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Cuba, the Brand

Cuba, the Brand

Posted by PanamericanWorld on April 08, 2016

The types of fruit Angel Hernandez sells haven’t changed much over the last 48 years. There are still rows of guanabanas and mangos in Los Pinareños Fruteria, each wooden crate decorated with a Cuban flag stapled to the side. The people who pop into his Little Havana open-air fruit market, however, have shifted in recent years. His Cuban American regulars still swing by to pick up some fruit or to just talk politics, but so do Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans, and Mexicans.

The neighborhood where thousands of political exiles landed after the Communist takeover of Cuba in the late 1950s is now primarily Cuban in name and history only. As what’s happening in the rest of Miami, where just half of the city’s 70 percent Hispanic population is Cuban, Little Havana is diversifying. “Today, it’s more international, from many countries,” Hernandez says, leaning on his countertop decorated with old photos of the neighborhood and insignia from his time in Brigade 2506, the group of Cuban exiles who led the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. His shop is just across the street from a boulevard where an eternal flame adorns the top of a memorial to that invasion, along with other marble and granite monuments of Cuban military heroes and national figures, stone reminders of a previous era in a neighborhood nine miles west of South Beach.

Hernandez knows quite well how the neighborhood has changed over the years. He doesn’t have to look any further than the ownership of his fruit market to see the progression. Before Hernandez took the business over in the 1960s, it had Jewish, white, and black proprietors, dating back to the turn of the century and in many ways matching the demographic shifts of the neighborhood. When Hernandez began selling fruit, Cubans were just moving in. Dilapidated after Jewish residents moved out of the city and black residents moved to neighborhoods further north, the area was one of the few places in Miami that was affordable. It became a landing zone for exiles fleeing Cuba. “That’s where the businesses began,” says Guillermo Grenier, a Cuban exile and professor of sociology at Florida International University, who co-authored a book on Little Havana. “That’s where the ideology of people getting together and hating Fidel Castro began. It was a very intense, dense environment.”

Cubans who arrived early in Miami never expected they would stay there long. They were only 100 miles from their home and thought the U.S. would soon intervene and kick Castro out of power. “They were sure of it,” says Grenier, who left Cuba in 1960 when he was 10. “They weren’t going to be there for 50 years. They were going to go back.” While the neighborhood became an incubator for counter-revolutionary activity, they also started to build a community. As Cuban-owned businesses and restaurants began popping up, residents brought back elements of Cuban life. Men would informally play dominos in open areas, just like they did back home. Today in Domino Park, a fenced-in square where elderly exiles banter and throw bones during the day, there’s a photo posted of them playing before there ever was an established park. By 1970, the neighborhood was more than 85 percent Cuban, says Grenier.

As Cuban Americans gained wealth, they started spreading out across the city to more affluent areas. Little Havana, however, remained a place where incoming immigrants, many Cuban, could find an affordable place to live, ease into American society while still speaking Spanish, and find a job. Businesses remained Cuban-owned, but residents started reflecting the different crises that were taking place in Latin America. When the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front took power in Nicaragua in 1979, Nicaraguans came in droves to Little Havana. Economic blight and civil war would soon bring Guatemalans, Hondurans, and other Central Americans to the neighborhood, as well.

Little Havana has firmly established itself as a haven for new, poorer immigrants, and remains that way today. “It’s the Ellis Island of Miami,” says Grenier. “Folks do come, and they may not be exiles, but they come running away from poverty, trying to find a better chance.” Cubans today make up about a third of the neighborhood, he says, and that percentage continues to fall.

Frank Rodriguez Melo’s biggest clientele are new arrivals, mostly from Nicaragua. The real-estate broker rents out apartments on the east side of Little Havana that are sometimes 40 percent below fair market rates. His one-bedroom apartments have an average rent of $700—well below increasingly unaffordable units in other parts of Miami, and matching the needs of a community that has a median household income of $15,000, according to Census figures. The only Cubans Melo rents out to, he says, are in their late 60s. “The young population of Cubans do not live here because they associate it with their past, their beginnings,” says Melo. “Within the Cuban population, if you have the option you don’t live in Little Havana. The Hispanic culture is about pride. Moving up and on is the goal.”

Most businesses here are still owned by Cuban Americans, even if many of them don’t live in the neighborhood anymore. But the waves of immigrants from different countries in recent years has led to a new generation of business-owners, like Marco Incer, who are capitalizing on the Little Havana brand. Incer left Nicaragua in 1985 when he was 16 during a time when Sandinistas were recruiting young men out of parks, schools, and theaters, pulling up in a truck and taking them to the mountains to fight for them. He fled to Mexico and soon after illegally crossed the U.S. border. Since then, he’s earned a visa, gone to school, and built a career as a civil engineer.

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