By: Leslie Pantin, Jr.
Little Havana offers the complete life. Here, a vibrant Hispanic culture permeates everything— colorful murals, monuments to heroes past and present, elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, and cigar rollers deeply at work amid the ever-present aroma of Cuban coffee.
These scenes of daily life play out against a dynamic backdrop of pulsating music, vibrant storefronts, unique art galleries and quaint restaurants. Sample the fresh seafood from Spain, as well as tasty Cuban sandwiches accompanied by rice and beans, and delicacies from almost every country in Latin America.
But listen closely beyond the music and the cars and people passing by. For here, everyone has a story — a story of both tribulation and joy — a story of struggle and endurance but ultimately success. Experience both nostalgia and the sense of beginning again in a corner of paradise far from the homeland, yet close enough to call home.
Close to Downtown Miami, Little Havana, formerly known as Riverside/Shenandoah, became home to Cuban refugees in the 1960s. As Miami expanded, the neighborhood’s original Anglo and Jewish residents moved to the suburbs, making affordable housing close to work sites available for the Cubans who created a complete infrastructure.
Today, history repeats itself as Cuban Americans live in every neighborhood in South Florida and other immigrants from throughout Latin America have moved into Little Havana and added to its flavor. The unique aroma of cigar factories dots the area, with skilled workers making the handmade premium “puros.” Supermarkets, fruit stands and bodegas (neighborhood markets) offer products from all over the Hispanic world. Flower shops mix with botánicas to offer Afro-Cuban Santería religious items.
Of course there is ¡musica! (notice we use two exclamation points in Spanish) with stores and restaurants blaring the sounds of Cuban music from the golden oldies to Gloria Estefan. Books and magazines, from the classics to Popular Mechanics, are available in Spanish area bookstores. The last Friday night of each month is Viernes Culturales/Cultural Fridays, an event that offers art, music and street performers on Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street between 14th and 17th avenues).
To enjoy Little Havana you do not need to speak Spanish or English, you just need a good pair of shoes. Don’t miss other Latin enclaves such as the neighborhoods of Allapattah and Wynwood and the cities of Sweetwater and Hialeah.
Explore these 12 historic sites in Little Havana:
1. Calle Ocho Southwest 8th Street (also known as Tamiami Trail)
Calle Ocho is the heart of Little Havana and home of the world’s largest street festival every March. Soon after Fidel Castro took over Cuba in January 1959, thousands and then hundreds of thousands of Cubans came to Miami and first settled in this area that became a sort of “Plymouth Rock” for the new arrivees. By 1962, more than 28 businesses between Southwest 5th and 15th avenues had already switched ownership from Anglo to Cuban. By 1966, the Cuban transformation was for the most part complete. From this Little Havana launching pad, Miami’s Cubans not only transformed a neighborhood, they transformed an entire city.
2. Little Havana’s Walk of Fame Southwest 8th Street between 12th and 17th avenues
This segment of Calle Ocho has star-shaped plaques along the sidewalk to honor Hispanic artists such as Gloria Estefan and the late Celia Cruz.
3. Cuban Memorial Boulevard and Bay of Pigs Monument Southwest 13th Avenue between 8th and 12th streets
This four-block boulevard off Calle Ocho has various monuments dedicated to Cuban freedom fighters. One of the most poignant is the Eternal Torch of Brigade 2506, a memorial to the soldiers who gave their lives in the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba. Featured is a bronze statue of Nestor “Tony” Izquierdo, a Cuban revolutionary hero; a bronze map of Cuba; a statue of the Virgin Mary; and a bronze bust of General Antonio Maceo, an Afro-Cuban general who died fighting for the independence of Cuba. Also along the boulevard is the Plaza de Los Periodistas Cubanos, a memorial dedicated to Cuban journalists who devoted their writing and lives to speaking out against Castro’s regime. Note the large Ceiba tree with its roots filled with candles; it has religious significance to those who practice Santería.
4. Domino Park Southwest 8th Street and 14th Avenue
If you are in the mood to walk, you can get a good taste of Little Havana by starting at Domino Park. Named for Dominican-born General Máximo Gómez, who was Chief of the Cuban Liberation Army during the wars of independence against Spain, this mini-park is crowded with retirees playing the ever-popular game.
5. Tower Theater 1508 SW 8th St.
This historic theater, built in 1926 and transformed into an Art Deco gem by architect Robert Law Weed in 1931 for the Wometco Theater chain, was a popular neighborhood theater with its Saturday morning matinees and special events. The theater’s shiny steel spire greeted the Cuban refugees when they first landed on the streets of Little Havana in 1959. In early 1960, Tower Theatre was the first in Miami to add Spanish sub-titles. Now owned and beautifully restored by the City of Miami, Miami Dade College operates the theater as an art-house, mostly specialized in foreign language films with English subtitles and English speaking films with Spanish subtitles.
6. Home of Miami’s First Mayor/Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church 1411 SW 11th St.
Mayor John Bernard Reilly and his wife Marie built this stately home in 1927. Reilly died a year later but his wife lived in the house until her death in 1935. In 1954, the building was converted into Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church. A statue of the Virgin Mary that Marie Reilly, a devout Catholic, put over the front door remains today—a symbol of enduring faith.
7. Coral Way Elementary School 1950 SW 13th Ave.
In 1936, during the Great Depression, the Public Works Administration (PWA) built this beautiful school with its expansive central courtyard. Artists working in the PWA art program created the exquisite tile work on the front of the building and the fountain in the courtyard. In 1962, this award-winning school became the first bilingual school in modern times to offer studies half-day in English and half-day in Spanish.
8. Bay of Pigs Museum 1821 SW 9th St.
This unique museum preserves and displays pictures, flags, uniforms and other items of Cuban soldiers of the Assault Brigade 2506 that invaded Cuba on April 17, 1961, and fought and died at the Bay of Pigs.
9. Plaza de la Cubanidad (Plaza of Cuban Patriots) West Flagler Street and 17th Avenue
This fountain plaza honors Cuban patriots and the balseros (rafters), and bears a quotation from José Martí.
10. José Martí Park 351 SW 4th St.
Located along the Miami River in Little Havana, the park features a bust of Cuba’s most prominent poet and hero, José Martí.
11. Miami River Inn 118 SW South River Drive
This frame vernacular building and its surrounding cottages, now a bed and breakfast, was built between 1906 and 1910 and is the oldest hostelry south of St. Augustine. It typifies the early structures in Riverside—coral rock and wood shingle bungalows, vernacular frame, masonry and Mission-style buildings that can still be found in Little Havana.
12. Warner Place 111 SW 5th Ave.
In 1912, J.W. Warner built this beautiful Antebellum-style home that was considered one of the finest in the neighborhood. The Warner family operated Miami’s first floral business from the first floor. The home has been restored and today houses the City of Miami East Little Havana Net Office and the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy.
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