France 2020 Ineffable Miami: Little Havana by Jorge Jacob

C.C. by Amy Gutierrez

Biography

Jorge Jacob is currently an Honors college student at Florida International University pursuing a degree in Biochemistry. He has plans to graduate Fall 2020 with the idea of entering Medical school soon after in order achieve his goal of becoming a doctor. At the moment Jorge works at the FIU Mastery Math Lab and is involved in helping students learn multiple math concepts involving College Algebra, Precalculus, and Trigonometry. A few of his passions include playing video games, cooking, gardening, space exploration, and science. Found below are several reflections written about locations visited during the Spring 2020 France Study Abroad Program.

Geography

Little Havana is a neighborhood located in the city of Miami, Florida. Little Havana is geographically a small neighborhood, however, do not let that fool you, as upon closer inspection one will find that this neighborhood is overflowing with Hispanic cultures, the identity that comes with it and a large sense of community. The common saying can be applied here “good things come in little packages.” The benefit to little Havana being a relatively small area is that it can be explored easily and without much effort. The urban landscape of little Havana is dominated by pockets of residential areas and various stores and restaurants, with most of them being small time business. A lot of these businesses can be found along SW 8th street or as it is called “Calle Ocho”, this street serves as one of the main attractions of little Havana due to the large amount of businesses and restaurants found along this strip along with other events that occur on this road and landmarks that are found on this road. The area that defines little Havana can be roughly described through the borders that it has and its location to the center of Miami (Downtown). Little Havana’s northern border is the Miami river, its eastern border is NW 37th ave, its western border is a mix between the Miami river and SW 4th ave, and the southern border is marked by the famous Calle Ocho [1].

CC by SA 4.0

History

Little Havana was not always the bustling Hispanic center that it is now, in fact it never even started as a Hispanic neighborhood, it was originally a lower to middle class Jewish neighborhood. To properly explore the history of a subject not only must the subject itself be examined but the factors that contributed to the subject and what existed beforehand must also be explored. Thus, this history section will examine the before, the cause, and the after for the neighborhood of Little Havana to properly and rightfully tell its story. Miami itself was officially established around 1896 and began growing ever since, although there have been many setbacks this growth has never stopped. As the city grew so did its population, including the rise of a Jewish presence and African American presence, an emphasis is placed on these two demographics because the growth of Miami was not kind to them due to heavy prejudice and discrimination. The story of African Americans does not influence Little Havana as much as the Jewish presence so it will be not be really touched upon. The Jewish community although growing in population during the early days of Miami were treated unfairly due to the large amount of anti-Semitic attitudes found among Miami developers, an example of this discrimination is how developers did not allow Jewish people to buy land north of 5th street meaning they were forced to live in certain areas. Another example of discrimination was how many shop owners and public places had signs that read “Gentiles Only”[2]. These restrictions did not defeat the Jewish spirit and their community grew stronger in fact when discriminatory laws were eventually abolished the Jewish community quickly expanded, so much so that Miami beach earned nicknames such as little Jerusalem and Shtetl by the sea [3]. Miami beach and by extension Miami essentially became a popular vacation spot for the Jewish community. As the Jewish expansion occurred many areas around Miami Beach became heavily populated by the Jewish community, one neighborhood in particular was just west of downtown (currently little Havana).

The Jewish presence was heavily felt from around the 1930s to the 1960s where the start of the shift occurred, this shift was the arrival of the Cuban population. This would normally not be a major change, but the arrival of the Cuban population was due to political changes occurring in Cuba, namely the rise of Fidel Castro to power, leading to a large amount of emigration. As the concentration of Cubans entered Miami, they needed a place to live and most chose somewhere close to the downtown area settling just west of downtown. The name Little Havana arises shortly after, due to the large population of Cubans that arrived Havana being the capital of Cuba and the word little referring to a smaller version of the Cuban capital. The increasing number of Cubans entering the neighborhood led, to some extent, the Jewish community to leave and as more Cubans arrived the Jewish presence began to fade. The Jewish community from this area then began migrating to Broward and Palm beach counties. The new growing community of Cubans in Miami fortified its presence by bringing its Cuban traditions and culture as well as a deep sense of community as most of these Cubans were victims of the Castro regime. Another important aspect of the Cuban neighborhood is that it became an area for counter revolutionary activity as many who arrived her in Miami were opposed to the Cuban revolution that had placed Castro in power [4]. Many Cubans that came to Miami hoped to ride out the Castro regime coming back to Cuba once Castro was removed from power however this did not happen, and these Cubans then chose to remain in Miami rather than go back to Cuba. In order to stay in Miami Cubans had to make a living, thus many local businesses opened up again reinforcing the presence of Cuban culture.

