Havana, Big Heart
by Chelan David
posh ocean-front restaurants, Art Deco hotels, glistening
bodies and kitschy, souvenir shops faded into the distance
as our bus motored towards Little Havana. Wanting to sample
the authentic neighborhood experience, my wife and I had
passed on a tour bus and boarded a Metro bus departing
from South Beach on a sparkling clear Sunday morning.
Although Little Havana is only a couple of miles west
of downtown Miami, the excursion is literally like traveling
to another country. Our bus, nearly empty when we boarded,
gradually filled with elderly Cubans dressed in their
Sunday best for Mass. The bus driver greeted seemingly
every passenger by name and conversation soon billowed
throughout the bus – entirely in Spanish.
No signs trumpet Little Havana’s borders so we disembarked
where everyone else did: at Calle de Ocho or SW 8th Street.
Fortunately, we found ourselves in the heart of Little
Havana, which has served as a microcosm of the real Havana
since the early 1960s when a dramatic influx of Cuban
exiles fled Castro’s regime for political freedom
and new opportunities in Southern Florida.
The unassuming district is comprised of low-rise buildings
and dotted with Cuban cafes, pharmacies, clothing stores
and cigar shops. As we explored the main thoroughfare,
sermons and hymns wafted from Catholic churches and the
competing aromas of newly rolled cigars and freshly baked
bread vied for our attention. Colorful, fiberglass roosters,
designed by Cuban artist Tony Lopez, decorated the sidewalk.
We passed the Brigade 2506 Memorial, a simple stone tribute
to the US trained Cuban soldiers who died in the unsuccessful
1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Husky, escalating voices guided
us towards Maximo Gomez Park, also known as Domino Park,
where a group of old men were bantering and playing dominos
on cement tables. This select group, which is comprised
only of men 55 years and older, gathers daily for dominos
and political discussions.
I quickly discerned that Little Havana can’t be
classified as a tourist attraction; it’s simply
an authentic Cuban neighborhood. Stubbornly going about
its business, the neighborhood is a welcome respite form
the commercialization of Miami’s beach areas. Even
the global corporations tucked amidst the family owned
businesses acknowledge the independent spirit of Little
Havana. Dunkin’ Donuts sells guava-filled donuts
and McDonald’s serves cafe’ cubano or Cuban
passing numerous cafes we entered a corner restaurant
on a whim. Our gamble paid off handsomely as we were treated
to seasoned roast pork or puerco asado and black beans
and rice. The meal was topped off with flan drenched in
caramel and sprinkled with coconut. Our entire lunch tab
including sodas and tip was less than $20.
Our bellies bloated, we casually retraced our steps to
the bus stop, enjoying the balmy weather. A tour bus passed
us with a garbled voice announcing something over the
loudspeaker. I hoped the participants would take the time
to savor the experience in Little Havana rather than snap
a few photographs and grab a bite to go.
David is a volunteer staff writer for 2 Walls Webzine)