(In celebration of the Miami Heat’s historic back-to-back championship victories in the recent NBA finals, I’m dusting off a travel piece I wrote featuring the winning team’s city. It came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Lifestyle and Travel section sometime in 2009.
(Apart from having enjoyed the sights and sounds of Miami [I’ve been there before several times, especially when my sister and her family were based in Fort Lauderdale], this piece is doubly meaningful for me, as it marks my 100th entry in this blog. Yes, time flies. Allow me then to fly you to a section of Miami, without a doubt, one of America’s most beautiful cities, not normally seen by tourists in a rush.–AYV)
THE initial impulse of many first-time visitors to Miami, Florida is to head for South Beach armed with their digital cameras as they stroll down scenic Ocean Drive and its mile-long stretch of art deco buildings, including the late Gianni Versace’s former seaside holiday home.
But Miami, one of America’s most diverse cities, offers other glimpses of reality far removed from the nightly glamour and glitz generated by South Beach.
A 15-minute drive away from South Beach is Calle Ocho, which literally means 8th Street, the heart of Little Havana, where Miami’s sizable Cuban community gravitate and share with the rest of the world bits and pieces of Cuba’s culture and history, particularly its passionate opposition to half a century of Fidel Castro’s communist rule.
“Everyday is a good day to visit Calle Ocho,” says a second-generation Cuban-American, owner of one of several music bars along the strip, in reference to the street’s fiesta-like atmosphere and, barring hurricanes, Miami’s year-round sunny weather.
La Casa de Tula, where we help ourselves with heaping plates of paella and bottomless glasses of mojito, is an ideal place to chill and listen to a live band perform Spanish love songs composed by Cuban songwriters.
Before it underwent renovation, the building that now houses La Casa was where the likes of Count Basie and Billie Holiday once performed. This was in the earlier part of the 20th century, before the Cuban exodus, when Miami was a deeply segregated city between mostly blacks, Jews and a sprinkling of Latinos.
Just across La Casa is the historic Tower Theater, an ideal example of the ubiquitous art deco architecture so popular in nearby South Beach. It holds the distinction of being the first theater in Miami-Dade County to screen movies in Spanish.
Forget—at least for an afternoon—Starbucks, as Calle Ocho offers one of the best and by far strongest coffees this side of Miami, if not Florida, through its numerous cafecitos.
Strong Cuban coffee
Pure, strong and with little room for subtlety, Cuban coffee is best enjoyed in tiny cups with or without sweetened condensed milk. But be warned! Drinking more than two small cups in the late afternoon can keep you up all night, says a local.
Cuban coffee is best enjoyed with crusty Cuban bread or guava pie. Just like open-air coffee counters, roadside bakeries and eateries abound in strategic corners all over Little Havana. You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish (or even in English) since all you have to do is point, turo-turo style, to the desired item.
If you want to dine in style, Versailles is the place to be. The restaurant-cum-cafeteria, with its iconic etched glass ceiling, is known for its superb Cuban food such as palomilla steak, bistec empanizado and, yes, Cuban lechon.
As the community’s preferred venue for numerous historic events, Versailles is also known as “ground zero” for exiled Cubans in the United States. In fact, when Castro’s health deteriorated in 1996, not a few media outfits set up camps just outside Versailles to be as close as possible to their sources.
Cuban cigar, anyone?
These days, Calle Ocho is also lined with Cuban cigar shops
fashioning hand-rolled cigars the way it’s been done for centuries now in Havana. One such cigar maker is Peter Bello, a Cuban-American who left Cuba with his parents when he was 12.
Because of the decades-old trade embargo imposed by the US on Cuba, Bello of Tabacalera Las Villas insists that none of his “genuine” Cuban cigars is made in Cuba. How does he manage?
His products go through a circuitous route involving neighboring countries in the Americas, particularly the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
“The tobacco seeds were originally sourced from Cuba, but were planted in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic,” he says. “From there, the harvest is flown here for further processing. Just don’t ask me when or how I got the seeds.”
The best time to visit, apart from the annual Calle Ocho Festival in March, is every last Friday of the month. Dubbed by locals as Viernes Culturales of Cultural Fridays, it’s a day when the entire community turns several blocks of Calle Ocho into one big Latin street party.
Party all-night long
A typical evening features live Latin music, Cuban dance exhibitions and street theater. Since Calle Ocho has become an ideal venue for local artists to display vivid works that reflect life within and beyond the island, tourists can usually find good deals on paintings and other curios during these Friday-night parties.
Come March, however, the volume and intensity rise by several notches, as Calle Ocho holds its annual festival billed as America’s “biggest Latin carnival.” Apart from a series of festive outdoor celebrations and several stages featuring the biggest Latin stars, the party doubles as an occasion for flag waving among Cubans and various immigrants from all over Latin America.
And thanks perhaps in part to Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine’s influence, the annual festival still holds the Guinness Book of World Records for producing the longest conga line in 1988: 119, 986 people lined up and were caught in the rhythm!
Although succeeding generations of Cuban-Americans have pursued various interests since their parents and grandparents fled Cuba starting in 1958, their unflagging opposition to Castro holds most of them together.
Libraries as galleries
What’s noteworthy is they conduct it with such flair, coming up,
for instance, with art galleries that double as libraries and events venues for anything and everything, from book launches and fashion shows, to poetry readings and spirited discussions.
One such venue is Cubaocho, just across the street from the celebrated Maximo Gomez Park (better known as Domino Park), where not a few old timers pass the time away in endless games of domino.
On top of its rich collection of paintings by Cuban artists, Cubaocho boasts of an extensive library of newspapers and periodicals, said to be one of the largest in the world, that date back before Castro’s time.
Frozen in time, pictures of wealthy, bejeweled Cubans wearing European suits and Christian Dior-inspired dresses remind the world today of how open and decadent Cuba once was.
Owned and managed by Cuban exile Roberto Ramos and his pretty wife Yeney, the place is a regular beehive of activity, especially during Friday evenings.
Ramos, who still speaks in halting English, lets his European-educated wife do most of the talking. His reawakening, says Yeney, started back in the old country at the tender age of 17. By then Castro was already firmly entrenched as Cuba’s president for life.
“Roberto was doing part-time jobs that summer, and an old
woman asked him to clear one of her rooms of old paintings,” says Yeney. “Several paintings by a certain Cuban artist caught his eye. He was told that they were the works of a famous Cuban artist.”
That artist turned out to be Carlos Sobrino. But when he later went to the museum, any information about Sobrino, including his paintings, was nowhere to be found. It was as if everything about the artist had been erased.
“What Roberto stumbled on bothered him,” says Yeney. “Only later did he learn how the government took pains to remove from public records any information on Cubans, particularly prominent ones, who had left the country.”
By sheer determination, he was able to leave Cuba in 1992 and begin life anew in Miami. Over the years, he acquired and beefed up his collection of paintings by Cuban masters.
Ramos’ experience is both a testament to his determination to seek out the truth and reinvent himself abroad. Just like most Cubans in Little Havana, he found an ideal second home in Miami’s Calle Ocho.