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Little Havana, Big Heart
June 1, 2004
by Chelan David

Miami's 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 coffee.

After 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.

(Chelan David is a volunteer staff writer for 2 Walls Webzine)


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