 1100 were taken as prisoners (History.com Editors.) From this point on, Cubans have tried to escape the island through any means necessary, and a lot of them have settled in Little Havana.
However, today, Little Havana acts as a sanctuary for many other immigrant groups, primarily from Central and South America. While the Cuban community in the area declines, these groups continue to rise in population and make the neighborhood their own (Aag Staff.)
According to Statistical Atlas:
A total of fifty-three thousand four hundred thirty-one (53,431) individuals make up the neighborhood of Little Havana. Out of the population, the biggest group with roughly ninety-two percent (92.4%) are Hispanics. Blacks or African Americans follow with around four percent (4.43%) and Whites with three percent (3.01%). Asians, mixed, or others make up less than 1 percent (<1%). Around seventy-three percent (72.5%) of the residents of Little Havana are foreign-born, out of which 42.1% are from Cuba, 19.1% from Nicaragua, and 16.3% from Honduras. Surprisingly, the biggest age group in Little Havana are young adults (27.6%), followed by older adults (31.9%), children (18.6%), seniors (18.2%), and college students (3.72%). The median household income of the residents of the neighborhood is $22,000 (“Overview of Little Havana, Miami, Florida.”)
Bibliography of Aracely (a resident of Little Havana)
Aracely Perdomo was born on July 23, 1950, in Matanzas, Cuba. She moved to the United States at the age of fifty-seven but initially lived in Kendall. She relocated to Little Havana a couple of years later, at around sixty-two years old. Currently, Aracely lives her boyfriend, and they are both retired. She has two children with her previous marriage, who live near her but not in the same neighborhood.
Laurent: Why did you decide to move to Little Havana?
Aracely: I decided to move to Little Havana because I do not speak English, and I needed a place where I could get my errands done without any language barriers.
Laurent: What is your favorite part about Little Havana?
Aracely: My favorite part about Little Havana is the people and the atmosphere. I get to walk places, talk to my neighbors, and form relationships with those living in the area, similar to my home country.
Laurent: What are your favorite things to do in the area?
Aracely: Naturally, I make my coffee multiple times a day at home, but I do occasionally enjoy getting coffee and pastries from different restaurants or bakeries in the area. I mainly enjoy it because it allows me to interact with people from my home country and keep up with what is going on at the moment.
Laurent: Finally, is there anything that you do not like or would like to change about your neighborhood?
Aracely: Something that I do not like is seeing all the new construction in the area because it takes away from the essence of Little Havana, and it also creates traffic and congestion.
Maximo Gomez Park, or as known by many, Domino Park, is a staple for the Cuban population in Little Havana. The park was built in 1976, and at that time, locals would use makeshift tables to play chess. However, in 1983 additions started to be added, and the final results were a total of eleven domino tables and five for chess (Goodman.) It is known by the name Domino Park because it is a place in which mostly Cuban seniors get together to socialize and play dominos. For them, it is a way to connect with their home country and keep the customs alive while talking about politics, sports, or current events. However, the games are incredibly intense since the regulars are very serious about it to the point where an outsider might feel intimidated to join. Yells and verbal fights can be heard at times, but that demonstrates their passion for the game, which is much more than just a game for them. Nonetheless, to join one of these games is an experience like no other because it allows those that have never been to Cuba to experience a little bit of the customs and traditions of the country.
The Calle Ocho Walk of Fame is another distinctive feature of the neighborhood. It was developed as a way of recognizing Hispanic artists that have impacted the community one way or another. The first star was added in 1987 for the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. The Walk of Fame begins on the sidewalk of Maximo Gomez Park and extends from the 12th to the 17th Avenue on Calle Ocho. Most of the artists represented in those sidewalks have worked to help the Cuban community and those still prisoners on the island. However, as the South and Central America population in Little Havana grows, artists that represent those groups have also been added.
A prominent landmark for the history of the residents of Little Havana is the Bay of Pigs Museum. The museum was created as a way of honoring the 2506th Brigade, which was composed of Cuban exiles that went to free the people of Cuba in 1961. According to History, the name 2506 was chosen because one of the members died on a training accident, and the rest of the comrades decided to name the Brigade using his serial number (Pruitt.) The museum is filled with photos of those that died in the field and could not make it back to the US. It serves as a reminder of the past and the mistakes of the US government that caused so many to lose their lives and become prisoners of the communist regime.
