Havana Looks to Life After Castro
News. By Laura Wides-Munoz, Associated
Press Writer. August 31, 2007.
MIAMI (AP) -- Travel guides list Little
Havana as the heart of the Cuban exile community,
the symbolic hub of opposition to Fidel
Castro and a must-see neighborhood for its
galleries, cigar shops and espresso stands.
But with so much of its identity steeped
in anti-Castro activism, one question lingers:
Can this Miami enclave survive the eventual
death of the very man whose existence helped
A handful of shopkeepers, artists and city
officials are betting it can. Over the last
eight years, they have slowly staged a renaissance
in a neighborhood once awash in "Miami
"I don't have a crystal ball of what
will happen when Fidel and Raul Castro go,
but I believe the exchange will only increase,"
said painter and former Cuban political
prisoner Augustin Gainza, one of the first
artists to return to the neighborhood in
2000. "After Fidel there will be Havana
-- and Havana del Norte," or Northern
The neighborhood that became Little Havana
wasn't always a slice of the Caribbean.
It was a thriving Jewish community in the
1930s, until the Jews began moving to the
suburbs and the beach. In 1959, Castro and
his rebels ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio
Batista and established a communist government.
Cuban exiles poured in.
Pablo Canton was among them. His family
settled in the area in 1961 when he was
a teen. But like the Jews before them, Canton
and other Cubans moved to the suburbs in
the 1970s and '80s as their families and
Poorer immigrants from Cuba and Central
America took their place, drawn by the neighborhood's
central location, public transportation
and cheap rentals.
Canton returned to Little Havana years
later, taking a job in the 1980s with the
city's code enforcement office that involved
demolishing crack houses, one block at time.
"Everybody has a piece of their heart
in Little Havana," said Canton, who
is now the neighborhood's outreach coordinator,
as he sipped cafe con leche at a local bakery.
Even when the region deteriorated in the
1980s and 1990s, one thing never went away:
Domino Park, the corner lot where old Cuban
men in guayabera shirts came to play their
favorite game, smoke cigars and trade gossip.
And it was this corner that continued to
attract tourists, even as the rest of the
Cuban native Jackie Sarracino discovered
this phenomenon almost by accident.
Her family settled in New York but later
moved to Miami to be closer to relatives
who came during the 1980 Mariel boatlift,
when Castro allowed 125,000 Cubans to flee
the island. One afternoon in 1999, she drove
to Little Havana on a whim.
"I found absolutely nothing except
for a tour bus in front of Domino Park,
and there's all these German tourists with
cameras hanging from their neck looking
at the flies," she said. "They
left. Another bus stopped. I'm going, 'What
is the attraction here?' But in my New York
capitalist mentality, I thought maybe I
can make a dollar."
A week later, she signed a lease for her
first store on Calle Ocho, the neighborhood's
main drag. At first people thought she was
"It was probably one of the scariest
places I'd ever been to: the prostitution,
the drugs, the homeless, the streets were
dirty," she recalled from her upscale
Cuban memorabilia shop. "Across the
street there was a store that sold funeral
equipment with a funeral casket in the window."
But Sarracino, who soon lost her father,
was determined to celebrate the history
of his country. She sold nostalgia prints
and later added items for her customers'
grandchildren, such as the popular "Made
in the U.S.A. with Cuban parts" T-shirts.
Unlike some shopowners, she refuses to sell
anything referencing Castro, even with anti-Castro
"Little Havana is not about him,"
Early on, Sarracino began hanging artwork
of unknown artists in her windows, and to
everyone's surprise, the pieces sold. A
few galleries then began to open nearby.
The community also organized monthly street
fairs, and an annual festival drew larger
Eight years later, more than a dozen art
galleries dot the street, and more cigar
shops are moving in. Along with Cuban food,
new eateries have opened offering Nicaraguan,
Peruvian and Spanish cuisine.
"It has changed, but the history behind
Little Havana will never go away,"
Still, Little Havana has a long way to
go before it can compete with other up-and-coming
Miami neighborhoods such as South Beach
or the hip Design District. The current
strip of galleries covers only a few blocks,
and the area provides little nightlife.
Many of the neighboring streets are zoned
for low-rent apartments.
But Sarracino believes the neighborhood's
future is bright with or without Castro.
On a recent day, a Russian cigar dealer
came into her husband's art gallery looking
as if he'd just stepped out of Havana circa
1940 in pleated pants, a guayabera and a
"Look how he's dressed," smiled
Sarracino. "Everyone still wants a
part of that Cuban mystery."