By the 1970s the neighborhood was almost 85% Cuban both population wise and as the main cultural presence in the area. As time went on Cubans also moved to different other neighborhoods in Miami thus leaving the little Havana areas but even so little Havana still remained as the main landing point for new Cuban immigrants and the area which held many locally owned Cuban businesses. As the years passed most of the things mentioned in this section remained the same except that the Hispanic presence got bigger and not only the Cuban presence but many from Latin America have arrived in Miami and made it their home [5]. This has led to some decrease in the Cuban population but there is still a strong enough presence that little Havana is still dominant Cuban and not much is going to change that because of the history embedded in this neighborhood. The shops change owners or names may change, but they remain serving Cuban food and Cuban pastries, the Cigar stores established years ago remain in business, the older generation that lives in this neighborhood will not let it go. The newer generation even though they may prefer modern times also do not want to let go of the traditions being passed down. In 2015 Little Havana was included in the National trust for Historic preservation’s annual list of 11 most endangered places and then in 2017 the same trust declared it as a national treasure[6].

Demographics

According to the Statistical Atlas (Data was collected from the US Census Bureau) [7][8]:

In Little Havana there is a total population of 53,430 people with a population density of 24,630 people per square mile. The ethnic composition found in the neighborhood was that 92.4% of the population were Hispanic (excluding Black and Asian Hispanics), 4.4% of the population was Black (including black Hispanic), and 3% of the population was white (non-Hispanic). The male to female ratio for the neighborhood falls as a 1 to 1 ratio leading there to approximately be a 50% male population and a 50% female population for the neighborhood. The median age of the population in little Havana is 40.9 years old and the annual per capita income is $22,000.

Biography of Cecilia Soler (A resident of little Havana)

Cecilia Soler was born in December of 1998 in Manhattan, New York.  She moved to Miami with her parents shortly after, they’ve lived in Little Havana ever since. Cecilia is currently a junior at Florida International University and enjoys spending her free time being with friends and family.

Cecilia’s Thoughts on Little Havana

  • What is your favorite aspect of the neighborhood?

Little Havana has a huge Cuban influence, I’m not Cuban but being able to immerse yourself into the culture is amazing. I love that people who visit Miami usually have to visit Calle Ocho when they’re here.

  • Do you enjoy living there?

Some neighborhoods surrounding Little Havana are a bit run down but, the houses have a lot of charm. My family has lived in the same house for over 30 years (my grandparents lived in this house before we moved here) so yes you can say I do enjoy living here.

  • What are some things you do for fun in the neighborhood?

One of my favorite things to do is go eat at Versailles or walk around Calle ocho and see some of the art and people playing dominoes

  • What do you dislike about Little Havana and how would you like to change it?

Like previously mentioned, some of the surrounding areas are really mistreated, I think if they were better taken care of then more people would be happier with their living situation.

  • What is your general feeling towards little Havana?

Overall, I feel content towards little Havana, it isint my dream location but I know the area well and love the pride people have for their culture here.

Landmarks

Calle Ocho [9][10]

Calle Ocho does not fit the usual prototype of a landmark and that is true but the street itself is a lot more than just a street. This street contains most of the shops and cultural locations that are relevant to the Cuban identity in little Havana. In fact, most of the restaurants and businesses mentioned here are actually located on Calle Ocho which marks the importance of this street. A good idea to take when touring would be to just start from one end of little Havana and walk to the other end of the neighborhood just using this principal rode. This would be more of an abridged tour but nonetheless it would still allow you to travel and visit most of the places of interest in little Havana. Another interesting feature is the yearly carnival that occurs on Calle Ocho which celebrates the Cuban identity and culture that is heavily present in this neighborhood.

