Just when I thought I’d had enough for one evening, an Afro-Cuban-American gentleman pulled me off the bustling Calle Ocho and into a room jammed with dancers bouncing up and down to the beat of congas. No, this wasn’t a ’90s-style rave; this was the normally unassuming lounge at Top Cigars, a cigar shop in Miami’s Little Havana. I recognized the owner, Cristobal Mena, from an exchange we’d had that morning at a Cuban restaurant across the street about what constitutes a classic Cuban dish. Now, I was hopping in a sea of his patrons on the famous boulevard that is the social and commercial hub of Little Havana.
The occasion was Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays), the last Friday of each month when the storied neighborhood hosts what feels like a block party on Calle Ocho (actually Southwest Eighth Street) between 13th and 17th Avenues. The monthly festival serves as a showcase of what this Cuban-American enclave has to offer. Painters and artisans mingle with the crowds. Music from Latin bands intermixes, and double-decker buses unpack tourists while the smells of arroz con pollo, fried plantains and cafe Cubano drift from restaurants and cafecito windows. As soon as you step onto the street, lined with wide sidewalks and colorful facades, the music fairly insists that either your shoulders or your hips move, not necessarily together.
Here in this adaptation of Havana, where the thrum of the old country persists, proposed zoning changes have led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to place a portion of Little Havana on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2015.