Italia Spring 2020 Ineffable Miami: Little Havana by Karina Luis

Biography

Karina Luis is a sophomore at Florida International University’s Honors College majoring in Psychology and Sociology. She is interested in a variety of things including art, music, and travel but her main goal in life is to help people. She hopes to become an ABA therapist where she can help children. Karina will be graduating in 2022, and is currently enrolled in the Honors College Italy Study Abroad course, and below are her as text posts.

Geography

Google maps image of Little Havana 2020

Little Havana is a relatively small neighborhood in Miami, that has continued to flourish as being a large part of Miami’s Cuban experience. This neighborhood is located west of downtown Miami, and contains a part of one of Miami’s most well known streets, 8th street, otherwise known as Calle Ocho. Another very large street in Miami, West Flagler street, runs through this neighborhood as well marking the northwest and the southwest portions of Miami. Little Havana is by far one of the most culturally dense neighborhoods in the Greater Miami area. It consists of an abundance of restaurants, nightlife, it is even home to Marlin’s Park. The neighborhood itself extends from around NW 20th street to SW 16th street, bordering it being Brickell if one were to move eastward, the Miami River being on its northeast end, and Flagami on its west. This neighborhood extends at about a 6 mi2. The impact that the Cuban refuges have had on the neighborhood is evident even by the name of the neighborhood, being named after Havana, which is Cuba’s capital and largest city. Through the years, it has definitely been modernizing a bit, with new businesses coming in, however the neighborhood still has a resounding Cuban theme paying homage to the Cuba that these refugees knew and loved before they needed to leave. A large portion of Little Havana is also residential consisting of a large hispanic population, many of which have been living there for years. What makes this neighborhood so interesting is how even with the changes it has seen, the identity of the neighborhood has remained the same, making everyone feel welcomed, and emphasizing the importance of culture

History

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

Originally, before the influx of Cuban refugees Miami was actually home to a very prominent jewish community. Little Havana used to consist of two neighborhoods, Riverside and Shenandoah (Miami’s first large Jewish community). However, in the 1950’s and 1960’s Miami saw its influx of Cuban exiles, who settled in these two neighborhoods, and by the 70’s thousands of Cubans had arrived which displaced a majority of this Jewish and Anglo community that had resided there. The influx originally began in the late 1950’s when the Castro regime took over Cuba and overthrew President Batista. Because of the now overwhelming amount of Cubans residing in these neighborhoods, the two neighborhoods formed what is now known as Little Havana. The culture of the community had largely changed with Spanish now being the primary language used, catholicism being the primary religion, completely changing from the Jewish and Anglo neighborhood that it once was. The 1980’s were the peak of this migration due to the Mariel, where 125,000 refugees arrived through boat to Miami, because they had been released from Cuba. The Mariel migration anything but easy for these migrants where through a period of five months people where jam packed into these boats in order to arrive to the United States and start their new lives away from the suffering that the Castro regime had caused them and their families. Even though the journey was difficult, families were reunited and these people could now live their very own American Dream. These refugees then made this area their own which is why it is called Little Havana, because Havana, is the Capital of Cuba, and this was now the largest population of Cubans in the United States. It was Cuba in Miami. Interestingly enough, the Cuban population in this neighborhood as actually been on the decline in recent years but the culture of the neighborhood does remain the same.

Demographics

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

The City of Miami has a large hispanic population,and a high percentage of that hispanic population reside in Little Havana. Currently, according to The Demographic Statistical Atlas, there are 53,431 people consisting of 20,349 households in this neighborhood. The greatest percentage of people residing here are between the ages of 30-34, however the population’s age is highly dispersed with this age bracket only consisting of 8.83%, which would be 4,720. The population mostly consists of people from the ages of 25-60 years old being the mean range. Interestingly the demographics show that in women the population consists of people over the age of 85, being 61.9% of the female population, while in men the population mostly consists of 20 year olds which compose 76.9% of the male population. Not surprisingly, 92.4% of the population is hispanic which consists of 49,400 of its residents, however the largest percentage of residents were actually not Cuban, they were Central American. In Little Havana, 43.9% of residents were from Central America, while 38.5% were Cuban, followed by 20.1% being Nicaraguan. The Average household income skews the most to about $10-15k, composing 14.4% of the population. The average job occupation in this neighborhood is in construction, which consists of 4,525 of its residents. 