Tower Theater

The tower theater is one of Miami’s oldest landmarks and marks an important place in the heart of early Cubans arriving in Miami. The theater itself began operations in December of 1926 and continues its operations to this day with there being a hiatus in its life from the years 1984 to 2002. At the time of its opening it was one of the finest states of the art theaters that could be found in Miami, after 6 years in service came time to remodel it and it was remodeled into a classic Miami design, art deco. One of the most prominent additions was a 40-foot steel tower that hovered over then neighborhood.  During the late fifties and going into the sixties the theater was still operational, but the neighborhood was receiving new residents as a result of Cuban emigration. The importance of this theater to Cubans is that to many this was an introduction to the American culture in the form of entertainment. As many Cubans began settling into the neighborhood more and more families began coming to the theater such that the theater itself altered the programming to include Spanish subtitles and eventually Spanish-language films. After 60 years of operation the tower theater was closed to the public but eventually in 2002 it was reopened after the theater was given to Miami Dade College. Once the theater opened it became again a gathering place for cultural connections.

Calle Ocho Walk of Fame

The Calle Ocho walk of fame is a simple but interesting landmark that mirrors the idea of the Hollywood walk of fame. The only caveat here is that all the starts found in this hall of fame are people who represent the Cuban identity. Notable stars include Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, Maria Conchita Alonso, and many more other stars which are prominent in the Cuban community. This attraction is located on 8th street between SW 12th Ave and SW 17th ave.

Green

CC 4.0 by Tamanoeconomico

Máximo Gómez/Domino Park

Although there is less green space found in this park than usual this an important park for little Havana as it is a popular meeting spot for many older Cubans. You will usually find these older folks drinking coffee and playing dominos. The name of this park being Domino park is not a coincidence as playing Dominos in this area has been a tradition for over 35 years. The main attraction for this park is the Dominos and the interaction between generations that occurs when younger Cubans participate in the old age tradition of playing dominos.

Retrieved from https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/thing-to-do/parks-recreation/jose-marti-park/2985

Jose Marti Park [11]

Jose Marti Park is a 1.7 acre green space located at the edge of little Havana closer to downtown. The park features a public Riverwalk with benches so that one may jog along the riverside or sit-down to read a book and enjoy the site of the river. There are also many other features including indoor and outdoor basketball courts, indoor gym, recreation building, picnic tables and more. For younger children there is a large playground filled with different activities such as structures to climb, slides, see-saws and a grassy field close to the area. There is also a six-lane 25-meter pool at Jose Marti Park that can be used to train lap swimming.

Riverside Park

Although different from the other two parks in terms of size and significance Riverside park is still an important green space for the neighborhood. It features a small compact playground with a baseball diamond, and some grassy areas. These green spaces are important to the various people who live around the area as either a place to meet up or to bring their kids.

Transportation

Traveling around the neighborhood can be done in several ways including using a car, walking, or public transportation. Since the neighborhood is relatively small each of the different options are fine for traversing through the neighborhood. The benefits to the car are that it is single vehicle and you control what is going in the car however there are times when traffic jams occur causing long wait times. The benefits to the bus is that there are numerous amounts of bus stops flooding little Havana and one does not have to go far to find the one they need, the cons of this is that generally the buses in Miami are not 100% reliable on getting there on time and wait times may vary leading to long time periods of waiting for the bus to arrive. Since the neighborhood is again relatively small walking around or cycling for that matter is a convenient way to travel due to not having to wait for buses or wait in traffic jams. According to google maps it takes about 1 hour and a half or less to get from any two places in little Havana. Such that even walking all of Calle Ocho is doable as it should not take longer than an hour and a half. The downside to walking or cycling is if you do not live in little Havana already then there is an issue where walking to get to this neighborhood is impractical, another con is that with walking the amount of time you spent to get to you location also takes the same amount of time to get back to your starting location and on the return trip on may be tired out already.

Food

Azucar Ice Cream Company [12]

The Azucar ice cream company was founded in July 2011 and has been a staple in little Havana ever since. It is a little shop with a big attitude, this can be identified by the large ice cream cone that decorates the storefront. This ice cream store is not your typical ice cream store that has the same old flavors, Azucar prides itself in a representation of the subtropical climate and having that sabor Latino. The list of flavors found in the restaurant are actually crazy as the variety includes various clearly inspired Latin flavors this includes both the year round flavors and the seasonal flavors. The Latin flavors are apparent in the mamey option, guarapiña, and mantecado. I have personally been to this store and the flavors are amazing.

