/Before Super Bowl, Miamis Little Havana faces exodus of Cubans, pressure from developers

Before Super Bowl, Miamis Little Havana faces exodus of Cubans, pressure from developers

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The USA TODAY Network series Hecho en USA, or made in America, focuses on the nation’s growing Latino community. Roughly 80% of all Latinos living in the U.S. are American citizens, but media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns. Hecho en USA tells the stories of the nation’s 59.9 million Latinos – a growing economic and cultural force, many of whom are born in the U.S.

MIAMI – Just past the row of Cuban restaurants, past the park where Cubans spend their days playing dominoes, past the crowing roosters and the Bay of Pigs Memorial, there’s a cigar shop in the heart of Little Havana.

Inside Casa del Tabaco, native Cubans spend their days rolling the cigars that have become as synonymous with the Cuban experience as rum, baseball and salsa dancing.

But the tobacco leaves used to roll those iconic stogies hold a secret: The seeds are from Cuba, but the plants are grown in Nicaragua, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. The store itself has another surprise: Its owner, René Diaz, isn’t Cuban either. He’s from Chile.

That same dichotomy plays out on a larger scale throughout Little Havana. The once predominantly Cuban enclave has changed dramatically in recent years, and development threatens to plow over the historic neighborhood as the population has morphed into a hodgepodge of people from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. 

Aleida Francisco and Rodolfo Amaro Beltrán, both native Cubans, create handmade cigars at Casa del Tabaco in Little Havana. The staff are all Cuban, but the owner, René Diaz, is from Chile and wants to keep the Cuban culture of Little Havana alive. “This is the closest they’ll get to the Cuban culture without going to Havana,” Diaz said.
Aleida Francisco and Rodolfo Amaro Beltrán, both native Cubans, create handmade cigars at Casa del Tabaco in Little Havana. The staff are all Cuban, but the owner, René Diaz, is from Chile and wants to keep the Cuban culture of Little Havana alive. “This is the closest they’ll get to the Cuban culture without going to Havana,” Diaz said.
Aleida Francisco and Rodolfo Amaro Beltrán, both native Cubans, create handmade cigars at Casa del Tabaco in Little Havana. The staff are all Cuban, but the owner, René Diaz, is from Chile and wants to keep the Cuban culture of Little Havana alive. “This is the closest they’ll get to the Cuban culture without going to Havana,” Diaz said.
Sandy Hopper, USA TODAY

Little Havana isn’t even majority-Cuban anymore. Officials estimate that the neighborhood of 60,000 is only about a third Cuban.

Diaz said he met a lot of resistance from Cubans when he entered the cigar industry, more so when he opened his store in the middle of Little Havana last year. He made clear that he wants to preserve the Cuban rhythm of the neighborhood to honor its history – and to make sure tourists keep coming. 

“This is the closest they’ll get to the Cuban culture without going to Havana,” he said.

Little Havana, which is set to receive a fresh wave of tourists as Miami hosts Super Bowl LIV, is a microcosm of the shifts in immigration felt throughout the country and the race to revitalize – or gentrify – urban cores.

Cubans once made up the majority of immigrants in Miami, but the area has been flooded in recent years by immigrants from Central and South America. In the same way, Mexicans make up the majority of Latin American immigrants to the nation as a whole, but Central and South American migration has increased rapidly.

In 1980, there were approximately 354,000 Central Americans living in the U.S. By 2017, that number had exploded to more than 3.5 million, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, changing the makeup of cities big and small across the country.

That trend can be seen clearly in a three-block stretch of the historic Calle Ocho that cuts through the middle of Little Havana. There’s a Honduran restaurant, a Salvadoran one, a Mexican one, even a Colombian-Nicaraguan restaurant that serves food from both countries.

Marcia Romero, 58, moved into the area 18 years ago from her native Nicaragua because she knew it was a friendly place for immigrants. Back then, it was all Cuban. Now?

“This one is Honduran, this one is Honduran; across the street, there is a Salvadoran family,” Romero said outside the small house she rents with her son and grandson. “Oh, wait, that house is still Cuban.”

When the owners of Mi Rinconcito Mexicano opened in Little Havana 13 years ago, critics questioned whether it could survive in the Cuban community. The restaurant thrived, employing workers from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico and Cuba.

“That’s the beauty of Miami,” said Jocelyn Mendoza, the manager at Mi Rinconcito who is originally from Mexico. “People come here and adopt each other’s traditions.”

Jocelyn Mendoza, manager at Mi Rinconcito Mexicano
That’s the beauty of Miami. People come here and adopt each other’s traditions.

Sady Guerra, 29, a construction worker from Honduras who arrived in the U.S. last year with his wife and daughter to request asylum, said he thought he would land in an area dominated by Cubans. After getting to know his new neighborhood, he realized how much had changed. 

“Maybe it’s time to change the name,” he joked. “Little Havana worked back then, but now, it’s so mixed, that doesn’t really apply anymore.”

The fact that Little Havana’s demographics are changing represents the latest evolution in the neighborhood’s history.

Little Havana is not as Cuban as it used to be, but still clinging to Cuban culture

Little Havana, the heart of the Cuban-American community in Miami, is no longer majority Cuban. Locals are fighting development to save their history.

Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY

The area was first populated by Southern Americans willing to take a risk and move to swampy South Florida shortly after it was founded in 1896. The neighborhood transitioned into a working-class Jewish enclave, filled with transplants from New York and other northern cities.

As those Jewish residents moved up the economic ladder, they moved out to newer suburbs developed on the western edges of Miami-Dade County. That exodus happened as Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959, which prompted hundreds of thousands of Cubans to flee his communist regime. So many of them landed in the homes vacated by the Jewish residents that it didn’t take long before the neighborhood was dubbed Little Havana.

