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Miami: Little Havana evokes the pleasures of Cuba’s capital

Miami: Little Havana evokes the pleasures of Cuba’s capital

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 27, 2015

A staccato burst of Spanish, so impassioned you expect the speakers to come to blows, explodes from a Calle Ocho café. Music pours from a procession of car stereos. Sizzling Latin tunes dance against machine-gun percussion grooves and melodic brass lines.

The scene is as hot as the sun over head.

I know this capital of colonial charm and Caribbean joie-de-vivre.

But here there are no colonial façades, no stone fortresses, no growling ’57 Chevys.

I’m not strolling the cobblestoned byways of Havana, but, rather, an enclave of eight blocks or so stretched along Miami’s Calle Ocho, a.k.a. 8th Street.

Welcome to the other Havana!

“When I first came from Cuba 20 years ago, I would drive through this area without ever stopping,” says Alejandro Anzardo, who hosts a walking tour of the area for Big Bus Tours. “Got out of the car one day, walked around. I felt like I was home again. People here in this part of town are like Havana; they yell to you across the street, they stop to talk, they have coffee.”

And they play dominos and chess and cards.

At a Little Havana institution called Domino Park.

It’s an enclosed square with covered gazebos sheltering tables where old men and one woman, the queen of dominos, gather daily to play this addictive game. They yell at each other, trade gossip, smash down their pieces with loud claps.

Across the street, rumba and cha-cha rhythms flow from cigar shops, art galleries and a record shop.

“Don’t say anything good about Castro in Little Havana!” Anzardo warns me. “They might kill you.”

We stroll into Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company, an establishment patronized by Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Bush, Senior, among others. One man sorts tobacco. A master cigar-maker rolls cigars, 120 a day. The family has been making cigars for a century-and-a-half, 50 years or so here in Little Havana. The patriarch signs the boxes.

The guide for the culinary walking tour we’ve booked, Rafael de la Portilla, points to a 30-lb. cigar atop a tall cabinet. “Hey!” he calls to the proprietor. “When you going to smoke this?”

The ex-pat Cuban scowls ominously.

“When Fidel kicks the bucket.”

Few Fidel fans call this place home. Down the street, a black granite memorial praises those who tried to take back Cuba in the Bay-of-Pigs invasion.

“Strange feeling,” says Anzardo. “I was a guide in Cuba and would tell people about these villains. Now I am a guide here. Those people are now the heroes.”

For 10 years after the revolution in Cuba, roughly 35,000 emigrés settled here. The influx has continued for half a century. For all their animosity to Castro, they’ve done their best to export Havana to this downtown Miami neighbourhood.

A long colonnade, of the kind you see in Old Havana, leads to the Cubaocho, a quirky, gorgeous combination of library, art gallery, concert venue, museum and courtyard oasis, where Cuban artisans ply their craft. Here, you can sit in the shade surrounded by trees and flowering plants. It’s a place that reminds me of a courtyard metres from Cathedral Square in Havana, where I first discovered the mojito.

The food here is Cuban, but enhanced by an American abundance. Fat Cuban sandwiches, empanadas, tarts made from plantains, a sampling of pastries from a traditional Cuban bakery — all delights we share on an excellent tour guided by Rafael de la Portilla. It’s a pastiche of history, culture and food on a two-plus-hour culinary excursion we share with several Americans, a couple from the Dominican Republic couple and eight other Canadians.

While some of the architecture is Art Deco, most is south Florida. Street art and mosaics recollect Havana, and the ambience — from the sacred Ceiba tree where practitioners of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion, leave animal sacrifices, to the Little Havana Cigar Factory, all plush leather chairs in a blue haze of cigar smoke — is the blend that makes Havana, itself, such a compelling destination.

The American offshoot is every bit as appealing.

“It is always good for me when I come back to Little Havana,” Anzardo tells me, gazing along Calle Ocho with a proprietary air. He waves to someone across the street and gives out a staccato burst of Spanish their way. “When I come here, I don’t feel homesick anymore. That’s because, when I come to this place I am back home again,” he says.

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