Friday, December 29, 2006

Life in Miami's Little Havana still centers on Castro

Life in Miami's Little Havana still centers on Castro
Friday, December 29, 2006
By Linda Lange, Scripps Howard News Service

"Every single minute of every single day you can walk anywhere in Miami
and hear talk about what is going to happen when Castro dies," says tour
guide Charles J. Kropke.

This nonstop chatter about Fidel Castro's regime fills coffee shops,
radio waves and meetings in the Cuban business district. Wherever Cuban
expats meet, talk of politics and their homeland dominates conversations.

Kropke, an owner of Dragonfly Expeditions, conducts Cuban heritage tours
through Little Havana and connecting neighborhoods. He traces
developments of the Cuban migration to Miami beginning with the ouster
of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. "It began one of the
largest migrations in American history. Miami has more than 1 million
Cuban Americans now and is the only major American city where over 50
percent of the people are foreign born."

Our morning of visiting historical sites begins with the Freedom Tower,
formerly known as the offices of the Miami News. The yellow-brick
building became a processing center for Cuban immigrants. Later it also
held medical clinics and classrooms for English lessons. "It's our
Statue of Liberty, our Ellis Island," he says.

The first wave of Cuban exiles settled in a low-rent district. "They
gravitated to little Arts-and-Craft-style bungalows in one of Miami's
first suburbs, Riverside. The area today is called Little Havana. Cuba's
elite came in the first wave. They were the movers and shakers of Cuban
society. They thought of themselves as exiles. Their exile has lasted 48

Subsequent waves of immigrants, including the Freedom Flights from 1965
to 1973, brought people from all tiers of the population. In the 1990s,
immigrants known as Marielitos flooded Miami. They arrived via the
massive refugee boatlift from Cuba's Mariel Harbor.

Our understanding of the Cuban American experience takes a new turn as
we pull into Palacio de Los Jugos, or Palace of the Juices, at the
corner of Flagler and Red Road. "It's a true local place," says Kropke
as we walk past outdoor displays of tropical fruit and flowers before
entering an indoor snack bar. Convivial conversations circulate between
shopkeepers and patrons as we move between the grocery shelves and
produce bins. Other patrons are selecting entrees from a buffet of
fragrant Cuban specialties. A menu board illustrates a dozen different
juice drinks and we try to place an order in Spanish.

We hear only Spanish spoken, a fact also true at the next stop. Our
conversation with Raymond Puig is a bit one-sided, but easy to follow
because he welcomes us with much gusto. He is "king of the Guayabera."
His scepter is a pair of oversize scissors. The Cuban-born tailor left
the island more than 40 years ago and established a successful business
making the pleated, button-down shirts favored by Cuban men. He employs
a fleet of seamstresses at his shop La Casa de las Guayaberas, situated
in Opera Plaza on Eighth Street. Circular racks are jam-packed with
neatly pressed shirts in assorted colors but most often in white or
cream. On the wall we see a photograph of Puig and President Ronald
Reagan, both wearing Guayabera shirts.

"Miami is a city that keeps changing. Little Havana is no longer a Cuban
neighborhood. Many people have moved off to Coral Gables, Coconut Grove,
Kendall and Hialeah," Kropke says. Immigrants from Nicaragua, Venezuela,
Colombia and Argentina have set down roots here. Still, Little Havana
remains the symbolic center for the vibrant Cuban community.

Spanish-style architecture dominates Calle Ocho, or 8th Street, the
center of Little Havana. To get more of the flavor of the district, we
pause at Exquisito, a sidewalk counter cafe, for a thumb-sized cup of
ink-black Cuban coffee. We gaze at the window displays of a botanica, a
shop selling portions and tools used for white magic rituals, and caress
the textiles and woodcarvings at Little Havana To-Go, a gift shop
featuring authentic crafts. Placards announce entertainment at Tower
Theater, an Art Deco gem with a shiny steel spire. The venue was the
first in Miami to add Spanish subtitles and quickly turned into a social
meeting place.

The pungent aroma of cigars wafts from the Cuba Tobacco Trading. The
shop is owned and operated by two generations of the Peter Bello family.
The senior Bello directs us toward glass cases filled with cigars. He
grins when showing a letter from cigar lover Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Thanks for the stogies!" the governor writes.

One block away, people are gathered at Maximo Gomez Park, better known
as Domino Park. Under a pavilion clad with barrel tiles, they play games
of dominoes and chess. Concentration is intense, and players don't seem
to mind our watching. On a park wall, mural art depicts the heads of
state that attended the historic Summit of the Americas when it was held
in Miami in 1994.

Just around the corner we follow star-shaped plaques embedded in the
brick sidewalk. Paseo de las Estrellas, or Walk of the Stars, is the
Cuban version of Hollywood's famous attraction. Here are the names of
leading Latino actors, poets, playwrights and musicians.

On 13th Avenue, a series of memorials pays tribute to Cuban leaders
active in historical and political struggles. There's a memorial to Jose
Marti, the 19th century revolutionary poet, and an equally impressive
bronze bust of Gen. Antonio Maceo, a hero in Cuba's war for independence
from Spain.

At the Brigade 2506 Memorial, a Freedom Torch burns for the martyrs of
the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The Island of Cuba Memorial
depicts a life-size sculpture of a peasant brandishing a machete. People
leave offerings at the base of a large Ceiba tree.

"This street is where all political demonstrations start," says Kropke,
indicating that rallies sometimes draw 40,000-60,000 people. As we drive
through the historical district, he points out the restaurant
Versailles. It's the epicenter of Cuban politics and cuisine. "Political
candidates have to make an appearance here. It's a requirement," he says.

Our final landmark sits on the shores of Biscayne Bay. The Shrine of Our
Lady of Charity, also known as the Shrine of the Virgin of Charity of
Cobre and Ermita de la Caridad. Cobre is the patroness of Cuba.

The design of the cone-shaped shrine represents many things. The 90-foot
high building acts like a lighthouse casting a beacon toward Cuba. It
also resembles a cloak that gives shelter to those in need of comfort. A
mural around the base depicts the progression of Cuban history from the
arrival of the first Spaniards to Castro's revolution.

Dragonfly Expeditions' Cuban Heritage Tour is only one of many tours
offered in Miami and South Florida. The company also coordinates trips
to the Caribbean and northern part of South America. (305-774-9019,

(Linda Lange of The Knoxville News Sentinel can be reached at )

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