Little Havana locals play dominoes in historic Domino Park, "a great gathering place for older Cubans," a Miami historian says.

Little Havana locals play dominoes in historic Domino Park, “a great gathering place for older Cubans,” a Miami historian says.

Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY

“The table was set for them,” said Paul George, the resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum. 

Most of those Cubans came empty-handed, their possessions confiscated by the Castro regime. That meant the neighborhood maintained its blue-collar feel, only with more Spanish spoken and plantains for sale.

Cuban businesses and restaurants opened, people moved into the two- and three-story apartment buildings that fill the area, and in 1963, they started playing dominoes in a park that is still in operation.

“That’s a great gathering place for older Cubans,” George said. “Obviously, within this ethnic group, there’s tremendous camaraderie, probably much more so than say the typical American who is sort of suburban-oriented.”  

Just as the Jewish residents of Little Havana moved up and out, so did the Cubans.  As the years went on and they established themselves economically and politically, many moved to tonier neighborhoods west and south of the area. 

That left a gap that the immigrants from Central and South America quickly filled.

“Communities are organic things,” said Carlos Fausto Miranda, a Cuban American real estate developer who is heavily invested in Little Havana. “They change and they evolve over time. Little Havana wasn’t always Cuban, and it’s less Cuban now, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less Cuban. These are not mutually exclusive ideas.”

That helps explain why Julio Cabrera picked Little Havana last year when he wanted to open a Cuban restaurant designed to capture the spirit of the legendary bars of pre-Castro Cuba. The renowned cantinero, or bartender, looked at all the hip, popular areas of South Florida and decided to open “La Trova” in Little Havana because he said the neighborhood is still the best embodiment of Miami’s Cuban roots.

Julio Cabrera, a Cuba native who opened La Trova last year
The Cubans moved out, but the essence, the soul of Cuba remains here. That never left.

“The Cubans moved out, but the essence, the soul of Cuba remains here,” said Cabrera, a Cuban native who emigrated to the U.S. 15 years ago.  “That never left.”

What that means for the future of Little Havana remains unclear as neighborhood leaders grapple between nostalgia and profit.

For decades, the area has been neglected by city leaders, falling into a state of disrepair throughout the 1990s and 2000s. It experienced a resurgence in the past decade as more bars and restaurants opened, and double-decker tour buses made the neighborhood a regular stop on their tours of Miami.

Construction lines Calle Ocho, a historical strip of Little Havana.

Construction lines Calle Ocho, a historical strip of Little Havana.

Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY

That drew the interest of real estate developers. Miami’s biggest business, aside from tourism, has always been real estate.

A couple of miles east of Little Havana along Calle Ocho sits the Brickell neighborhood, a towering collection of glass-covered, high-rise condominiums and office buildings. One by one, those gleaming towers supplanted the older buildings that made up Brickell’s waterfront skyline, which looks nothing like it did when it featured prominently in the opening credits of “Miami Vice.”

Many worry that Little Havana will become “Brickell West” as developers pounce on the new financial opportunities. 

“We don’t want displacement. We don’t want to move the people out of there,” said Juan Mullerat, whose Plusurbia urban design firm created a master plan for the neighborhood last year. “You need to try and protect it as much as you can.”

Juan Mullerat, whose Plusurbia urban design firm created a master plan for the neighborhood last year
We don’t want displacement. We don’t want to move the people out of there. You need to try and protect it as much as you can.

Holding off eager developers is difficult for a neighborhood that’s received little attention from the city. According to Mullerat, the Miami government has conducted 23 planning studies since 1997 of the nearby Coconut Grove neighborhood, which features wealthier residents, high-rise condominiums and restaurants that cater to high-priced tourists.

Over that same time, the city has conducted only one such plan for Little Havana: the master plan his firm published last year, which hasn’t been adopted by the city.

Part of the problem is that Little Havana remains a working-class neighborhood, where 80% of residences are occupied by renters and more than 87% of rental properties are priced at less than $1,000 a month, according to Mullerat’s study. That’s good news for Miami residents desperate for affordable housing, but it makes it difficult for residents to band together to pressure city leaders to ensure that remains the case.

In 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington-based nonprofit group that works to preserve historic sites, listed Little Havana as one of its 11 most endangered historic places. The organization argued that the neighborhood faced “development pressure, demolition of historic buildings, displacement of existing residents, and zoning changes that could impact its affordability, cultural richness, and character.” 

Locals say that threat remains. That’s why Miranda and other real estate developers have tried to preserve Little Havana’s identity on their own. 

“You don’t need to come in here and bulldoze city blocks to build brand new sparkling businesses with ground-floor Chipotles and Starbucks,” he said. “We’re showing, and we’re proving, that people thirst for authenticity and thirst for vibrant, urban environments.”

Historic Calle Ocho in Little Havana was once a predominantly Cuban neighborhood, but that's changed because of development and  demographics. Cubans make up only a third of the population in Little Havana.

Historic Calle Ocho in Little Havana was once a predominantly Cuban neighborhood, but that’s changed because of development and demographics. Cubans make up only a third of the population in Little Havana.

Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY

Bill Fuller, another developer, helped ignite the revitalization of Little Havana, reopening the Ball & Chain nightclub that was a fixture in the neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century but was closed for decades. He keeps his office a block away and owns and operates many of the commercial properties in the neighborhood.

Though he calls himself an avowed free-market capitalist, he said other developers in the region know to keep their skyscrapers out of Little Havana.

“I know some of the developers that have built some of the stuff around us … and I’ve told them, ‘Listen, you can build where you want, and I’m not going to put up the public battle, but if you come into these three blocks, you’re going to hear from me,’ ” he said.