The old men who play at Domino Park still call him e l jefe — the boss. Business owners along Calle Ocho still ask him for advice to solve conflicts with their neighbors. And residents keep calling with complaints at the same number he has no plans to change.
Pablo Cantón, the face and voice of the city of Miami in Little Havana for two decades, said that he misses his old job as an administrator of city’s Neighborhood Enhancement Team. But, he assured, he’ll remain active as a volunteer in the neighborhood that welcomed his family when they came from Cuba in 1961.
In an interview with El Nuevo Herald, Cantón, 67, reflected on his experiences, his crime fighting days and his love for roosters.
El Nuevo Herald: You began working for the city in 1987 as assistant director of Community Development before running the Code Enforcement team. How did you come to head the NET office in Little Havana?
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Cantón: I like to be where there’s trouble. That’s why I chose Little Havana.
When NET started in 1993, I was told that the office in Little Havana was going to be located in the police department’s South District station. So I would be working in the same building as my friends, the police officers. That convinced me, because it was the closest I could get to being a police officer.
ENH: What were the problems in the neighborhood at that time?
Cantón: It was a disaster, especially at night — criminals, drugs and a lot of homeless people. We helped everyone we could, but many were chronically homeless. They were a priority for NET, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also because of economic development. They are terrible for business.
ENH: How did you deal with crime?
Cantón: I went out at night to verify complaints from neighbors who’d say there were drug dealers at such-and-such corner at 2 or 3 in the morning. Some patrol officers thought that their job was to respond to calls and that they didn’t have to be proactive. So, when I drove up and down the streets in the early hours of the morning and when I’d see the drug dealers, I called the police to report them myself. Then they had to respond. After doing that several times, officers would ask the operator who had filed the report. They knew when the calls came that they were from Pablo Cantón.
ENH: On plenty of occasions, worked directly with the police, especially with officers José de Hombre and Freddy D’Agostino. Tell me about the most interesting experiences you had together in Little Havana.
Cantón: They used rental cars for undercover narcotics operations. But you could tell right away that they were cops, because the cars were always new and had tinted windows. Then I told them that they needed a car that could blend in with Little Havana. The owners of Molina Towing donated us an old junker car that barley worked and that was the one we used.
One day we were at Southwest Third Street and Sixth Avenue, close to Riverside Park, and there was a suspicious group of kids — long, disheveled hair; pants hanging down to their feet — who looked like criminals.
We got out of the car, and the officers told them to stand against the fence with their hands up. Because I was not a police officer, I stayed to one side, just watching. But then the police officers get in the car and take off, leaving me with all those kids. When the kids see that there are no cops and I am alone, they put their hands down and start badmouthing the police, using foul language. I didn’t know what to do so I told them I was also picked up about four blocks from there and then began badmouthing the cops, too.
Three or four minutes later, the officers came back to pick me up. Those were my friends in the department.
ENH: How has the neighborhood changed?
Cantón: The crime situation has improved a lot. Now you can walk on Seventh Avenue and Flagler at 2 in the morning and nobody is standing around. It’s night and day what has happened in that area.
The Cultural Fridays program helped a lot. It was something we were able to do with the help of County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, then-City Commissioner Joe Sánchez, the organizations and Peñalver Clinic. People began to come and see that the area is beautiful and that they could set up art galleries. This is what really pushed the improvement of the neighborhood.
ENH: What changes would you like to see in Little Havana?
Cantón: What we need are cosmetic fixes — remove the dead trees and plant new ones, install flower pots here and there, and paint more murals. Many of the businesses close at night with metal shutters. I would love to see murals painted on the shutters. I’m not talking about graffiti but a copy of Van Gogh or another painter.
ENH: Part of your legacy to Little Havana will be the fiberglass roosters located all over the neighborhood. It was a project done with artists Pedro Damián and Tony López. Why roosters?
Cantón: I began painting roosters because they are easy. You can paint a rooster too thin or too fat, but it will always be recognized as a rooster. In Coral Gables they had these flamingo statues that were beautiful. One year I went to the Kentucky Derby and they had metal sculptures with rooster silhouettes in Louisville. That made me think that it would be fantastic to have roosters in Little Havana.
ENH: In 2011, students from Florida International University, your alma mater, stole one of those roosters. Some people criticized you for allowing the students to return it without pressing charges. How was that situation resolved?
Cantón: Better than we expected. The students’ fraternity got in trouble with FIU, but I never got involved in that. They had to pay for painting, repairing and putting the rooster back in its place. They also worked community hours and gave us a computer as a gift for our office. It was just kids’ stuff.
ENH: You retired in August but your retirement party was held only last week. In that event, Raquel Regalado, member of the Miami-Dade School Board, thanked you for preserving the Cuban soul in Little Havana for Cuban Americans of her generation. Was that part of your mission?
Cantón: I think Raquel is right. This is the closest we are to Havana for many reasons: the different businesses, tobacco stores, pharmacies, supermarkets. You go into a store and it seems you are in another country. This is because of the people, especially the recent immigrants whose first stop in Miami is Little Havana. You can spend the entire day here doing whatever you want — pumping gasoline, buying coffee, having lunch — without having to speak English.
When my family arrived, we moved to a duplex on Second Avenue and Southwest Seventh Street, and if I tell you that it was more than 300 square feet I would be exaggerating. I slept on the sofa with my brother in the living room. But we got used to it and the next apartment was a little bit larger. We still slept in the living room, but we had two little beds. That’s the story of many immigrants in the neighborhood.
ENH: The person who will replace you in Little Havana is Celso Ahumado, who will also runs the NET office in Allapattah. What is your advice to him?
Cantón: Celso doesn’t need too much advice because he knows what he is doing. But I’m going to take him around the neighborhood to meet people and some of the business owners. I’m going to tell him who’s the good, the bad and the ugly, and also show him places where he should never go.
ENH: How are you enjoying your retirement?
Cantón: I have spent more time with the family, my wife Mikki, my children Cristina, Pablo and David. Mikki travels a lot because of her work and, before, I couldn’t accompany her. Now I can travel with her more. I always have my suitcase ready.
I have also gone to some fishing seminars. I’m very impatient . I want to just go some place and fish and that’s it. Sitting in a boat and waiting 20 minutes is something I just can’t do. What I want is to be able to fish a mangrove snapper, known in Cuba as “cubera.” So far I have not been successful. Everything I catch is extremely small.