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A touch of Cuba in downtown Miami

Many people know that Miami is, at heart, a Latin city.  What many people don’t know is that the Little Havana neighborhood is where Miami’s first Latin American community, made up of Cubans exiled when Fidel Castro came to power, originally settled.  Walking through the streets of Little Havana, the lover of Latin culture will not be disappointed.   In Little Havana’s equivalent of Main Street, “Calle Ocho” (Eighth Street), the adventuresome traveler can drink the syrupy, foamy concoction known as Cuban coffee from thimble-sized cups while partaking of the local amusement, discussing with anyone and everyone who will listen when “el Tirano,” (the Tyrant, as Castro is not-so-affectionately called), will meet his just ends.  Those prone to meandering can walk through streets filled with Spanish-language signs, advertising everything from notary services to art work, to the best home-cooked Cuban food north of “la Isla” (the Island), listening as the sounds of salsa spill from the stores.  It is in Little Havana that the tourist seeking a respite from the beaches’ glamorous, fabulous crowds can, at least figuratively, cross the ninety miles separating la Isla from the United States mainland.

Miami’s geographic location means that the area is not lacking any of the ingredients found in typical Latin foods.  Staples such as mangoes, avocados, guayabas, and plantains are as readily available here as on any Caribbean island.  Combined with Little Havana’s Cuban heritage, the region’s agricultural diversity is sure to satisfy those tourists searching for a taste of the exotic.  The Versailles Restaurant and the Versailles Bakery, located next to each other, are two of the area’s most treasured establishments.  At first glance, these two eateries, named after France’s palace and boasting mirror-covered walls and gold-drenched columns, might appear to serve food from the other side of the pond.  To the contrary, however, the Versailles Restaurant and the Versailles Bakery offer the broadest selection of Cuban fare in the area.  Here, the gastronomic traveler can sample paper-thin breaded steak, meat-filled turnovers, spicy ground beef, and croquettes, all served with two staple side dishes: “Cristianos y Moros” (Christians and Moors, a colloquial term for rice and black beans) and sweet, deep-friend plantains.  For dessert, “tres leches” (three milks), a sponge cake bathed in sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream, and evaporated milk, or the flan topped with a caramel spread (“dulce de leche”) offers gooey comfort to even the youngest of travelers.  If the food seems a bit heavy, especially for those visiting in the summertime, do as the locals do and wash the meal down with a small shot of steamy Cuban coffee, making sure not to add any sugar to the coffee, for it comes already sweetened.

To turn the culinary experience into a cultural experience, the coffee is best drunk standing up at the street-side counter.  Many of Little Havana’s restaurants offer street-side window counters for quick coffee breaks, and it is here that the weightiest of discussions take place.  For those not too shy to speak in Spanish (and fear not, for Miamians enjoy hearing “gringos,” as Americans are sometimes called, practice Spanish), join the other restaurant patrons (mostly men, for some as-yet-undiscovered reason) as they discuss the follies of the opposite sex, the follies of their neighbors, and the follies of Castro.  These conversations might seem intimidating at first, for the men speak fast, loud, and visibly, but despite the speed at which the Rs roll and the frenzied gesticulating, the conversation is always friendly.

With a full stomach, those interested in sampling Little Havana’s non-culinary delights can visit the La Gloria Cubana Cigar shop, located on Calle Ocho.  There, curious smokers and non-smokers alike can watch as old women deftly roll moist tobacco leaves into fragrant cigars.  La Gloria Cubana Cigar shop was founded in 1968 by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, a Cuban senator and tobacco grower, who fled Cuba in 1959.  The cigars are available in many sizes, and are made from a special blend of Dominican and Nicaraguan tobaccos in an aged Ecuadorean wrapper.

From the cigar shop, it is only a few paces to the local dominos park, officially called the Máximo Gómez Park in honor of a Cuban revolutionary who fought against Spanish oppression, where elderly Cuban men play dominos with the intensity of chess champions.  The mural in the back wall of the dominos park, depicting Latin American presidents, was painted to commemorate the Summit of the Americas held in Miami in 1993.  Although the discussions in the dominos park are less heated, so as to allow players to concentrate, the topics are much the same as those discussed over Cuban coffee.  Start talking with some of the men, most of them retirees sporting thin guayabera shirts, and you might find that a few have been saving a bottle of bubbly for the last few decades in the hopes of uncorking it once el Tirano finally falls (ideally from a tall building).  Others will describe their struggles in their adopted homeland and will wax nostalgic about their memories of Cuba, and might point you to the Cuban Memorial Plaza, which pays tribute to the culture and history of Cuba.  The flame at the entrance commemorates those Cubans who fought at the Bay of Pigs and a bust honors the Cuban revolutionary and poet José Martí.

Those seeking to delve further into the heart of Miami’s exile community should visit the former home of Elián González, a boy rescued two miles from the Florida coast after the overloaded motor boat carrying his mother, step-father and other Cuban refugees, capsized in late 1999.  One of the few survivors, Elián González was placed in the custody of distant relatives who lived in Little Havana.  Although Castro stated that the United States had “kidnapped” Elián in contravention of his natural father’s wishes, Miami’s residents rallied to keep the young boy in the United States.  In the ensuing political and international battle, community leaders turned his relatives’ home into a vigil site.  To this day, the home still looks like a virtual shrine and has plaques discussing the events of 1999 and 2000, as well as some of the boy’s toys and his swing set.

Finally, curious travelers undaunted by the other-worldly consequences of mixing traditional Catholic rituals with African religious elements should visit one of the numerous “botanicas” located in Little Havana.  Botanicas are religious stores catering to those who practice “Santeria,” a syncretic religion combining the religious rituals of West African slaves with the religious traditions of the Catholic sugar plantation owners.   Botanicas sell items such as oils and herbs, candles and incense, images of saints, and in some cases, offer places where devotees of a particular saint may leave gifts (offerings can also be left, and found, under the ceiba tree in the Cuban Memorial Plaza).  In the botanicas, the weary traveler can seek the divine intervention of the spirits in dealing with a host of problems, including pesky neighbors, wayward spouses, jealous lovers, achy knees and kidney stones. 

Depending on the time of the month or the time of the year, Little Havana offers much in the way of street-side entertainment.  Every March, over a million revelers join the largest celebration of Hispanic culture in the United States in the “Calle Ocho Street Festival.”  Almost fifty stages line Little Havana’s main thoroughfare featuring merengue, salsa, bachata, Latin rock and pop, and Cuban ballads from the 1950s.  As with any great festival, food is abundant in the kiosks, and foot-weary travelers can relax with tropical drinks, such as sugar cane juice, guayaba smoothies, and cold coconut.  On the last Friday of every month, Little Havana’s “Viernes Culturales” (Cultural Friday) is a gathering spot for people of all ages.  Although the name might connote stuffy art galleries and formal clothing, the atmosphere is anything but uptight.  Here, artists set up shops along the sidewalk, music spills from the storefronts, and people dance in the streets.  And even if your dance moves are weak and the words from the music are too foreign to understand, join the dancing crowds and you will find that each dance step takes you one step closer to old Cuba.

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