Versailles Restaurant [13]

Versailles has been another staple in little Havana not only as a restaurant but as a gathering place for Cuban refugees after they left and arrived here in Miami. Since opening its doors in 1971 Versailles has been one of the go to places for genuine Cuban cuisine, to eat Cuban you would need to go to Versailles. It is amazing seeing a restaurant survive so long and becoming such an integral part of the community. The restaurant not only serves food to many of the locals whom love their native food and can have some without ant need to cook it themselves but to many tourists who want to eat at the self-proclaimed World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant. Apart from the restaurant itself there is a ventanita, in English this means small window and what it refers to is a small little windowed area that serves mostly Cuban pastries and coffee. At this ventanita not only are snack Cuban foods eaten, and coffee drank but they serve as areas of discussions which can include topics such as the Cuba of the past, present, and future, todays politics, general catching up or even small talk.

Ball & Chain [14]

The Ball & Chain is currently a Cuban influenced bar and lounge accompanied with different live performances to make you time spent a good one. The Ball & Chain restaurant and the building it operates under has a very long history which sums up what was happening in Miami during these times. The original Ball & Chain opened in 1935 and ran through many different owners in its lifetime which caused its name to change from time to time but overall the same business was present overall. Throughout the years of its operation it held not only a bar and lounge business including live performances but there were many criminal activities also going around which reflected the times. This included fight clubs, gambling, and liquor law violations. Eventually in 1957 after stiffing the bill on a live performer, Count Basie, the bar was sued and caused the club to go out of business. There was another bar that came up called the Copa Lounge Tavern, but it did not last long as it was fairly lackluster in terms of the design and no live entertainment. At this time period the Cuban influx of emigration was occurring and the area was transforming from the former Jewish community it was to the current little Havana. The resulting change led to a change in the general atmosphere. The Copa Tavern closes down and a furniture store takes over, the furniture store closes, and the building stays vacant. The next store to open is a surprising one but a much-needed addition for the little Havana area it is none other than Ball & Chain although the management has changed with the Barlington group being responsible for the revival of the restaurant. The revival of the restaurant was obviously a Cuban revival as it now features many Cuban dishes and drinks along with Cuban inspired live performances.  For me the journey of the Ball & Chain mirrors the Cuban journey maybe not perfectly, but both experienced a change in management over the course of the years which eventually lead to a bankruptcy for the restaurant and the rise of Fidel Castro for the Cuban people. They also had a sense of revival for the restaurant a reopening and for the Cuban people a rediscovery of their culture and the creation of little Havana not only in name but through the many different aspects of the neighborhood.

Businessess

Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. [15]

One of the many local businesses that can be found in little Havana are Cigar shops, as these represent an integral part of the Cuban identity. The specific cigar shop that will be discussed is the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. This Cigar company is family run and is currently in the 5th generation at the head of the company this interesting detail reminds me of Cuba, not only because of the cigar but the strong family bond that has kept this company going. Essentially the art of cigar making has been this family’s way of life for over 100 years. It all began in Cuba where Don Bello the first in the family left the Canary Islands in search of more fertile soil for his Tobacco plants and ended up in Las Villas Cuba. At Las Villas he established a cigar factory and continued working with tobacco for the rest of his life. The only issue was the change in Cuban leadership to the Castro Regime as all private assets had now been seized by the government and left the tobacco growers without out a way to make a living. This meant that all of the Bello family fields and factories were seized, and they were left with nothing so with nothing to lose they go to Miami to restart their tobacco business. Slowly they are able rebuild their brand and establish a cigar factory, eventually becoming one of the largest manufacturers of premium cigars in the US. They have won several different awards including the Crystal leaf award in recognition of their lifetime passion and dedication. The Bello family has a little shop in the little Havana area where they first settled, and it continues to display the various authentic Cuban cigars that they are manufacturing. Passing by this shop is a must when visiting little Havana in order to see the various different cigars offered as well as to experience the family roll up a cigar in front of you, even if you do not smoke this place is a must see. The value and authenticity that emanates from this shop is phenomenal.

The Havana Collection

The Havana collection is a small store in little Havana that specializes is Cuban clothing with a large emphasis in the traditional Guayabera Cuban shirts made for men, women, and children. An example of some of the brands it carries is Cubaveraa and the Mojitio Collection. The store also carries other clothing items but there is an obvious focus on Guayaberas not only in the typical white color but in many other fashions as well. The Guayabera is a timeless classic in the Cuban attire as it demonstrates elegance while also being quite comfortable. Thee are many origin stories for the Guayabera, of course there is the Cuban claim that states that the shirt originated from a poor countryside seamstress sewing pockets onto one of her husbands’ shirts so that he may be able to carry guayabas (guava) from the fields [16].