Biography of Mirta Luis (a prior resident of Little Havana)

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

Mirta Luis was born January 20, 1943 in Marianao, a neighborhood in Havana Cuba. She came to the United States from Cuba in 1960, when she was 17 years old and moved to Little Havana where she lived with her aunt, her sister, and her niece and nephew. In 1965, she had her only daughter Arlene Luis (my mother), and after many years of living in Little Havana she now lives in Fontainebleau, but still owns property there.

What was it like when you first moved to Little Havana?

“When I first came to live in Miami, life was very different, because at the time Miami was not as Cuban as it is now, so I had to deal with learning a new language and being somewhere new. But, I really like how being in Little Havana, I was surrounded by people going through the same thing that I was, and I got to be with my family. Being around all of these people made me feel like I was at home.”

What was your favorite thing to do when you lived in Little Havana?

“I loved to hang out with my friends in the neighborhood, and we would have a lot of fun. We would walk around the neighborhood and go to each other’s houses. We also went to drive in movies when I first moved there. I actually lived right next door to one of the Cuban men involved in the Watergate scandal, which is kind of interesting.”

How is Little Havana different today then it was when you lived there?

“Miami is much bigger now than it was before in general, and there were a lot more Cubans before then there are now. I like going through Calle Ocho because it makes me proud of my culture, and being able to see younger people enjoy it. Little Havana is also much bigger now than it was before because when I came here Miami was very small.”

Is there anything you don’t like about Little Havana?

“I really like Little Havana, but I think that right now there are a lot of people living there which makes a lot of traffic.”

Landmarks

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

One of the principal landmarks of Little Havana is the Bay of Pigs Monument. This landmark is so important because it represents the beginning of the historical events that took place with these Cuban exiles coming to Miami, due to Fidel Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion took place in April of 1961 and was a failed attempt by President John F. Kennedy to remove dictator, Fidel Castro from power. The invasion consisted of 1,400 Cubans who were trained by American officials, however due to the overwhelming number of Castro troops, they were forced to cease fighting after around 24 hours. A main reason for the Bay of Pigs invasion being such a failure was the lack of preparation and how Castro always seemed to be one step ahead. For example, on April 15 1961, two days before the invasion occured, Cuban exiles were trained in order to conduct a strike on Cuban airfields, however this failed because before Castro moved their planes to a different location. The actual invasion also had many disaster points with it being broadcasted to Cubans, ships sank in the coral reefs, backup troops did not show up, and it ended with 114 dead and 1,000 taken prisoner. This was especially difficult to hear because the Cubans who were involved in this attack had fled Cuban when Castro took over, so for them to be taken prisoner, and back under the very man they fled, or to have been killed when they thought they would have been backed up, it feels like a nightmare. Therefore, this monument pays homage and tribute to the people who were involved in this failed attack. This invasion and monument are very important in the Cuban story, because they represent not only all the damage that Fidel Castro has caused on the lives of many, but also it reminds us of the people that came before us and how lucky we are to be in this country. 

On a lighter note, another key sight in Little Havana is its Walk of Fame, or El Paseo de las Estrellas. This is on SW 8th street between 12th and 17th avenue, where the floor has stars like on Hollywood Blvd, which represent trailblazing hispanic artists. Here you can see various names of Hispanic artists from all cultures in order to honor and pay respect to them and the influence they have had. People in general like to look up to people they can relate to and are proud of, and being Hispanic we are all very proud of our own. So, naturally they want to pay tribute to these artists. When walking through, you can see various names some older and some newer. For example, one can see the names of Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, Thalia, Julio Iglesias, and many more. This is definitely something to see and represents the pride that we have in our culture and community. 

The Tower Theater located on SW 8th street and 15th Avenue is one of Miami’s oldest landmarks. This theater is an example of Miami’s signature Art Deco style. It was constructed by architect Robert Law Weed in 1931 as part of the Wometco Theater chain and was very popular in its time, for its special events and matinees. And, as part of Little Havana, when the Cuban Refugees arrived in the neighborhood, they were very accommodating and were the first theater in Miami to display films with Spanish subtitles, and eventually began to play Spanish language films. Currently, the theater is still functional and is owned by the city of Miami and Miami-Dade College. They now specialize in being a cultural center in the neighborhood and play foreign language films and some English films all with subtitles. They also dedicate themselves to hosting events such as special performances, exhibitions, and lectures.

