Every Sunday after Mass in Little Havana, crowds of Nicaraguans mingle cafeteria-style at Yambo Restaurant eating carne asada and gallo pinto as their children run and play in their best church clothes.
Many of these Nicaraguans live in the heart of “Little Havana” — a neighborhood made famous by the influx of political refugees fleeing the Fidel Castro regime in the early ’60s. At its peak in 1980, the Cuban community comprised 85 percent of the Hispanics in Little Havana, according to the Association of American Geographers.
“The Cubans came to the eastern part of Calle Ocho because it was cheap, it was boarded up and the Cubans could afford to rent it,” said Cuban Ramon Lago, 67. “Now the Nicaraguans and Salvadorans went to that area because the Cubans already moved west and north.”
The face of Little Havana, bordered between the Miami River and north of Southwest Eighth Street, is indeed changing. Estimates from the 2012 American Community Survey show that Central Americans account for approximately one out of four residents. The Nicaraguans arrived first, fleeing political and economic unrest in the 1980s. Over the past two decades came the Hondurans, fleeing one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Guatemalans escaping their civil war, and Salvadorans running from economic and political problems.
“In recent decades, it has been one of the areas where Central American refugees have come,” said Dr. Jose Azel, of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “It is now much more of a mixture of Central Americans and Cubans.”
Nicaraguan fritangas, or cafeterias, are found on almost every corner, selling queso frito, empanadas de plátanos maduros and nacatamales. By the Marlins stadium near Northwest Seventh Street, some buildings are still boarded up, but kids walk home from school with a backdrop of brightly colored orange, tan and red houses. Trash is everywhere, but it seems invisible to the mothers pushing their babies in strollers and the aged Cuban men selling fruit from their open vans.
The arrivals, fleeing their own turmoil, have relocated to Little Havana because of cheaper rents, the availability of multi-family homes and proximity to jobs in higher-income areas.
“Little Havana has always been a gateway neighborhood for immigrants,” said Marcos Feldman, senior research associate at the Center for Labor Studies at Florida International University.
The Central Americans who have settled in the neighborhood over the last 20 years have been particularly evident east of 17th Avenue, in the East Little Havana community, close to the Marlins stadium and north of Southwest Eighth Street.
Those who have moved here have found work in higher-income areas like Brickell, Miami Beach and Coral Gables, said Hilton Cordoba, a Ph.D. candidate studying urban economic geography at Florida Atlantic University.
“Many of the jobs they do are in the service industry — maids working in hotels, domestic maids working in homes in Coral Gables or Key Biscayne,” Cordoba said. “These people go to work in these areas, that’s a big plus.”
Alexis Beteta, 27, said that although these jobs do not pay much, they pay more than what they would earn in their home countries.
“A construction worker over there gets paid $5 a day. That’s nothing,” said Beteta, a Nicaraguan American who works as a barber on West Flagler. “Over there, it’s really hard.”
Sandra Olivera moved to Little Havana 13 years ago from Juticalpa Olancho, a city more than 100 miles northeast of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. She lived with 10 family members in a cement house two miles from town.
“I came here because of financial problems,” said Olivera, who five years ago became the owner of two salons on West Flagler Street. Speaking in Spanish, she said: “I wanted to succeed. I wanted to give a better life to my children, a better chance.”
Last year, she moved out of Little Havana and into a home on Coral Way with her Cuban husband of seven years and her 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. Her two children in the U.S. are enrolled in school in Miami, while her other two children continue to live in Honduras with her mother. Both of her children here participate in extracurricular classes such as meteorology and nursing as a result of their good grades.
"Since I started raising my kids on my own, everything has gone really well for me," Olivera said. "I am truly very proud of both my children."
Lesly Arana, 33, was also raised in Little Havana after he moved with his mom and older brother from Managua when he was 6. Now a barber at La Esquina Masters, Arana has seen the neighborhood change drastically over the last 20 years.
“There were Cubans. After the Cubans, there was the Nicaraguans, and then it changed to Hondurans,” Arana said. “Now I see a lot of Dominicans around, Peruvians and Guatemalans.”
In the 1990s, the streets of Little Havana were filled with gangs, drugs and violence, Arana recalled.
“You would find people getting shot, you have young kids and drugs,” Arana said. "Before, there were a lot of small gangs and you were most likely to get into trouble for walking around Little Havana.”
The neighborhood now is much more commercial compared with how it was 20 years ago. Now events like Viernes Culturales bring art, music, cigars and drinks to Calle Ocho on the last Friday of every month.
“Everything is changing. The Brickell area is always expanding more. More of downtown is coming to Little Havana,” Arana said. “There are more businesses being built. Before, I forgot what there was. I can’t even remember, that’s how long ago it was.”
Although Little Havana rings as a Spanish-speaking community, Salvadoran Javier Miranda, 24, noted how there is a difference between Cuban Spanish and Central American Spanish.
“A Cuban has a very particular accent, and Central Americans have their own accents,” said Miranda. “Cubans don’t pronounce their ‘r’s’, and Central Americans don’t really pronounce the ‘s’ when they speak.”
Even with the slight differences in language, everybody knows what each other says, Beteta said.
For Patricio Cepeda, Dominican owner of Colon Supermarket on Calle Ocho, his Cuban comrades are still around, and he has noticed the subtle surplus of tortilla purchases in recent years.
“Cubans don’t eat tortillas, and a lot of people [here] like tortillas,” said Cepeda laughing.