Little Havana, the heart of Miami's Hispanic culture, fights to retain its character

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The succulent aroma of ripe bananas, mangoes, papaya, and other freshly-picked produce lures a pair of European tourists, a tall long-haired blonde man and a petite olive-skinned woman, into Los Pinareños Fruteria, an open-air farmer’s market on Southwest Eighth Street and Thirteenth Avenue in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. For almost half a century, Angel Hernandez, his wife Guillermina, and their adult sons Angel Jr. and Pedro have served locals and visitors a smorgasbord of backyard fruits and vegetables. The European couple order a pair of freshly squeezed juices from Angel Jr., a tall man with graying hair and round eyeglasses standing behind a wooden service counter.

“We’ve been serving the community for 47 years,”Angel Jr. says. “And we do it with love.” Pedro picks up empty fruit boxes cluttering the aisle of the windowless, canary yellow building that replaced the original Los Pinareños storefront destroyed by a tropical storm in 1996. Although real estate speculators have approached them about selling their property, the Hernandez clan has no plans on leaving the neighborhood.

“Little Havana is Miami’s secret treasure,” Pedro says. “This area is full of character. It’s a gem that just needs a little polishing up.”

Nestled between Northwest Seventh and Southwest Eighth streets and Southwest 37th Avenue and South Miami Avenue, Little Havana is the center of Miami’s Hispanic culture. Tens of thousands of Cuban and Central American immigrants have made Little Havana their first stop after arriving in Miami. It’s home to events like the Calle Ocho Festival, Viernes Culturales, and the Three Kings Parade, as well as landmarks such as the Walk of Fame for Latin entertainers, the Cuban Memorial Boulevard honoring veterans from the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the Tower Theater, and Maximo Gomez Domino Park.

The first wave of Cubans, many of them the country’s most educated and business savvy citizens, arrived between 1959 and 1962, according to a 2011 research study about Little Havana’s evolving demographics by Hilton Cordoba, a geosciences professor at Florida Atlantic University.

“They became known as the ‘Golden Exiles’ because of the human capital they brought with them,” Cordoba wrote. “They established businesses and social organizations.”

Angel and Guillermina Hernandez were among the Golden Exiles. The couple met each other and got married in Miami, after both their families emigrated in 1959. Nine years later, they bought the farmer’s market for $8,000 from the heirs of Indian River Fruit, one of the largest citrus producers in Florida, with a $2,000 down payment and a handshake. Pedro remembers he and his brother worked with their parents at an early age.

“I was 5 when I would bundle up the fruit my dad and uncle would pick at the farms we got produce from,” Pedro recalls. “I would also dust off the canned goods and bottles of wines when we used to sell those products.”

Pedro witnessed Little Havana evolve from a predominantly Cuban neighborhood to a mixed one also populated by Central Americans. Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans began migrating to Little Havana in the early 1980s, after the Mariel boatlift brought the last large influx of Cubans, according to Cordoba’s study.

“Central and South Americans on the other hand, have continued to increase their numbers in Little Havana where now they represent 30 and 12 percent of the Hispanic population, respectively,” Cordoba wrote.

One way to distinguish which area of Little Havana is Cuban or Central American is by following your nose. If you detect the odor of sofrito-based dishes and fresh-rolled cigars, then you are near Southwest Eight Street, which remains a Cuban-American stronghold. But if you pick up on the mouth-watering scent of grilled meats, fried cheese, and baked tortillas, you are mostly likely near Southwest Flagler Street, where Nicaraguans have carved their own slice of Little Havana. In addition to the cafeteria-style fritangas, there is a street named after Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario, the offices of the Nicaraguan consulate, and the mausoleum of former Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

Still, Southwest Eight Street remains the heart of Little Havana’s action.

On a recent afternoon, scores of Midwestern, European, and Asian tourist pile out of a double decker sightseeing bus parked in front of Maximo Gomez Domino Park on Southwest 14th Avenue. Salsa music blares from two giant speakers outside the Little Havana To Go souvenir shop, drowning out the click clacking of dominoes being slammed on tables by elderly Cuban players.

Across the street, Miami real estate developer and businessman Bill Fuller is preparing for the grand opening of his new bar, Ball & Chain, a reincarnation of the same venue that once served drinks from 1935 to 1956, pre-Fidel Castro. A three-piece blues band welcomes a handful of patrons looking for a quick drink before they catch the matinee at the newly renovated Tower Theater.

“The proliferation of tourists has been a tremendous,” Fuller says. “Calle Ocho is getting one of every four visitors that come to Miami.”

The son of Cuban American parents, Fuller grew up in the nearby neighborhood of Shenandoah. In the last 10 years, Fuller and his partners at the Barlington Group have bought up several properties in Little Havana, including the Futurama art gallery and the Tower Hotel, a historic building he hopes to reopen next year.

Fuller’s goal is to retain Little Havana’s character, while attracting new businesses for the neighborhood’s next evolution.

“We really appreciate the local flavor here,” he says. “The idea is to preserve the neighborhood. Little Havana is a diamond in the rough.”