Little Havana is a neighborhood with scarce green spaces. An example of this is the Maximo Gomez Park because although the name suggests it might be a traditional park, it is not. In reality, it just full of domino and chess tables, with seats and some benches, but it has not much grass, flowers, trees, etc. However, Jose Marti Park implements the conventional understanding of a park much better. It is named after Jose Marti, the great poet and Cuban national hero due to his role in the liberation of Cuba from Spain. While the park was closed when I went to visit, the numerous trees and grass-covered spaces were visible from the fence. The area was ample enough for individuals to play sports, exercise, play with their kids, etc. However, the park lacks tranquility because it is close to the principal streets, there is a highway almost on top of it, and constant planes are flying overhead.
Despite the faults of the location on the traditional aspects of a park, Jose Marti Park is the closest place to a green space in Little Havana.
Little Havana is known for its friendly, outgoing, and engaged residents, who love to walk to different shops and restaurants to interact with others. However, that is only one of many modes of transportation in the area. As I went through the community, especially 8th street, it was impossible not to notice the numerous but empty bus stops every couple of blocks. Although it was around noon, I only saw one bus around the streets, and the waiting benches were completely clear. However, the lack of individuals utilizing the busses was not surprising because public transportation is not widely used in most of Miami. Another available form of transport with a similar fate is the metro. Although it is beneficial because it alleviates the nuisance of finding parking in certain areas, it is not one of the preferred methods for going in and out of the neighborhood. Some of the disadvantages of public transportation are that it does not run 24/7, there are frequent stops, and they drop you off only at specific places.
Walking or riding a bicycle is very common for the Hispanic community in Little Havana because it is something most residents grew up doing in their home countries. Nonetheless, it is not an efficient way to travel outside of the community, and that is when cars come to play a role. Almost every household in Little Havana has a car, some even more, because it is an efficient way to travel long distances quickly and without having to waste much time. Although traveling in a vehicle can be inconvenient at times because gasoline is expensive, and parking might be hard to find, it gives independence to the owner.
When we talk about food in Little Havana, it is impossible not to mention one of the most famous Cuban restaurants, Versailles. Opened in 1971, Versailles is a place with authentic Cuban food, coffee, and pastries that is filled with people at all hours of the day. It is a restaurant on the inside, but it has a window that sells coffee, pastries, sandwiches, etc. for those that want faster service. This window is a common gathering place for the older people of the community to talk about politics, sports, and news. It is also a spot for the press to get the opinion of the Cuban exiles and for politicians to interact with the community in attempts to obtain their support. The restaurant portion usually has tourists from all over the world who want to try authentic Cuban food. The menu has everything from rice and beans to stuffed plantains and paella, which attracts even those individuals from other Hispanic communities (“About.”)
Azucar Ice Cream Company is a newer establishment in comparison to Versailles, founded in July 2011. However, its flavorful menu joins the Hispanic communities. Some of their more authentic flavors include, “cafe con leche” (Cuban coffee & oreo), “mantecado” (Cuban vanilla), and “cuatro leches” (four milks cake). They also have some tropical and weird flavor combinations using some unique desserts or fruits typical in the Hispanic communities. Azucar attracts many visitors because they showcase the Hispanic culture through desserts (“Miami Flavors.”)
A less known food place in Little Havana is Sanguich De Miami. Built just two years ago in 2018, it has become one of the best places to try a Cuban sandwich. It has 25 seats overall, and the design was created in tribute to Spanish architecture in Cuba’s early 1900. The sandwiches are full of ingredients ranging from the typical pulled pork to dehydrated pork skin and croquettes. Like every other Cuban restaurant, it has different types of coffee and fruity shakes. The atmosphere is fantastic, and those who visit get transported into the real Havana (“Sanguich De Miami.”)
One of the most popular products from Cuba is, without a doubt, the cigars. As portrayed in countless movies, the mafia or important people often mention their appreciation for the Cuban cigar. As you can imagine, one of the most Cuban filled neighborhoods needs to have a couple of cigar shops. Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. opened in Little Havana in 1994, making it the oldest cigar shop in the neighborhood. The family that owns the business is originally from Cuba, where they learn how to make the cigars. The beauty behind every shop is that the recipes are different, making the product unique to each establishment.