Green

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

There are not many green areas in Little Havana, due to the area being residential, with many businesses and construction. However, when you begin to walk around there are some residential corners with trees and little greenery. For example there is the area where the Bay of Pigs statue is, called the Cuban Memorial Boulevard, when you walk down that path there are many trees and statues such as one of the Virgin Mary, and a Cuban flag engraved in stone. The most famous park of Little Havana however, is not really a park at all. It is called Maximo Gomez park, or Domino Park. It is located on SW 8th Street and 14th Avenue, and like the name states dozens of local Cubans gather here to play dominos. A different park located in Little Havana more towards the Miami River is the Jose Marti Park. This park is named after a man who every Cuban knows, Jose Marti. This park is more traditional in the sense that there is greenery and it is a place where one can walk and take in their environment. However, Little Havana is not the best place to have any sort of park because there are a lot of people and it is not really built for green spaces.

Transportation

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

In Miami there are many ways to get around. In Miami, so many people have cars and because of this Miami traffic is born. Little Havana in particular displays this problem, there are too many cars and too few spaces to park. Being there I noticed that many locals would either walk around the neighborhood or ride a bicycle in order to get around. Another option for transportation is to use the Miami Trolley or the public bus system, however I did notice that there seemed to only be a few trolleys going around, and saw almost no buses, possibly making this an insufficient way of getting around. The same occurs with the metro which is also not the best way of getting around because with both the metro and the trolley there are multiple stops and does not run at all times, making it a little more difficult to use in Little Havana even though for some these options may be the only options. However, along with walking I did see that almost all residents did have cars and use their cars as their preferred means of transportation. They would use both walking or cars depending on where they had to go. I saw that if a resident needed to arrive somewhere around they would probably walk there so they would need to deal with the traffic or finding a parking space, but when the location that they wanted to go was further they would mostly use their cars as transport.  Of course this is only possible for people who can afford the luxury of having a car, therefore even though it can be a bit more difficult to access in Little Havana, the metro and the trolley are still in use by residents as well.

Food

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

When talking about Little Havana, it is impossible not to mention all of the different options for food. There is a large variety of options of different types of foods, and different price ranges to go off of. Versailles is possibly the most famous Cuban restaurant in Miami, and is located in Little Havana on SW 8th Street and 35th Avenue. Versailles has been open since 1971, and is still one of the most popular Cuban restaurants in Little Havana, well known for their Cuban sandwich, croquetas, pastries, and coffee. As for food, they have a large manu with a variety of Cuban options where everyone can find something that they would like. If you are getting croquetas I would personally recommend getting the ham ones, and for pastries I would recommend getting a pastelito (my personal favorite is the guava one).  A staple Cuban Miami thing is getting Cuban coffee from a little window. In this “ventanita” you can see Cubans of all ages drinking their coffee and talking about all topics, ranging from politics to everyday life. The “ventanita” experience is truly one of a kind and can be experienced in many Cuban restaurants including Versailles. A thing to note about Cuban restaurants is that they typically serve a lot of food in an order which is a good thing to know when ordering, that you will leave the restaurant very full. 

To satisfy your sweet tooth, my favorite place to get ice cream in Little Havana, and honestly all of Miami is Azucar Ice Cream Company. Located on SW 8th Street and 15th Avenue this ice cream ship is known for their assortment of flavors most of which are Cuban themed. This company is named after a Cuban idol Celia Cruz and her music. Personally, I love the Abuela Maria flavor, which consists of cream cheese, guava paste, and chunks of Maria cookies. If there is one flavor that cubans love its guava and here it is perfectly incorporated into this ice cream. Other traditional cuban flavors featured here are the cafe con leche, platano maduro, caramel flan, cuatro leches, mantecado (cuban vanilla), just to name a few. There are also some more traditional options with fun names, however if you are going to Azucar, I would recommend getting something a little bit out of your comfort zone because you probably will not regret it. They also feature some seasonal flavors that I have yet to try, but from what I have heard, and from what I know from the flavors that I have tried the weirder that the flavors seem the better they probably are.