Sentir Cubano

Sentir Cubano is a brick and mortar store located on Calle Ocho and the store itself also has a online component named Cuban Food Market. The store itself is very Cuban marked by the various items that are being sold that range from Guayaberas, to different type of Cuban foods, Cuban memorabilia, Cuban collectibles, and Cuban games. Looking at the physical location it is very apparent that it is a Cuban store, not only due to the title and designs around it but the fact that it says in big letters Cuban store. I find that the charm of this store Is that it is unapologetically Cuban and is serving exactly what it tells you the best possible Cuban experience so that you can feel Cuban.

Summary

Little Havana is a small neighborhood west of downtown where a new Cuba was born after the arrival of many Cuban refugees running from an oppressive government. The strength formed in the early days results from this state of the community and has mostly continued onward from there. The history of this small neighborhood is an interesting read but a sad one as well, including both the struggles of the Jewish community standing in the face of antisemitism and the Cuban refugees who lost everything in their native country but still had the courage to escape and rebuild. However, the fruit of their struggles gave birth to a new identity that can be seen all round little Havana not only in the stores that have opened since 1960 by Cuban refugees and continue to operate to this day but all the community interactions. The Cuban community has managed to claim an entire street as their own, where they are proud to say its name Calle Ocho and are constantly involved in the developments that are occurring whether they be old or new. There are numerous memorials to fallen Cuban freedom fighters, memorials to Cuban artists, Cuban owned stores that have opened in the last decade, in the last 2 decades, and some stores that have been open longer. What I admire about this little neighborhood is the resilience that the Cuban people demonstrate and the sense of community they hold for each other. Overall, there may be some portions of the neighborhood that are worse for wear, but little Havana is a pearl that needs to be protected.

References

  1. Google, Google Maps little Havana https://www.google.com/maps/place/Little+Havana,+Miami,+FL/@25.7746185,-80.2325196,14.75z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x88d9b71705159fe7:0x35255f234772db89!8m2!3d25.7776438!4d-80.2377078
  2. Baca.madny@gmail.com, “Shtetl by the Sea”, the New Tropic https://thenewtropic.com/miami-jewish-history/
  3. Lance Dixon, “How did Miami’s Little Havana become the home for Cuban immigrants? We took a look at the history”, The New Tropic https://thenewtropic.com/miami-little-havana-cuban-history/
  4. Vasilogambros, Matt (April 7, 2016). “Cuba, the Brand”. The Atlantic.
  5. Neighborhood enhancement Team, “Little Havana”, City of Miami https://web.archive.org/web/20110818050510/http://www.miamigov.com/nets/pages/LittleHavana/Your%20community.asp
  6. National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Little Havana”, https://savingplaces.org/places/little-havana#.XpxN28hKiUm
  7. Area Vibes, “Little Havana, Miami, FL Demographics”, AreaVibes https://www.areavibes.com/miami-fl/little+havana/demographics/
  8. Statistical Atlas, “Overview of Little Havana, Miami, Florida”, Cedar Lake Ventures https://statisticalatlas.com/neighborhood/Florida/Miami/Little-Havana/Overview
  9. Kara Franker, “Experience Cuba Culture on Calle Ocho in Little Havana” Greater Miami convention and visitors bureau https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/things-to-do/attractions/explore-calle-ocho-in-little-havana
  10. Carnival Miami “Calle Ocho”, https://carnavalmiami.com/events/calle-ocho/
  11.  “Jose Marti Park” Greater Miami convention and visitors bureau https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/thing-to-do/parks-recreation/jose-marti-park/2985
  12. Azucar, “About Us” Azucar, https://www.azucaricecream.com/about/
  13. Versailles “About” Versailles, https://www.versaillesrestaurant.com/about
  14. Ball & Chain, “The Return of the historic Miami Bar and Lounge”, https://ballandchainmiami.com/history/
  15. Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. “Bello Family”, http://cubatobaccocigarco.com/legacy/
  16. Armario, Christine (30 June 2004). “Guayabera’s Origin Remains a Puzzle”Miami Herald.

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