Little Havana, Miami, Florida
by Cassia Reynolds
Some people dislike the amount of Spanish language that’s crept into mainstream American culture. Me? I fucking love it. Lo amo. Dame más. When I dwell on what gives America so much of its unique color and spice, I always come back to its history as a global melting pot, a progressive nation of culturally-distinct individuals whose diverse backgrounds only add flavor to day-to-day life.
I’m also innately biased. I’m a first generation American; my mother is from Naguilian, a riverside village nestled between the mountains of the northern Philippines. I actually visited her birthplace for the first time earlier this year on a solo-journey to discover my roots. (Read more here.) It was an eye-opening experience and it gave me a deep appreciation for the opportunities I have here in my own homeland.
But what does any of this have to do with anything at all? Well, today I’m writing about Little Havana, a neighborhood that sits in Miami-Dade county, where about 50% of America’s Cuban and Cuban-American population resides.* Little Havana is not just home to Cubans, however. 94% of the population is Hispanic, and includes Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and Colombians, among others.*
Everything in Little Havana is in Spanish; from the store names spelled out in big block letters to the live music blasting from the bars in the middle of the afternoon. There are funky, Spanish-style, pastel-painted homes with burnt orange clay rooftops. Open cafes sell pastillas and empanadas wrapped in crinkly paper. Coffee shops offer teeny glasses of cafecito: strong, sweetened Cuban espresso shots. And right on Calle Ocho, the main artery of the district, is Dominos Park, where elderly men wearing starched, embroidered guayabera shirts and straw fedoras gamble around plastic tables.
Walking down Calle Ocho felt like stepping out of America and into another country. I loved experiencing a totally different culture without spending the time and money to travel overseas. Myself and a friend/fellow tourist, Christina, had only walked two blocks before we were serenaded by a man playing guitar and whistling through a leaflute and then given a lesson on famous salsa singers by several young men. The group, also visitors to Miami, then asked us to take their photos by the engraved stars of The Latin Walk of Fame that decorates Calle Ocho’s blocks.
We wandered toward the dark awning of Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co and into the shop for two reasons. 1) Because we were on a mission: Christina’s boyfriend back in Charleston is a cigar-enthusiast and she hoped to bring him back a token from our girlcation (wow, I thought I’d made that word up, but spell check isn’t even catching it). And 2) because the storefront was overwhelmingly kitschy-looking, sporting all sorts of cigar paraphernalia, including a wooden statue of a Native American wearing a skirt painted like the US flag, and an ornately carved table specially built for playing dominos.
When I pulled open the glass door, I inhaled a deep whiff of fresh tobacco. Not the ashy, toxic-smelling haze that lingers after someone smokes a cigarette. No, it was more like an invigorating, herby, earthy scent. It reminded me of one of the best investments I’ve ever made: (and something I’ve been attempting and failing to find since) a bergamot tobacco scented soy candle from Urban Outfitters. I breathed in slowly, savoring the slight sweetness of the air as my eyes adjusted from Miami’s bright afternoon sunshine to the shop’s warm lighting.
The walls were lined from ceiling to floor with slender wooden boxes and glass platforms showcasing fat, gold-wrapped cigars. A sharp thud, like the sound an industrial hole-puncher makes when it’s pressed through an especially thick stack of paper, came from near the cash register. A man sat behind an intricately carved desk littered with crumpled, dried tobacco leaves, a neat stack of newly-rolled cylinders in front of him. Poised between his lips sat his own half-smoked stogie. Gray clouds billowed from his mouth as he puffed.
The man glanced up at us for just a moment before returning to his work, his steady, trained fingers carefully twisting together a wad of leaves against a flat, thick board.
While Christina inquired about purchasing a cigar, I meandered through the stacks of boxes, admiring several sepia-toned portraits of smiling men and women that hung down on the olive-painted walls. Most of the furniture was carved from a rich, dark wood that soaked in the light and caused the tiers of gold cigar casings to glow, like gemstones sparkling in the depths of a mine. The back room held two rows of desks, similar to the one out front, built for hand-rolling. And nearly everything was engraved, stamped, or pressed with the gilt-and-burgundy branding of Bello Cigars. Most boxes also included an image of the same elderly man wearing a panama hat and staring pensively out at potential customers.
I later conducted a little research and found out the elderly man whose image is plastered all over the store is Don Bello. The Bello family has passed down the tradition of cigar-making for generations, beginning in the Canary Islands. In the 19th century, Don traveled to Cuba for better tobacco growing. In the 1960’s, after Cuba nationalized the tobacco industry, Don Pedro Bello and his son, Pedro “Peter” Bello, immigrated to Miami. In 1994, Don and Pedro opened Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co in Little Havana. Today, the Bello brand is known worldwide as a high-quality product manufactured in Miami and Honduras.*
As I learned more about the history of Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co, I thought of the American dream. Don Pedro Bello’s entrepreneurial spirit and wild hope to find better opportunity in America, for his business and his family, reminded me of the same brave impulse that caused my own lolo (read: Tagalog for grandfather) to immigrate to this country. When he first sailed to America and settled in Indiana, my lolo had to leave behind his wife and seven children, working day and night until he could earn a living and eventually, over the course of nearly a decade, brought them one-by-one overseas to join him.
Today, my family is spread throughout the USA: Illinois, Indiana, California, and of course, South Carolina. My relatives work in many different fields: healthcare, construction, fashion, education, armed forces, and photography. At family reunions, we eat pancit, lechon, and arrozcaldo along with burgers, spaghetti, and barbecued ribs. We embrace a mesh of American-Filipino culture and there is no lacking in flavor, in color, in laughter, and love for what America stands for.
Little Havana is a historical representation of American values, ideals that sometimes get lost in the political mayhem of the 21st century. It’s the myriad of international communities found across this country, from New Glarus in Wisconsin to Koreatown in California, filled with immigrants and distinct cultures, that embody the all-American spirit. As globalization continues to grow, creating both new opportunities and problems to be solved, I can only hope that we can remember America’s foundation as a refuge, a country built on the courage of individuals who dreamt wildly and work tirelessly for a better life.
And whenever I overhear people speaking Spanish or pass someone eating Chinese take-out or find myself signing up for a Jiu Jitsu class, I feel most at home here in this world of opportunity, in the land of the free.
* "Ancestry Map of Cuban Communities." www.epodunk.com.
* "Census 2010." City of Miami Planning and Zoning. www.miamigov.com/planning/census2010.html
* "Legacy." Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. www.cubatobaccocigarco.com/legacy/