A lesser known restaurant also in Little Havana is El Rey de las Fritas. If you do not know what a Frita is, it is basically the Cuban version of a hamburger made from a mix of ground beef and chorizo served with potato strings and sauteed onions on a Cuban roll. This is another Cuban favorite, that is not as well known but definitely deserves more hype than it gets. This restaurant is, in my opinion, the best and most authentic frita in miami. Located on SW 8th street and 18th Avenue, and open since 1979 this restaurant is a good lunch option with ease of attaining the food and many different choices, all though when eating here I would recommend eating frita since that is what the restaurant is known for. They do offer many other sandwiches such as Pan con Bistec, Pan con Tortilla, and the Cuban sandwich, while also offering classic cuban desserts such as Flan and Arroz con leche all at a very low price range for the quality of food you are getting. One other fan favorite that they serve here are their milkshakes, of classic Cuban fruit flavors such as Mamey.

Businesses

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

A popular business seen in Little Havana is that of Cigar Shops. Here you can see multiple stores specializing in selling Cuban products such as the very popular Cuban cigars. Little Havana Cigar Factory is a good example of the types of Cigar shops that are found in Little Havana. Here, they not only have an abundance and variety of different cigars from different brands available for purchase, but also produce their own cigars to sell. It is a very cool experience in getting a cigar that has been made in house, especially since you can see the process of it being made. Cuban cigars are one of the most popular types of cigars in the world, so naturally if you enjoy cigars Little Havana is a good place to get them especially considering that there are so many options and different stores that you can choose from. For nightlife, Ball and Chain is a great option. Being in the center of Little Havana  it is a historic bar and lounge that opened in 1935. Artists such as Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong are said to have performed here. This is a fun and lively place for nightlife with live music, drinks, and dancing and is one example of the nightlife present in Little Havana. Lastly, the Cubaocho Museum and Performing Arts Center is a combination of the two above mentioned. Located on SW 8th Street and 14th Avenue, this is a very popular option in Little Havana. Here, you can view their large collection of art, while having a drink and watching live entertainment. This is a perfect combination of Cuban culture featuring Cuban art, and fun and lively entertainment.

Summary

Photo by Karina Luis CC BY 4.0

Overall, Little Havana is one of the most unique places in Miami. Being of Cuban descent everything about it feels familiar to who I am and where my family comes from. I feel that any vacation to Miami would not be complete without visiting Little Havana, because of all of the history that it represents and the culture of many of the people who have made Miami what it is today. Though it may be overcrowded, and some areas may not be as nice as others, Little Havana is the closest that one will get to obtaining the Cuban experience in the United States. The people that live in this neighborhood are very welcoming and if I know anything about Cubans is that we love talking about our history. From the food, to the businesses to the life that is here, Little Havana is a very interesting place with a lot of history to its name making it what it is today. It is even home to the Calle Ocho music festival which occurs once a year and is the largest Latin Music festival in the nation. Though I do think that there are some areas that could be improved such as ease of transportation, I do love Little Havana for what it is and think that anyone who decides to visit it would love it too for the unique experience that it is. 

Works Cited

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

Cordoba/AAG, Hilton. “Little Havana: A Latin American Gateway.” AAG Newsletter, 30 Mar. 2020, news.aag.org/2013/10/little-havana-a-latin-american-gateway/.

Google. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Little Havana, Miami, FL/@25.7757389,-80.245383,14z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x88d9b71705159fe7:0x35255f234772db89!8m2!3d25.7776438!4d-80.2377078.

History.com Editors. “Bay of Pigs Invasion.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/cold-war/bay-of-pigs-invasion.

“Miami New Times – Ball & Chain’s Colorful History in Little Havana.” Ball & Chain, 10 Oct. 2017, ballandchainmiami.com/miami-new-times/.

“Occupations in Little Havana, Miami, Florida (Neighborhood).” The Demographic Statistical Atlas of the United States – Statistical Atlas, https://statisticalatlas.com/neighborhood/Florida/Miami/Little-Havana/Occupations#more-maps.

Santiago, Fabiola. “From Mariel to 1980 Miami: Chaos, Reunions, and a City Cubanized, Forever Changed: Opinion.” Miamiherald, Miami Herald, 17 Apr. 2020, www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/fabiola-santiago/article242025081.html.

“Tower Theater Miami.” Tower Theater Miami, towertheatermiami.com/about.

“12 Must-See Little Havana Historic Sites.” 12 Must-See Little Havana Historic Sites, www.miamiandbeaches.com/things-to-do/history-and-heritage/12-historic-sites-in-little-havana.

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