Another great business that promotes Cuban culture is called The Havana Collection. It is a shop that sells a lot of clothes and accessories, including shirts in traditional fabrics and shapes like those used by older people in the country. They are called Guayaberas, and although it is not the way of dressing of the most recent Cuban generations, it is still a definitive feature of the Cuban culture. Their use dates back to the early 18th century, and it was primarily associated with the people of the countryside. With time, they became more widespread among people from all over the island until more recent times when a lot of the Cubans residing in American began to influence the fashion of those still living on the island. Nonetheless, shops like The Havana Collection are in place for those that wish to immerse themselves in the more traditional styles.
The last establishment I will be talking about is called Exquisito Chocolate. It was founded in Little Havana in 2014, and what makes it unique is its hands-on approach. Everything in the store is created by hand, and their chocolate is made with the most ethically sourced cacao beans. Aside from that, the beans are roasted only with sugar, with no preservatives or additives added (“About Us.”) The business has become extremely popular due to its aesthetics and its constant innovative ways to present and create chocolate.
For me, the beauty of Little Havana relies on its ability to preserve the authentic Hispanic culture despite the modernist changes happening all around it. After so many years, it is still the go-to spot for some authentic Cuban food or a very strong espresso. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, locals walk to places and interact with the community, and small businesses are thriving and appreciated. This neighborhood has been and continues to be a sanctuary for many Hispanic immigrants because of the accessibility it provides. It is located near a lot of workplaces, which is useful to new immigrants because they can easily find and get to work without having to pay for the extremely high rent prices in those areas. Furthermore, most businesses in Little Havana are on a walking distance from the resident’s houses, allowing those with no vehicle, or just one for everyone in the household, to run any errands or buy necessities.
Something that the neighborhood is lacking is green spaces. Jose Marti park is the most prominent out of the ones in the area, however, its proximity to the highway takes away from the tranquility and relaxation that a park should provide. Adding new parks would change the routine of the residents by providing areas for them to exercise, take their dogs, or let their children interact with nature. Furthermore, basketball courts, soccer fields, or other sports areas should be added to promote safe and healthy outlets for individuals to destress and interact with friends.
Little Havana is a place like no other in the city of Miami. Visiting the neighborhood and indulging in some of its more popular activities such as playing a game of dominoes in the Maximo Gomez Park or attending the Calle Ocho Festival are unique and insightful experiences. The entire area gives a taste of what Hispanic countries are like, and the warmth of its residents make Little Havana a place that must be experienced at least once in life.
Aag Staff. “Little Havana: A Latin American Gateway.” AAG Newsletter, 30 Mar. 2020, news.aag.org/2013/10/little-havana-a-latin-american-gateway/.
“About.” Versailles, www.versaillesrestaurant.com/about.
Alberts, Heike C. “Changes in Ethnic Solidarity in Cuban Miami.” Wiley Online Library, American Medical Association (AMA), 21 Apr. 2010, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1931-0846.2005.tb00364.x.
“About Us.” Exquisito Chocolates, www.exquisitochocolates.com/pages/about-us.
Goodman, Janet. “Little Domino Park.” The Biscayne Times, Sept. 2015, http://www.biscaynetimes.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2194:little-domino-park
History.com Editors. Bay of Pigs Invasion. 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/cold-war/bay-of-pigs-invasion.
“Miami Flavors.” Azucar Ice Cream Company – Cuban Ice Cream – Miami, FL, www.azucaricecream.com/menu/miami-flavors/.
“Overview of Little Havana, Miami, Florida (Neighborhood).” Statistical Atlas, statisticalatlas.com/neighborhood/Florida/Miami/Little-Havana/Overview.
Pruitt, Sarah. 5 Things You Might Not Know About the Bay of Pigs Invasion. 15 Apr. 2016, www.history.com/news/5-things-you-might-not-know-about-the-bay-of-pigs-invasion.
“Sanguich De Miami.” Sanguich De Miami, Sanguich De Miami, 21 June 2019, sanguich.com/.